April 4, 2018
The opening lyrics of rock band Three Dog Night’s 1969 hit One struck me as I sat down to write this post:
|One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do|
|Two can be as bad as one|
|It's the loneliest number since the number one|
Written by Harry Nilsson, the number three
does not appear in the song as a lonely
number—which makes sense. How can an
omnipresent number be lonely? Far from
being lonely, three is magical and mystical.
From religion to commerce, there is no
beating the Power of Three.
We use three subconsciously all the time:
past, present, and future; mind, body, and
soul; red, yellow, and green. It’s ingrained in
our thinking and being.
The Power of Three also is no fairy tale,
though three is found in tales of fairies. In the 1959 Walt Disney film Sleeping Beauty, Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are Princess Aurora's fairy godmothers. The Three Fairies also is the title of an Italian fairy tale written by Giambattista Basile in 1634. The Power of Three is also found in fairy tales such as the Three Little Pigs, Three Blind Mice, and many more.
We just celebrated Easter, in which the trinity is supreme, and are in the midst of celebrating Passover, one of the three Hebrew pilgrimage festivals—the other two being Shavuot and Sukkot. Hinduism likewise has a trinity: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, which are the three entities who carry out Krishna’s designs.
In the art of photography and graphic design,
a palette is divided into thirds, with the
primary object set in one of the outside
thirds. In a blog post, Los Angeles-based
composer, arranger, and producer Ryan
Leach argues that the Power of Three also
makes music more powerful, and provides
examples from the Beatles, Mozart, and
Vivaldi. Another example is Nilsson’s
three-line opening lyric that begins this
blog. Then there’s the band’s name, the
three-word Three Dog Night.
I devote a section of my book, Write It,
to the Power of Three as a rhetorical device
in writing and speaking. In it, I describe a
research paper published by a couple of
professors from Georgetown University and
UCLA. The 2013 paper is titled, When Three
Charms but Four Alarms: Identifying the
Optimal Number of Claims in Persuasion
Settings. Their research showed three is
the optimal number when trying to persuade.
In a series of experiments, the duo found
subjects became skeptical of marketers’ claims when the series of claims hit four.
I use that concept when I discuss the services my communications company provides: communications that are clear, concise, and consistent. (Alliteration is also one of my favorite rhetorical devices.)
Comedy often relies on the Power of Three. It’s called the Comedic Three. The first line sets the stage. The second line reinforces it in the mind of the audience, then the third line twists that logic into the punchline.
In a Women in Business Network blog, Louisa SandoPatel argues three is ingrained in us because to survive we need food, water, and shelter. "These are the very choices which keep us alive as a species, and when we strip back all that we need in life, too many decisions could result in danger."
So be cognizant of the number three. It is all around us and is, indeed, magical, mystical, and far from being lonely.
References and Notes
"Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva." Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva | Krishna.com. June 1982. Accessed April 02, 2018. http://www.krishna.com/brahma-vishnu-shiva.
Carlson, Kurt A., and Suzanne B. Shu. “When Three Charms But Four Alarms: Identifying the Optimal Number of Claims in Persuasion Settings.” Social Science Research Network. June 11, 2013. Accessed November 29, 2015. http://ssrn.com/abstract=2277117.
D'Souza, Sean. "Harness the Psychological Power of '3' to Improve Communication - Psychotactics - Big and Small Business Ideas." Small Business Marketing Ideas: Psychological Marketing Tactics. Accessed March 31, 2018. https://www.psychotactics.com/harness-the-psychological-power-of-3-to-improve-communication/.
Leach, Ryan. "The Rule of Three and Music." Music & Audio Envato Tuts. June 4, 2012. Accessed April 01, 2018. https://music.tutsplus.com/tutorials/the-rule-of-three-and-music--audio-1389.
"Meaning of Numbers in the Bible: The Number 3." The Bible Study Site. Accessed March 30, 2018. http://www.biblestudy.org/bibleref/meaning-of-numbers-in-bible/3.html.
Pfeifer, Tom. Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They'll APPLAUD! Springfield, Virginia: Consistent Voice Communications, LLC, 2016.
SandoPatel, Louisa. "What Is the Power of 3? Why Is It so Useful in Marketing?" Women in Business Network. November 07, 2016. Accessed March 30, 2018. https://www.wibn.co.uk/what-is-the-power-of-3-why-is-it-so-useful-in-marketing/.
"The Three Fairies." Wikipedia. March 28, 2018. Accessed March 30, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Three_Fairies.
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Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They’ll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.