To be memorable and credible, have three key messages.
The Rule of 3 has wide implications for companies communicating to the media, consumers, investors, employees and other influential audiences.
1. Research shows that 3 is the maximum number of concepts that most humans can recall.
2. Research shows 3 key messages have more credibility than 4 messages.
3. We show you how to structure your messages in the Rule of 3.
3 is the optimal number for spoken, written and visual messages. Anything more is less. To defy the “Rule of 3” is to defy deep cultural and historical biases — three acts in a drama, “things happen in three’s.” To defy the Rule is to also defy new research.
Repetition is critical
Memories change when they are recalled. The mere act of recalling an idea changes it. This is why repetition is so important. Communicating clear, strong messages once — eg. on analyst day — is a good start, but repetition is required to make the messages sticky and increase its accuracy.
In conducting qualitative research with sophisticated audiences — such as executive employees, sell-side investment banking analysts and investors– our experience is that management teams vastly overestimate their audience’s understanding of their key messages, their corporate strategy, or their investment rationale. Even when management is certain that their audience “gets it,” frequently, they do not.
3 key messages is the most believable
New research shows that 3 key messages is optimal for credibility — better than 1 or 2. However 3 is also the tipping point: claiming 4 key messages to an audience invites skepticism, and reduces believability of all the messages.
Occasionally, an executive will want 4 or 5 key messages, insisting that people can somehow pick the ones that best fit their needs and throw away the rest (especially since the audience is sophisticated). This “piling on” reduces recall and credibility. The idea that the audience “picks and chooses” what works for them is false.
More simply, if you are aiming for maximum skepticism, communicate 6 key messages.
When people receive >3 messages, subconscious coping mechanisms kick in. A switch goes off deep in the brain, which generates counter-arguments in the listener. Subconsciously, the listener creates a more balanced elaboration of the message. Your “positives” are balanced by user-generated negatives. Overall, the listener discounts the message or, at worst, disengages.
The research underlying these rules applies to all “sponsored” messages, where the communicator has a vested interest in the outcome. This motive is called the persuasion motive. Companies, media and analysts all have these persuasion motives.
In complex presentations, such as B2B sales, deal pitches, investor presentations and high stakes one-on-ones, it’s tempting to say more, to pile on the good things. Better to organize all the ideas ahead of time under 3 distinct thematic messages which can stand up on their own. Countering this research is 50 year old research showing that, when presented with a high number of negative messages, a high number of positive counter-messages works best. However, “high” in this research is 4 messages — not 7 or 10.
Simple messages are more easily recalled and shared
To create messages for employees, investors, journalists, analysts and customers, write simply. Aim for immediate understanding, not concepts that require mental translation.
We are not suggesting that companies are always communicating to a 10th grader, but shooting over people’s heads does not work, even for sophisticated audiences of MBAs and Engineers. When developing key messages, simplifying is hard work. The payoff comes in immediate and wide comprehension, recall and creating a network effect of shareable messages. The children’s game of telephone is a perfect example of how complex messages morph during recall and repeating.
Writing for the common denominator does not dilute a message. Elegant simplicity takes work: writing and rewriting, speaking and testing. At a minimum, use the technology tools at hand. Every word processing program has a grammar checker which can grade key messages for reading level and active/passive voice.
Simple messages are more credible
Messages that are easier to read and understand (easier to process) are also more persuasive. We frequently test messages with research subjects, aka strangers, to see if they are clearly understood and can be mirrored back to us. Tomorrow, in fact, we’ll be doing this for a trade organization that is tempted to load up on jargon in its public communications. Message testing doesn’t have to take a long time or require large budgets; even a little bit is better than none.
“The message that matters is the one that is received, not the one that is sent.”
How to structure 3 key messages
In our collaborations with clients to create message platforms for partners, media, analysts, investors and customers — for any human audience — we simplify to 3 clear, distinct message concepts. A “compound concept” does not count as one message.
We work with multi-layered message matrices. One layer for each audience, 3 key messages per audience, and 3 supporting facts per message. If you’d like a sample worksheet, download the Key Message Matrix from LaMagna and Associates.
Learn the nuances
For a fuller understanding of the research, we recommend reading these papers:
Why 3 messages beats 4: When Three’s a Charm but Four Alarms, highly readable and enjoyable, and source of quote “The message that matters is the one that is received, not the one that is sent,” (summarized here). Also: How memory is distorted: Neural Correlates of Reactivation and Retrieval-Induced Distortion (summarized here); why easier-to-understand messages are more persuasive: Processing Fluency and Aesthetic Pleasure: Is Beauty in the Perceiver’s Processing Experience?
Previous versions of this post were published on June 15th and 19th, 2014.