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The Goldilocks Number

Posted by michael
Published on 11 May 2022

In presentations and training, it's an aphorism that 3 is structurally the ideal number.

And culturally we are comfortable with it.

Goldilocks and the 3 bears; 3 blind mice; 3 little pigs, stereotypical nationality jokes, Scrooge...

(You may have noticed I have just given 4 examples – and there is a good reason for that. Read on.)

Organising ideas into 2 categories or sections divide the world neatly down the middle:

‘Black or white’: For or against; right or wrong, true or false. 

If you are structuring a training session in 2 sections, it suggests a fundamental simplicity of structure:  

if it is not ‘A’ it is ‘B’: if it is not a theory it will be practical; if it is not sales it's support work.

if it is not about preparation, it is about performance.

However, once you turn a 2 into a 3, it immediately implies a greater level of depth and complexity.

It's no longer just about how high and wide, but how deep as well.

The Good and the Bad splits the world neatly down the middle, whereas

The Good the Bad and then the Ugly suggests there are many types of people on the planet.

If you said a person’s hobbies are reading and playing tennis, it suggests that when they are not reading, they will be playing tennis and when they are not playing tennis they will be reading.

However, someone who enjoys reading, playing tennis and going to the cinema implies a full and varied lifestyle.

Turning a 3 into 4 on the other hand starts to become overwhelming.

4 usually feels like a lot more than 3!

If I were to ask you to go to the shops to buy some milk, some eggs and some butter: you probably do not need to take a shopping list.

If I ask you to get some milk, eggs, butter, margarine, olives, oranges and cheese, you might feel the need to write it down before you go.

3 is always neat and manageable, 4 starts to feel long and unwieldy.

This is why the lists of 4 examples I gave you at the top of this article are aimed to give an impression that the rule of 3 doesn't just happen in a few specific examples but you see it ‘everywhere’!

‘She is charming, helpful and generous’– that sounds like an amiable woman.

‘She is charming, helpful, generous and totally selfless' – is a multitudinously wonderful person.

In training, we always need to walk the line between keeping the content clear and easy to grasp, but without making it seem trite and simplistic.

You don’t want to overwhelm, but you don’t want to over-simplify.

Having 3 sections, 3 points or 3 examples steers a healthy path between both.

You will always want your students to walk away with the same key messages.

And the safest way of guaranteeing that is to keep those key points down to no more than 3.

If you have 7 key points, one student may walk away with points 1,3 and 5, while another student walks away with 2,4 and 7. 

In effect, they might as well have been at two completely different pieces of training.

A student on one of my courses once told me:

‘I am always sending my husband to the shops to get a list of things and he always forgets something.
Last night I sent him to get 3 things; he came back with those 3 things’

3 is the Goldilocks number for training:

It's not too large; it's not too small; it's simply the ideal number.

If you're looking to enhance your professional skill set or want to help an employee on the road to success, enrol on our 2-day Training The Trainer course. The course is ideal for new trainers coming into the industry as well as experienced trainers looking for opportunities to improve their CV and career prospects. Book a place on this 2-day course for just £795 + VAT


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