The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth | Simon Maier

Michael Jackson

One of Michael Jackson’s breakthrough songs famously included the pattern, ‘A, B, C, 1, 2, 3’. The same pattern has helped politicians, statesmen and businessmen alike. Three is the magic number, so let’s explore why it’s so powerful.

Obama’s forebear, John F. Kennedy, enjoyed triads. No, not the Chinese gangs. A triad in language is a group or set of three related people or things. When using the rule of three, you include three equal elements in a sentence or series of sentences. Don’t be scared of terms like these. They’re really simple to understand and simpler to use. Look at this one. Abraham Lincoln: “Government of the people… by the people… for the people… shall not perish from the earth.” Then there’s Franklin D Roosevelt with: “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” Or Obama: “We must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and begin again the work of remaking America.” Or, simply this: ‘Stop, look and listen.’ And ‘Sex, drugs and rock n' roll’; the iPad 2 was introduced as ‘thinner, lighter and faster’ than the original. Three is the smallest number required to make a pattern – and we do it all of the time.

You all know these advertising slogans and propositions: ‘Just do it’, ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, ‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’, ‘Finger lickin’ good’, ‘Every little helps’, ‘Snap! Crackle! Pop!’, ‘Diamonds are forever’, ‘Taste the difference’. Using a triad or the power of three is an extraordinarily powerful way of emphasising a persuasive point. It all comes down to the way we process information.

There are also certain elements of speech that are easy on the ear and three is a number of items not difficult to assimilate – much better than a list of two or four. There’s a kind of satisfaction in hearing a group of three things. We tend to remember words and phrases more readily when they are packaged in threes. For example, most people will quote Winston Churchill this way: “I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears.” But what he actually said was “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” One phrase simply sounds better than the other.

Triads exist in all aspects of life: ‘The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,’ ‘Father Son, and Holy Ghost,’ ‘gold, frankincense and myrrh’, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. It works in French too: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité as it does in Shakespeare’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears.” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address gives us several examples including: “We cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground.” And another, of course, is a perennial favourite. It’s Churchill’s: a list of three combined with antithesis: “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

There is a myriad of examples from the world of politics, but less from business. So, if you’re in business, try the device. It’s powerful and effective. And people will listen. Relate a couple to your own life or business. Jot a few down now. Writing a speech or preparing for one is work just as much as any other activity that produces an extraordinary output. So, work at this. The results could be career changing.