Christmas and the Rule of Three

By | December 16th, 2021|Communication, Pitching, Presentation skills, Storytelling|

There’s a hilarious home video of a Nativity play in an English village church. It usually goes viral at this time of year. A four-year-old girl doesn’t so much sing as bellow her way through ‘The Virgin Mary had a Baby Boy’. The girl, now 29 (where did the time go?!), was interviewed on Radio 3 this morning. She called her performance, in which she plays Angel No. 3, ‘3 minutes of embarrassment’.

Radio 3 – Angel 3 – 3 minutes… the radio interview added yet more threes to my (long) Christmas list! Elsewhere in the Nativity, three ‘kings of Orient’ bring three gifts to honour the baby Jesus. ‘What shall I give him?’ wonders the narrator of ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. I am neither (1) a shepherd nor (2) a wise man but (3) I can give my heart. Another narrator saw ‘three ships come sailing in’ – a possible reference to the coat of arms of King Wenceslas II. It was a different Good King Wenceslas whose snow lay (1) deep and (2) crisp and (3) even. ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’, we sing three times before adding ‘and a Happy New Year’! The traditional coin stirred into the Christmas pudding was the silver threepence. Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, one of the most famous Christmas stories of all, tells of the three ghosts that visit Ebenezer Scrooge…

I could go on, but you get the idea!

There is something about a pattern of three that has a particular power over us. The Rule of Three is everywhere, not just at Christmas, but across every sphere of human thought, from music and folklore to physics, philosophy and art. For most of human history, we have been an oral species. If we wanted people to remember what we told them, we arranged our stories, proverbs and slogans into threes. For the human brain, three truly is a magic number.

Channel that magic! At MSB Executive, this one of our central pieces of advice to clients who want to increase the impact of their presentations. If you want to grab your audience’s attention, keep them engaged, and lodge your key messages in their minds, then develop the habit of organising your ideas into patterns of three.

There are many different ways of doing so. Divide a topic under three headings. Use three bulletpoints on a slide. Illustrate an abstract point using three pieces of real-world data, or a trend using three metrics. Highlight your three most important challenges, opportunities or objectives. Tell a story in three sections (past/present/future or villain/victim/hero, for example.)

We at MSB Executive strive to practise what we preach. The Rule of Three is an important structural principle in our work, too. We pride ourselves on giving our clients practical, manageable and memorable tips and tools for great communication. What better way to back up this claim than by arranging our key topics into threes? We have the three-step answer, three stages for getting nerves under control, three bridging techniques, and a great many more triples besides.

If you’d like to find out more about our coaching, training and workshops, please get in touch with us. For now, though, from the three of us and all our associates, we wish you and your loved ones a peaceful, restful and happy end to the year. And if you’re awake in the very early hours of Christmas morning, why not step outside and look up into the starry sky? If you’re lucky, you might just hear the most festive three of all: ‘Ho, ho, ho!’

(And for the curious, here’s that video.)

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