Nobody Remembers the Fourth Stooge: Why the number in marketing shall be three

By | June 21, 2010

When your product is so fantastically capable, why should you struggle to boil down all of its value to just one positioning sentence and three key messages? Because there seems to be something natural, even hard-wired about the brain’s response to the number three. No parent tosses a giggling child into the air on the count of four. No movie cowboy draws on five. Memory research, literary trilogies, and the dramatic tradition of the three act play all support the “rule of three”.

But all of that science and tradition can be distilled into a few words: nobody remembers the fourth stooge!

I got to play “name that stooge” with whole rooms full of smart people while leading message trainings at Oracle. Less than 20% knew the name. Yet 80% recalled Larry, Moe, and Curly.

So why do even experienced marketers go to four, five, or even “to eleven”? Often messages often bloat up simply because sellers know too much about their own products, and can’t bear to leave anything out. “Our product is complex,” they say. “We can’t show it’s value in only three bullets.”

Well, you’d better try, because three points is about what your customer’s brain can hold at one time. It’s not that the details aren’t important, but fit them lower down in the message hierarchy so they are presented at the right time to customers who actually care. Nothing glazes the eyes like a long bulleted list.

If you go to four, something is almost certain to fall off of the back of the prospect’s mental truck. And you have no control of which thing it’s going to be. Keeping to three key points — let’s call it the Monty Python Rule of Marketing — gives customers a clear map to follow.

Oh, and by the way, it’s Shemp.

2 thoughts on “Nobody Remembers the Fourth Stooge: Why the number in marketing shall be three

  1. Kiirja

    Shemp! I knew that. 🙂 Nobody remembers Zeppo either, except for the lovely song, “Alone,” he sings in “A Night at the Opera”. I found the sheet music for “Alone” in an antique store down the street. It’s really quite a nice song from one of my favorite movies.

    I remember this ‘number shall be three’ law of yours from when we worked together years ago. I have always remembered it and I have to say that it has proven to be true in my work as well. I have a difficult time convincing clients that three is enough and more is going to have less impact.


    1. jeffrey Post author

      Keep the faith on the rule of three. Less really is more. Point them at this post if they don’t believe you!


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