Many of us love reading and writing list posts or articles. They break down otherwise chunky paragraphs into straightforward, bite-sized nuggets of information that are easy to absorb and digest. They are also relatively easy to write, since one point doesn't necessarily need to flow seamlessly to the next in the way paragraphs do.
But do the number of points in a list matter? How many is too many, and how few is too few? Is there an optimum number that will ensure maximum impact for readers? While “74 Guaranteed Ways to Make Money Online” sounds sumptuous as a headline, how many points will one really remember after reading the article? On the other hand, a post titled “2 Reasons to Visit Bali” comes off as underwhelming and somewhat under-researched.
A workshop on communication I had attended some time back suggested that “3” could be the magic number copywriters are looking for in delivering the strongest message with lasting impression on readers. Why three? Apparently, the triad structure is so prevalent in various disciplines of the world we constantly come across, that we remember best, and are even more receptive, when things come in threes.
Consider just some of the many facets of life where we are accustomed to the magic number:
- Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow
- Past, Present, Future
- Morning, Afternoon, Night
- The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
- The Three Musketeers
- Goldilocks and the Three Bears
- Gold, Silver, Bronze
Similarly in writing, it is argued, a body that presents three main points is the most persuasive and memorable. Several writers also apply a three-by-three structure in their copies—three major points, with each point further broken down into three sub-points—pretty much like what I just did in my three examples above.
What a Good Magician Won't Do
Just as how a good magician continually holds his audiences captive by not revealing his tricks, the art of using the magic number effectively in copywriting is to be subtle in its delivery. If every article you write drops lines like “There are three ways to approach this matter” or “Here are three steps to follow” whenever you introduce your points, it may soon become more of a distraction rather than a tool in achieving the desired outcome.
Using the "Rule of Three" is as easy as A-B-C, but it does take a bit of planning to organise and streamline your content into a three-point (or three-by-three) structure, where applicable. A couple times of practice, though, and the third time's going to be a charm!