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Listen to this: Simplify for the Spoken Word

By November 20, 2018Blog

Let’s face it, humans are terrible listeners. That simple fact should serve as your primary guide for how much information you try to convey in a presentation on camera. But don’t just take my word for it. Consider research done at Babson College, which looked into how much information an audience can retain after watching television news. On average, viewers who just watched and listened to the evening news could only recall 17.2 percent of the content when not cued, and the cued group never exceeded 25 percent.

Given that, while you may be inclined to include every single detail you can about your topic—after all, you want your viewers to get their money’s worth—the reality is too much information can easily turn into information overload. If you try to drink from a firehose, you will not be able to quench your thirst.

If you can only expect your audience to retain 25 percent of what you say (and that’s on a good day,) you need to draw their attention to what you want them to remember most. You can do this by giving your viewers a mental framework with which to categorize your content. Organizing for the ear makes it easier for your audience to pick out and retain the most valuable takeaways.

The Rule of Three

One of the oldest tricks for increasing the odds that your audience will remember what you’ve said is to follow the “Rule of Three.” This technique has its roots in Aristotle’s Rhetoric but has been adopted, adapted, and applied to everything from advertising to standup comedy. Its power is based on pattern and capacity.

It boils down to this: Humans process information in patterns. From birth, it’s how we try to make sense of the world in which we live. What is the smallest number to make a pattern? Three.

Humans also have a cap on how much information they can take in at one time. By using a fierce filter to weed out extraneous content, we end up with a concise, clear message.

These two factors lead to this communication equation:

Pattern + Brevity = Memorable Content.

Think about how we memorize phone numbers (when we don’t cede the job to our smartphones). Do we try to remember 10, unrelated digits?


No, we chunk them into three groups: two sets of three numbers and one set of four.

(863) 622-6364

Examples of the Rule of Three dominate our history and surround us today:

  • “Veni, vidi, vici.” [I came. I saw. I conquered.]
  • “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
  • “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
  • “Mind, body, and spirit.”
  • “Location, location, location.”

On fire safety day in elementary school, what were you told to do if you somehow caught on fire?  All together now . . . “Stop, drop and roll.”

Applying the Rule of Three on Camera

While the Rule of Three can be used in any presentation, it can be even more valuable when applied to an on-camera communication scenario. Video is not an effective medium for conveying vast amounts of information.  Just try watching someone read a white paper on camera. Exhausting.

Messages delivered through a lens need to be concise and clear. The Rule of Three promotes both. It simply requires you to think in triplicate.

For example, let’s say you are preparing for a job interview over Skype. You may be tempted to include every single thing about your employment history, education, and skills set. However, we know when communicating through the camera, less truly is more.

The Rule of Three requires you to identify three main points that you want to convey. So, prior to your interview, try to develop your talking points in triads. Come up with a list of likely interview questions, and choose three pieces of information you want to include in each answer. Practice saying them out loud and resist the urge to expound. You may lose your audience and muddy your message.

The Rule of Three can provide an informal framework that can harness your urge to ramble, highlight the key takeaways for your audience and allow your information to sink in rather than drift off into the ether.

Learn More: On-Camera Coach

If you found this information valuable, check out my book, On-Camera Coach: Tools and Techniques for Business Professionals in a Video-Driven World, now available from Wiley Publishing. On-Camera Coach aims to take the mystery out of communicating through the camera and provides specific tips and techniques that can make your message sing—and you, the messenger, feel confident in a job well done.