Three: The Magic Number

Power of Three

During my Catholic upbringing, I was taught that three is a magical number. It took three days for Christ to rise from the grave, God himself exists as three separate entities in one (i.e. the Holy Trinity), and any Catholic church has sets of three everywhere you look.

Religion aside, the number three is a magic number – in communications. Look at the paragraph above. I gave three examples of how the number three is relevant to Catholicism. Look back at previous blog posts I’ve written. You’ll see more often than not, when I use examples, or even adjectives, I use three. This isn’t a coincidence.

I won’t pretend to understand the psychology behind it, but there’s something about three that helps your language flow better, your message be remembered, and your listeners take action. There is evidence to suggest that anything more than three will overwhelm your listener – it’s too much information to take in quickly. On the flip side, two doesn’t give them enough evidence.

Let’s look at an example:

Mindy Cat copy

I love my cat Mindy because she has a soothing purr, adorable whiskers, and the softest fur I’ve ever felt.

I love my cat Mindy because she has a soothing purr and adorable whiskers.

I love my cat Mindy because she has a soothing purr, adorable whiskers, the softest fur I’ve ever felt and a sweet personality.

(I have to work Mindy into my blog posts whenever I can. Let’s try again, sans Mindy.)

She won the award for her clear, concise and compelling speech.

She won the award for her clear and concise speech.

She won the award for her clear, concise, compelling and competent speech.

What do you think about the above sentences? I know at this point it’s hard to be impartial and decide which one you would best remember if introduced to them individually. So you’ll have to trust me on this one. Or trust these guys: The New York Times, Business Insider, Forbes (Really, check out those links. There’s some great additional info there, such as how Thomas Jefferson used the rule of threes).

While this post is on language use, I will briefly mention that the rule of threes isn’t limited to writing and speaking. Designers use it in the number of colors and fonts they choose. Many websites (especially news sites) use three columns to report their stories. Our favorite books and stories have a beginning, middle and end.

See what I did there?

The 4 Personalities of Tom Ahern

Tom Ahern, fundraising, nonprofits, non profit,
Tom Ahern, from his site, looking young and happy in France!

Do you have a specific type of reader in mind when you write your fundraising appeal, newsletter, brochure, blog, Facebook post…? You should. This is where personas come in.

Creating a full-blown persona can feel arduous. Thank goodness for Tom Ahern! He gives us four handy personalities to consider when embarking on mission-motivated writing.

  1. Amiable: They crave a good story and engaging images.
  2. Expressive: They want something new. Program, website, trends, reports. New=good.
  3. Skeptical: They’re into facts and supporting evidence. FAQs, testimonials and proof points will make them happy.
  4. Bottom-liner: They’re looking for a very specific, actionable call to action (CTA). Make it easy for them to know what to do.

Each of us has a bit of each of these personalities in us and so do the people you’re trying to engage. Write accordingly. You might mix a bit of amiable with a dose of skeptical for your fall newsletter and then for your year-end appeal, get expressive with some bottom-line.

The point: For best results, write with a specific personality in mind.

Belief is a terrible thing to waste

profiles in courageOn April 25, 1944, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and others incorporated the United Negro College Fund. They believed that it was time to “reject the prejudices of the past and consider the inner person.” Their first fundraising effort garnered $760,000, which would be worth about $8.6 million today. In 1959, Sen. John F. Kennedy donated the proceeds of his book, Profiles in Courage, to the UNCF. In 1972, famed ad man Forest Long came up with what is perhaps the most widely recognized nonprofit tagline ever: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Why has the UNCF garnered such unbridled enthusiasm?

In our humble opinion, UNCF has attracted and retained loyal supporters because they have stayed true to the reason they created the organization in the first place–their belief that “it was time to reject the prejudices of the past and consider the inner person”. They have undoubtedly experimented with new programs, new messaging, and new ways to raise money. But their core belief has remained the same.

The articulation of this core belief is an organization’s Belief Proposition.

The for-profit sector focuses on Value Propositions. But in the nonprofit sector, our currency is beliefs, not value. (Note: Values are of course important to us nonprofiteers. That is different from value, with no ‘s’.) Belief Propositions are the philanthropic sector’s raison d’etre.

Your Belief Proposition answers the question: “Why do we exist?” Most organizations tell you what they do and how they do it. But very few tell you why. This is a huge missed opportunity since people engage with a cause because it speaks to their hearts, not their heads.

Don’t believe me?  Think of the organization to which you’ve given the most money, time and energy over time. Did you do that because you were struck by their admin to program ratio? Probably not. You might have seen that ratio and nodded your head in approval, but it wasn’t what inspired you time and again to engage. We engage because we believe in why the organization is doing what they’re doing and we like how they are doing it.

When you lead with why you believe, you build strong relationships with others who share your belief. This has been true for UNCF, as well as thousands of other organizations that, over time, have not just survived but thrived.

What does your organization believe?

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?