If you really want to feel good about yourself, the day after your next client meeting ask the client what the key takeaways were. How many could they recall? Did I say feel good about yourself? I meant if you want to call into question every pitchbook you’ve ever made. When I realized just how little of my carefully curated 100-page pitchbooks were being absorbed, I remember feeling exasperated. All that work for very little recall.
A lot of the issue stemmed from squeezing too much (and sometimes not relevant) information into a pitchbook. Listing out 12 different observations and asking clients to remember them all is asking them to work too hard. So I started to apply what we know about how short term memory works to how we structure and design pitchbooks. Something I have found particularly effective is leveraging the “rule of three.”
Pigs, bears, Amigos, Musketeers…
Once you start noticing it, the rule of three features prominently in many places: from fairy tales; to public safety (stop, look, listen); to Dickens’ Ghosts of Christmas Past Present, and Future; to wishes from a genie; The rule of three is effectively used in humor, in speeches, and to facilitate memorization (see what I did there?).
It also has a long history. In Ancient Greece, Aristotle used the principle to describe the tenants of rhetoric, also known as “offices.”
The Romans even had a phrase “Omne Trium Perfectum.” Translated from Latin it means “Everything that comes in threes is perfect.”
To convince you further consider:
- “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” from the Declaration of Independence.
- 911 emergency services (the majority of countries use a three digit number).
- “Shoes, liquids, and laptops” at airport security.
- “Thinner, lighter, and faster” in reference to the iPad 2; in fact, many of Steve Jobs’ announcements were peppered with the rule of three.
The list continues…
Why is the rule of three effective?
Maybe you’re remembering something you’ve heard before advocating that numbers between seven and nine digits can be easily retained in short term memory, as indeed this was the belief for a long time, due to a 1956 study The Magical Number Seven, plus or Minus Two by Harvard Professor George Miller. In his research, Miller argued that seven to nine digits are optimal and anything larger won’t be retained. His paper went on to have a significant impact on the structuring of phone numbers.
But further research into short term memory has reduced the seven to nine digits to three to four chunks of information. Which, if you think about it, probably mirrors how you recall your phone number; you break a large, ten digit number into chunks of three or four.
So how should this impact your pitchbooks?
The rule of three and pitchbooks
If you know that clients are likely to recall only three things from a pitchbook, it pays (maybe literally) to focus on what you actually want them to remember.
Refining your message to three salient points is easier said than done when we’re talking about 100+ page pitchbooks, but there is a process:
- Focus: What does the client need to walk away knowing for the meeting to be considered a success? What’s the list of things that must happen for the pitch to transmute into a mandated deal? To help with this, imagine you're in a black car after the meeting debriefing with a colleague, what are the few things you would be pumped if your client focused on?
- Refine: If your list contains more than three items (which it likely will) begin grouping similar items together. Describe those groups with 1-2 words that act as headers for each group.
- Nest: Repeat step two and refine further, until eventually, you’re at a group of three or within reach of three (having four groups still exponentially increases your rate of recall).
Critically, during this process, you’re not reducing the content of your message, but arranging takeaways into structured groups where the headings act as memory shortcuts. This helps the client grasp the big picture easily and communicate the main essence of the pitchbook to other people.
And yes, I did apply the rule of three to this post (and to most posts I write!). Three steps in the process, three sections. What are your thoughts on the rule of three? Let me know at email@example.com.
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