Is Three Really The Magic Number For Media Interview Preparation?

15th December, 2016

WHILE running one-to-one media training for the medical director of an NHS Trust recently, I was thrown a curve ball (asked a perfectly reasonable question) by his head of comms.

“I’ve heard you say three is the magic number for key messages before. Have you actually got the science to back it up?”

Like every other media trainer I know, I tell interviewees — or indeed people about to go in front of bodies like parliamentary select committees — they should define the three key messages they want to get across.

The idea — at least as I teach it — is that a spokesperson should answer the questions, but then they should be adding their own point, something from their own agenda.

So they need to define those elements before the interview, and the optimum is three short, sharp, clear and attention grabbing messages that can each be backed up by fact.

I tell my spokespeople that science actually shows that the human brain works best with threes: we always put three things in a list, we always remember, and communicate, in threes (“Friends, Romans, countrymen”, Three Blind Mice, The Holy Trinity).

The truth is that, today, despite an extensive Google search (nearly seven minutes), I haven’t been able to find the science that backs up The Rule of Threes.

What I have found is a universal consensus amongst comms professionals, including ones who, like me, often communicate complex science, that three is the right number.

And what I know myself, having media trained across the public, private and third sectors for 15+ years, is that the Rule of Three works.

Three key messages works for the spokesperson — they remember them — they work for the journalist — because it gives them a range of things to ask about — and they work, most crucially, for the audience — who can take them on board.

Having three facts (or examples, or stats, or anecdotes) that back up each key message, that give it substance, also works, because this means you can add different facts at different points to enable you to use any one key message multiple times.

Some media trainers say this is simply because three is a simple number, some say it’s because you can split it into start, middle and end (didn’t make a lot of sense to me, either).

What I can add to the debate is that having three key messages in an interview also works because, under pressure, it gives you three different places to go.

So when I teach basic interview management techniques like Answer, Bridge, Communicate and Closing Off, you have options, safe places, to bridge back to.

And if you can visualise these in your head, in a triangle, like three desert islands, you’ve got a real chance of getting yourself out of trouble effectively every time.

Because three isn’t just the magic number when things are going well. The Rule of Threes will also see you safe from that snappy-jawed journalistic shark when things take a turn for the worse. (Other types of journalist are available).