How emotionally intelligent minds like Steve Jobs use the rule of 3 to become extraordinarily persuasive

The best way to explain all this is to show it. But I hope you read through to the end, for the big reveal that I think makes it even more fascinating.

Let’s start with three examples. Here is how Jobs publicly introduced three legendary Apple products in 23 years. See if you can spot a pattern.

Jobs first introduced the Macintosh in 1984:

“There have been only two landmark products in our industry: the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981. Today, a year after Lisa, we introduce the industry’s third landmark product: Macintosh.”

He then introduced the iPod for our purposes in 2001:

“There are three major breakthroughs in the iPod. Let’s take a look at them all.”

Finally, in 2007, he introduced the iPhone:

“[T]today we introduce three revolutionary products… The first is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a groundbreaking Internet communication device.

… An iPod, a telephone and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone… get it?

These are not three separate devices. This is one device and we call it iPhone.”

Putting them all together, I think you’ll notice: Jobs was a master of a very effective framework that we call the rule of three. Chances are, you’re probably using it yourself, perhaps without even thinking about it.

Jobs passed away 10 years ago next week, and we’re going to hear a lot about what he accomplished, why he was successful, and how the future he envisioned aligns with the present we live in today.

But looking back, I’m struck by the extent to which he continually used this single, simple, powerful framework. Thus he organized his thoughts, used emotional intelligence and became more persuasive.

As I recently explored, the rule of 3 works because:

  1. Lists of three things create short, recognizable patterns.
  2. Three is the maximum number of different items most people can remember after a single exposure.
  3. Lists of three demand attention because they indicate progress, or at least a change from the status quo.

Jobs used this device over and over — for groups large and small, in his private life, and even long before most of the world had ever heard of Apple.

His best-known example is perhaps the opening speech he gave at Stanford University in 2005:

“Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That’s it. No problem.

Only three stories.

The first story is about connecting the dots.”

(And later, “My second story is about love and loss,” and “My third story is about death.”)

Or consider his first major speech to a fairly small group of Apple executives in 1997, just months after he returned to Apple as CEO.

He immediately gave chase, outlining the three main things he wanted to focus on:

“I’m about eight to ten weeks back and we’ve been working really hard. And what we’re trying to do isn’t really something great. We’re trying to go back to basics.

We try to go back to the basics of great products, great marketing and great distribution.”

Or go way back in history, to 1976, when Jobs sketched what some people consider to be the very first ad for an Apple product — literally in pen, on a loose-leaf paper, with two Polaroid instant photos attached. He outlined three main features:

  • All power supplies
  • 8K bytes RAM (16-pin 4K dynamic)
  • full CRT terminal – input: ASCII keyboard, output: composite video

(At the end, he added, “$75. a real deal.”)

Be patient, but here’s another favorite, which really has nothing to do with marketing or Apple at all, but shows how ingrained this became for Jobs.

It’s about the weeks-long debate Jobs had with his family when they wanted to buy a washing machine, choosing between a traditional American model or a more efficient but slower European machine.

How did he solve the problem? You guessed it, by organizing it into a three-part analysis. This is what he told his biographer:

“In the end we talked a lot about design, but also about the values ​​of our family:

  1. Did we think it was important to do our laundry in an hour instead of an hour and a half?
  2. Or did we care the most that our clothes felt really soft and lasted longer?
  3. Did we think it was important to use a quarter of the water?

We talked about it every night at the table for about two weeks.”

We could really go on with this. If you’ve ever seen that famous video where Jobs dealt with a particularly sharp critic during a presentation, you’ll notice that he begins with a famous quote that follows a line of 3.

“You can do some people a favor sometimes,” Jobs begins in that speech, but then stops, before sorting out his answer and responding to the critic with a very effective three-pronged argument.

Before you go back and watch that video (or any of these, for that matter), let’s make sure we cover the big, last trick at the end, so to speak, which is about emotional intelligence.

It is funny; I don’t know if people would often see Jobs as an emotionally intelligent person. But that’s because many people have a misunderstanding of emotional intelligence to begin with.

  • It’s not about just being nice to people, or interacting with them on an emotional level.
  • It’s not just about empathy either. (All of those can be great side effects, but they’re not the core definition, nor the goal of emotional intelligence.)
  • Instead, emotional intelligence is about being aware of how emotions affect your communication and organizational efforts, and even harnessing human emotions to make your points clearer, more recognizable, and more persuasive.

So the big reveal here? It’s that for most of these “here are three major breakthroughs”-style speeches that Jobs made, if you go back and analyze them, there weren’t really three items.

In some cases there were two. In some cases five; probably 30 in some cases. Three was really just a number – and a rhetorical device.

It’s arguably the most basic part of the “reality-distortion field” Jobs claimed to have — and one you should consider using because it translates even the most difficult concepts into organized road maps for people to understand.

So when Jobs said in 1984 there were only three landmark products in the computer industry at the time — well, reasonable people then and now could argue for days about what the actual number was.

Or take a look at the iPhone you might have in your pocket, or even read this article about. Even with the original model nearly a decade and a half ago, there were much more than just three key features; that’s exactly how Jobs organized and framed it in his introduction.

Finally, if those examples don’t quite convince you, let’s quickly go back to Jobs’ famous speech at Stanford, where he said he had three stories to tell.

More than 38 million people have watched the official version of this “three stories” speech on YouTube, but guess what? By my count, Jobs actually told eight separate stories.

It’s just that he organized them together under three themes and literally told the audience that the number was three.

(The eight stories, if you really count, include one about his adoptive parents, one about dropping out of college, one about studying calligraphy, a fourth about getting fired from Apple, a fifth about returning with NeXT and Pixar, a sixth about death as a child, then one about his cancer diagnosis, and finally one about the Whole Earth Catalog.)

Jobs understood that no matter how smart and good and smart your ideas are, more important than what you have to say is what the people you talk to will actually hear.

So if you need to get your points across in a way that people will understand, somehow cram them all into a three-part frame, I’d say roll up your sleeves, get some inspiration from Steve Jobs and go for it.

(Don’t forget the free ebook: Improving Emotional Intelligence 2021, what you can download here.)

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not Inc.com’s.

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