How Emotionally Intelligent Minds Like Steve Jobs Use the Rule of 3 to Become Exceptionally Persuasive

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

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

First, in 1984, Jobs introduced the Macintosh:

“There have only been two milestone products in our industry: the Apple II in 1977 and the IBM PC in 1981. Today, one year after Lisa, we are introducing the third industry milestone product: Macintosh.”

Next, for our purposes, in 2001, he introduced the iPod:

“There are three major breakthroughs in iPod. Let’s take a look at each one of them.”

Finally, in 2007, he introduced the iPhone:

“[T]oday, we’re introducing three revolutionary products … The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device. 

… An iPod, a phone, and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone … are you getting it?

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

When you line them up like that, I think it jumps out at you: Jobs was a master of a highly effective framework we call the Rule of 3. Chances are, you probably use it yourself, maybe without even thinking about it.

Jobs died 10 years ago this coming week, and we’re going to hear a lot about what he accomplished, why he was successful, and how the future he envisioned matches the present we live in today.

But as I look back, I’ve been struck by the degree to which he continually used this single, simple, powerful framework. It’s how he organized his thoughts, leveraged emotional intelligence, and became more persuasive.

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

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

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

His most famous example, perhaps, is the commencement speech he gave at Stanford University in 2005: 

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

Just 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 else, consider his first big talk in front of a fairly small group of Apple executives in 1997, just months after he’d returned to Apple as CEO.

He cut straight to the chase, outlining the three key things he wanted to focus on:

“I’ve been back about eight to 10 weeks, and we’ve been working really hard. And what we’re trying to do is not something really highfalutin’. We’re trying to get back to the basics.

We’re trying to get back to the basics of great products, great marketing and great distribution.”

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

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

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

Bear with me, but here’s one more favorite, which really has nothing at all to do with marketing or Apple, but shows just 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 versus a more efficient but slower-working European machine.

How did he break down the issue? You guessed it, by organizing it in a three-part analysis. Here’s what he told his biographer:

“We ended up talking a lot about design, but also about the values of our family: 

  1. Did we care most about getting our wash done in an hour versus an hour and a half?  
  2. Or did we care most about our clothes feeling really soft and lasting longer? 
  3. Did we care about using a quarter of the water? 

We spent about two weeks talking about this every night at the dinner table.”

We could truly go on and on here. If you’ve ever seen that famous video of when Jobs had to deal with an especially acute critic during a presentation, you’ll notice that he starts out with a famous quote that follows a Rule of 3.

“You can please some of the people some of the time,” Jobs begins in that speech, but then stops, before organizing his answer and responding to the critic with a highly effective three-part argument.

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

It’s funny; I don’t know if people would often think of Jobs as having been an emotionally intelligent person. But, that’s because many people have have an incorrect understanding of emotional intelligence, to begin with.

  • It’s not about simply being nice to people, or connecting with them on an emotional level.
  • It’s also not purely about empathy. (Those can all be wonderful side-effects, but they’re neither the core definition nor the purpose of emotional intelligence.)
  • Instead, emotional intelligence is about being aware of how emotions affect your communication and organization efforts, and even leveraging human emotions to make your points clearer, more relatable, and more persuasive.

So, the big reveal here? It’s that for most of these “here are three major breakthroughs” type speeches that Jobs gave, if you go back and analyze them, there were not actually three items.

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

It’s perhaps the most basic component of the “reality distortion field” that Jobs was claimed to have–and one you should consider using because it translates even the most difficult concepts into organized road maps that people can understand. 

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

Or else, consider the iPhone that you might have in your pocket, or even be reading this article on. Even with the original model nearly a decade and a half ago, there were many more than just three key features; that’s just how Jobs organized and framed it in his introduction.

Finally, if those examples don’t quite convince you, let’s quickly revisit the famous speech Jobs gave at Stanford, in which 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’re really counting, include one about his adoptive parents, one about dropping out of college, one about studying calligraphy, a fourth one about getting fired from Apple, a fifth one about rebounding with NeXT and Pixar, a sixth one about considering 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 clever your ideas are, what matters more than what you have to say is, what the people you’re talking with will actually hear.

So, if getting your points across in a way that people will understand requires cramming them all somehow into a three-part framework, I say roll up your sleeves, take some inspiration from Steve Jobs, and have at it.

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

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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