Fill in the blank:
___________ blind mice.
___________ little pigs.
You know the answer …right? As the old School House Rock cartoon told us, “Three – it’s a magic number.” It’s actually more than magic, it’s one of the most powerful storytelling and persuasion devices in human communication. The appearance of threes in storytelling is referred to as a narrative triad. To demonstrate further, consider the Three Musketeers, the three ghosts in “A Christmas Carol,” or the three witches in Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.”
Threes don’t just appear in long-form storytelling. For decades advertisers have tapped the narrative triad. Think about these memorable slogans: “Snap, Crackle, Pop;” “Just Do It;” “I’m Lovin’ It.” The narrative triad surrounds us –– and it always has. In the Christian tradition, we see threes in the form of the Holy Trinity. Similar triads exist in the Buddhist and Islamic faiths. In fairy tales, triads abound: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears;” “Three Billy Goats Gruff;” and Aladdin’s three treasure caves are just a few examples. In music, think about Earth, Wind and Fire, or the notion of harmonic triads. From cinema to public speaking, narrative triads are power-packed. Because of their salience, narrative triads function as a useful tool in media interviews, but first let’s understand why threes are so powerful.
Psychologist Carl Jung, the father of archetypes, wrote, “Every tension of opposites culminates in a release, out of which comes the ‘third.’ In the third, tension is resolved and the lost unity is restored.” Triads, it seems, represent growth and transformation which enable us to move to a next stage. Triads convey to us a sense that the miraculous developments which take place in stories do not just happen effortlessly, they require a steady accumulation of experience. Three is fundamental to storytelling because it serves as a symbolic shorthand for the difficulty of working toward a goal – the gradual working out process of trying this way, then that way, then finding the best way. It’s the process of growth, of striving toward something to a state of completion or wholeness. Three is a journey. It’s a bit of strange twist, but it turns out, four types of triads dominate storytelling:
Cumulative three: each is the same value as the other two but all three have to be put together or succeed each other to finally transform.
Ascending three: each object is a positive value but each is a little more important or positive than the previous (Jack-and-the-Beanstalk: gold, golden goose, singing harp).
Contrasting three: the first two objects are inadequate or wrong and only the third one works or succeeds. Cinderella is the stand out third with two identical ugly step sisters.
Dialectical three: first is wrong in one way, second is wrong in a different way, third is just right (Goldilocks).
These triads are conveyed best, in a three-sequence process—a beginning, middle, and an end. The narrative triad as a sequence serves a key function in storytelling. The number three is the final trigger in a messaging pattern, functioning to signal a completion. The parts move closer to the whole, and the process of transformation is completed. Most often, the denouement means we all live happily ever after. If you ever come out of movie thinking it was pretty bad, chances are, it violated the narrative triad in some way.
Now that we know the secret and powerful history of the narrative triad, let’s understand how it helps in a media interview. Simply put, narrative triads help you control your message. In our soundbite-driven news media environment, the messaging triad creates an opportunity to be quotable without being interrupted. Just like an audience, reporters want to hear the beginning, middle and end to a story, so they view triads as complete ideas that can’t be easily parsed or edited down. If you’re able to harness the narrative triad into soundbite length, then you’re likely to get your point across without your message getting hijacked.
Utilizing the Messaging Triad
Step 1: Develop three messages — Before you start your interview, consider your triad. Is it a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk, Cinderella or Goldilocks comparison?
Step 2: Organize your messages in a beginning, middle, and end — After developing your points, put them sequential order to show how they evolve, one to the next. Your story serves to emulate a transition or transformation, from one state to another. Be sure you know the end of the story and how the transformation completes itself. If a reporter tries to derail you, simply take them back to your story and finish the triad.
Step 3: Flag the triad — To signal your story, use a triad flag. Say, for example, “I want to discuss three main topics today…” Signaling your story as a three sets up the conditions for you to make a complete statement. Next, use a counting mechanism as a bridge. Start your triad with the phrase, “First and foremost…” then say the word, “Second…,” then say the word, “Finally…” to complete your thought. In an on-camera interview, a great technique is to use your fingers to count through the triad as you go. It’s tough for a reporter to edit your three-part idea, so you stand a good chance of scoring a more complete soundbite.
The Predictive Interview Model shows what questions you can expect and in what sequence. Narrative triads can be powerful ways to respond to each question in the sequence and you know what, they’re as easy as A, B, C—1, 2, 3 to create, memorize and deliver.
Booker, C. (2004). The Seven Basic Plots. London: Continuum.