Omne trium perfectum: the rule of 3

This article is the seventh in a series. It was first published on July 18th 2020, via LinkedIn.

How’s your Latin?

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This translates as “everything that is three is perfect”, or “every set of three is complete”.

Even if you’ve never heard the phrase “omne trium perfectum”, there’s a good chance that you’re familiar with the “The Rule of 3”. It refers to the tendency for things that are grouped in threes to be somehow more memorable, more powerful and more enduring. What’s more, it’s in action all around you. Here are a few examples:

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  • Ready, set, go
  • Lights, camera, action
  • Veni, vidi, vici
  • Government of the people, by the people, for the people
  • Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness
  • Three Stooges
  • Three Musketeers
  • Three Blind Mice
  • Three Little Pigs

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The Rule of 3 is particularly prominent in the field of writing, given the way it combines “…both brevity and rhythm, with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern”. This doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with combining words or pieces of information in pairs or groups of four etc. It’s just that there is something special about groupings of three.

In fact, several major religions are formulated around groups of three; including:

Christianity (Holy Trinity)

  • The Father,
  • The Son, and
  • The Holy Ghost.

(The word “trinity” means “threefold”, “three at a time”, “three in it”.)

Hinduism (Three principal gods)

  • Brahma – the creator of the universe,
  • Vishnu – the preserve of the universe, and
  • Shiva – the destroyer of the universe

Use of the Rule of 3 is commonly found in public speeches. On April 5 this year, Queen Elizabeth II gave a speech on the global coronavirus pandemic that applied the Rule of 3 on several occasions. These included:

“A time of disruption in the life of our country: a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all.”

You’ll notice how this sentence contains:

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The speech also contained:

“We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”

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If you pay attention and listen carefully, you’ll be surprised how often you hear or see the Rule of 3 in action. It’s used so much because it’s effective. Perhaps your writing could benefit from its application?

Note: This article is the seventh in a series. Links to earlier articles are included below:

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Subtract to add meaning

This article is the sixth in a series. It was first published on July 6th 2020, via LinkedIn.

In these articles I’ve been sharing ideas about how to make both your writing and documents better. In my experience, there are a few key principles that will help you improve the quality of your output.

Principle #3 – Subtract

In my last article I touched on how easy it is to overload your document with too much content and recommended some techniques to help you avoid it. After putting these techniques into action, there’s a further step you can take.

Once you’ve applied the earlier principles and arrived at what could be considered a final document, you can ‘next level’ your work by going over it with a fine tooth comb and looking for opportunities to remove content. Whether it’s an unnecessary word, redundant sentence or superfluous graphic, you must cut as much as you possibly can.

In short, the key to applying this principle is delete, delete, delete!

Remember, there’s only so much information that your audience can process at one time. Your goal is to find the most efficient way of getting your point across. If you’re brutally honest with your review, you’ll find that there’s invariably content that doesn’t add anything of substance, but has been included out of habit or personal preference. Maybe you’ve included a graphic or image that looks nice, but is not actually essential to the story you’re trying to tell.

These content elements are holding you back. Far from adding to your message, they serve as a distraction.

Strip away anything that doesn’t result in the message being lost. The extra elements are a distraction…they take away meaning, rather than adding it.

One method I’ve often used to help me with this is to get my document to a ‘finished’ state and then sleep on it (easier said than done when you’re hurtling towards a deadline). Looking at it the next day with fresh eyes and a critical mind I’m always able to find bits of dead content that can be stripped away. Another approach would be to have a friend or colleague read it. Seek their input, but be mindful to filter out feedback that’s simply reflecting their own biases and preferences.

With a bit of practice, you can develop a real skill for eliminating the unnecessary.


Note: This article is the sixth in a series. Links to earlier articles are included below:

Less is more; simple is best

This article is the fifth in a series. It was first published on July 1st 2020, via LinkedIn.

In my last article, I mentioned that there are three key principles to apply in order to make your report or presentation as impactful as possible. In this article I’ll describe the second of these principles.

Principle #2 – Less is more; simple is best

It’s easy to overload your document with too much content, especially text. After all, you’ve got a lot to say and surely your audience would benefit from exposure to every last bit of knowledge you have on a topic…right?


In an age when we’re bombarded with unprecedented amounts of information, it’s never been more important to make your message simple and concise. If your report or presentation is built around elegant simplicity, you’ll find it easier to stand out from the crowd.

There’s only so much information that can be ‘ingested’ at one time. Here are some simple tips to help you avoid information overload:

  • For each page, think 1/3 text, 1/3 image or graphic and 1/3 blank space (especially for presentation slides).
  • Blank space is important. The eye needs somewhere to rest.
  • Remember that we process words and pictures differently. Use images and graphics to convey information wherever possible. It’s a much more efficient method of communicating.
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Pictures => instantaneous, involuntary, effortless, high impact, emotional response.

Words => slow (200 words per minute), voluntary, effort required, low impact, limited emotional response.

“Think of each page as a billboard; it should be comprehensible in 3 seconds.”

For written components, make them easy to read. Focus on keeping your text:

  • Short – words, sentences (aim for <15 words), paragraphs.
  • Active – use active language, strong verbs.
  • Uncluttered – no fluff, no unnecessary words, every word has a purpose.

If you’re able to apply these tips you’ll avoid having too many elements competing for the reader’s attention. Failure can make the document hard to follow; i.e. make it too much work to read. If you get it right, your audience will thank you. You’ll be surprised by the contribution this will make to receiving more positive feedback and achieving better outcomes.

Note: This article is the fifth in a series. Links to earlier articles are included below:


Form follows function

This article is the fourth in a series. It was first published on June 22nd 2020, via LinkedIn.

When striving to make your report or presentation the best it can be, there are three key principles to keep in mind. In this article I’ll describe the first of these and why I think it’s so important.

Principle #1 – Form follows function

The maxim ‘form follows function’ is considered to have originated with late 19th and early 20th century architecture and industrial design. In this context, it signifies that the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function or purpose.

The same principle applies to a document.

When putting together your next proposal or slide deck, first ask yourself – What am I trying to achieve with this document? This will define the document’s FUNCTION.

How you answer that question will then help determine its FORM; e.g. length, page orientation, medium (Word, PowerPoint, online, other?).

Once you’re satisfied that you’ve answered this question, it’s time to start planning.

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Remember, there are four stages to efficient business writing:

  1. Think – structure, headings, sub-headings
  2. Draft
  3. Revise
  4. Proof

It’s the first stage of this process – THINK – where your planning takes place. This is far and away the most important part of any writing process. If you properly understand what it is that you’re trying to achieve (i.e. you understand the ‘problem’), you’re well on your way to producing a document that hits the mark.

Always start this process with a blank sheet of paper. I can’t stress this enough. Never copy someone else’s document…design your own. This holds true even if the someone you’re copying is you! If you set out to replicate what you’ve already done, you’ll continue to be limited by your own past.

Be intentional. It’s hard to hit a target you’re not aiming at.”
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Make it ‘fit-for-purpose’

In my industry (insurance broking) we like to say that we tailor a suite of services to each individual client, to ensure that our offering is ‘fit-for-purpose’. We do this by, metaphorically, starting with a blank sheet of paper. That is, we take the time to understand the client in order to design and build an insurance program that’s bespoke to them.

The same principle applies to any report or proposal that we issue to them. Now, on more than one occasion I’ve been asked to grab the most recent report of its kind, change the name, and tweak it around the edges. We’d never do that when designing an insurance program. Nor should we do it when designing our documents.

Food for thought.

It’s all about the ‘Art’

This article is the third in a series. It was first published on June 16th 2020, via LinkedIn.

Every document has a purpose. Every document has a function.

Every document has elements that it needs to include. This can be because certain information is:

  • explicitly prescribed (tender responses),
  • organisationally mandated (your boss told you to put it in), or
  • you simply think it’s a good idea (“the heart wants what the heart wants”).

Whatever the elements that you need to combine, it’s crucial that you spend some time planning precisely ‘how’ you’re going to integrate them. At a minimum, this involves consideration of order and emphasis. You need to ask yourself:

What content is most important?

How will you prioritise your points?

What’s the most effective way of ordering them to get your message across?

Art over Mechanics

There’s a necessary mechanical aspect to collating your content and working through the questions listed above. Whilst mechanical processes can be dry and boring, they help to ensure that everything that needs to be done, is done. The mechanics of putting your report or presentation together are important, but the real magic lies elsewhere. If you want your document to sing, it’s all about the ‘art’.

What do I mean by ‘art’? (Word nerd alert…)

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In this context, ‘art’ refers to connection. If you can seamlessly link the elements of your document together, it will be easier for your audience to follow. The easier it is for them to follow, the greater the chance of you getting your message across.

How do you make the connection?

There are a number of techniques available to help you achieve better connection:

  1. Firstly, getting the order of your content right is imperative. Does it make sense to have it in the sequence you propose? Is it logical? Does it flow? Does each subsequent point build on the earlier content?
  2. How are you going to link your content segments? Will it be with language or imagery?
  3. Have a theme! Linking the elements of your document together into a cohesive narrative is easiest when you have a powerful theme to build around.

I’ve always found this last point (i.e. theme) to be the most useful. It can serve as your ‘north star’, ensuring that all content is aligned around a central message. By organising your content this way, you’ll find it hard to stray too far.

To make your report or presentation sing, the magic lies in how you connect elements. This is the ‘art’ of creating great documents.

Confessions of a word nerd

This article is the second in a series. It was first published on June 5th 2020, via LinkedIn.

I mentioned in my last post that I’m a self described ‘word nerd’. By that I don’t mean that I’m obsessed with constantly learning new words so I can show off an immense vocabulary (although, I’ve worked with a couple of people that fit that description). Rather, I’m fascinated with the origins of the words that we use.

In the context of writing content for tender responses and sales proposals, I have to engage with a wide range of subject matter experts. Nearly all of them are tertiary educated, but come from a variety of disciplines. Their general communication and writing abilities are as varied as their backgrounds.

One of the responsibilities of my role is to blend this content into a cohesive narrative that reads as if it comes from one voice. This is often challenging, given that some contributors are concise to the point of being austere. Others are verbose, as if they were being paid by the word. (As for my personal bias, I’ll side with Mr Jefferson.)

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Talent versus Skill

There’s an old saying to the effect that “…you can’t teach talent”.

You can help individuals develop their innate talents.

You can teach them new skills.

You can’t teach them a talent that they don’t already possess.

But, what do these two words – talent and skill – actually mean? What’s the key point of difference? This is where an etymological dictionary comes in handy (word nerd alert!). A little research arrives at the following:

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When working on documents that are page or word-limited, it used to frustrate me when I’d explain to a contributor that we had space for a 1-page answer to a question, only to have them produce an 8-page response. (Maybe you’ve had this problem too?) This is where it’s handy to understand the difference between talent and skill. Whilst some writers will have a natural, innate tendency towards concise communication, for others it’s a skill that they need to consciously develop.

If the root of ‘skill’ is to discern or discriminate, this implies a number of independent decisions are required in order to condense 8-pages into 1-page. Such as:

  • What content is so important that it must stay?
  • What can be expressed in less detail? How best to do that?
  • What gets cut altogether?

Making these decisions is hard…especially if you’re not practiced at it. The good news is, because it’s a skill, you can get better. You just need to understand that it’s work. It will take effort to improve.

Napoleon Bonaparte is attributed as saying “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.” Over time, I’ve come to recognise the truth of those words. Hard choices are required in order to condense and simplify language. If your communication is concise, it will be easier for your audience to understand the message you’re trying to convey.

Ultimately, that’s that goal in striving to produce great documents.


How to design great documents

This article is the first in a series. It was first published on June 2nd 2020, via LinkedIn.

Over the past six months I’ve had the opportunity to give several presentations on document design. They’ve been to audiences with different experience levels; each presentation has needed it’s own particular focus. In preparing to run these sessions, I’ve had to revisit and reconsider the things that I’ve learnt over the course of 30+ years of intense reading and writing. Things like:

  • What makes a document good, or even great?
  • What are the key lessons and principles to share?
  • What’s most relevant for the day’s group?
  • What do I know about the individuals attending?
  • How do I make sure I have something for each of them to takeaway?

It’s been invaluable to reflect on the many thousands of hours of intense practice that form one’s body of experience…and the myriad sources from which the most important lessons come.

In this series of short articles I’ll summarise what I believe to be the key principles to keep in mind when designing a great document. Hopefully, I’ve hit the mark and identified universal principles. If that’s the case, then you’ll find that they have application to any professional document that you produce, whether it be a sales proposal, process manual or executive presentation.

Broadly speaking, the topics covered will include:

  1. Form follows function,
  2. Less is more; simple is best, and
  3. The importance of subtraction.


Plus, as a self-confessed ‘word nerd’, we’ll take a quick look at some relevant etymology. Nothing too technical. It’s important that we understand and agree the meaning of key terms. If we spend a little time doing this upfront, there’ll be less chance of getting lost in the weeds.

That’s all for now. Thank you for taking the time to read this introduction. I’ll be posting regularly over the next few weeks.