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Three rules of three

Over years of practicing the art of communication, Alan Alda has developed three rules that help him make sure he’s getting his point(s) across.

Over years of practicing the art of communication, Alan Alda has developed three rules that help him make sure he’s getting his point(s) across.

We’re sharing them with you with a caveat: Alda emphasises that these “tips” are the end result of years of learning. He recommends that you focus, above all else, on trying to connect. Starting with a list of rules can actually have the opposite effect, drawing your attention away from the person you’re talking to.

1. Make no more than three points.

Your audience probably can’t remember more than three things. (And neither can you!)

2. Explain difficult ideas in three different ways.

Create a three-dimensional view of the idea by coming in from different angles.

3. Make important points three times.

Introduce your main point, make it familiar, then reinforce it to make it stick.

Commit to a gradual transformation

Becoming a better communicator takes more than memorising tips – it’s a process.

The rules are based on a simple fact: real communication is inefficient.

We’re not computers. We can only express and absorb so much in any given interaction. Alda’s “three rules of three” limit him to communicating three things (points, questions, etc.) at most in any dialogue or presentation, expressing any complex concept at least three different ways, and repeating it three times throughout the conversation.

Over a lifetime of practice, your rules might differ, but there’s a universal truth here, known to anyone who’s ever sat through a Powerpoint presentation with fifteen bullets per slide: keep it clear and simple. Communicate only what your audience can process.

Over to you

Think back to a conversation in which you really connected with a colleague on a work-related issue. In which you felt you were really getting somewhere.

  • what was it about the rhythms of the conversation that made it so effective?
  • what was said, and how was it said?

In practice

After you watch the video privately consider the following exercise and find a colleague in your workplace who is willing to practice with you.

  • Each of you should think of the most complex topic you’re comfortable discussing. Take turns explaining your topic to the other person, leaving space for him or her to ask questions or interject. Try to follow Alda’s three rules of three.
  • Reflect on the above. Did the rules get in the way? Did they help? Was it a bit of both? Feedback in the comments below. How did it go?
  • Reflect on your own experience in the art of communication. What unspoken (or conscious) “rules” do you have for yourself that help keep you connected and actively connecting?
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Emotional Intelligence in Practice

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