Happy May. Here are a few things I learned about mayday. Not May Day – that would be a traditional spring holiday in many cultures, or International Workers’ Day, both on May 1st – but mayday as in the standard distress signal.
- It has nothing to do with the month. Mayday is an anglicization of the French m’aidez or m’aider, meaning “help me”.
- Frederick Stanley Mockford, a senior radio officer at London’s Croydon Airport, is credited with choosing the term in 1923. Because much of his airport’s traffic was between London and Paris, Mockford wanted a phrase that all pilots and grounds crews could easily understand in an emergency.
- The call is typically said three times: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” Why three? One, so there’s no mistaking it for another word. Two, in case static or noise makes reception difficult. Three, the repetition reinforces that this critical command is intentional.
So that’s three factoids about mayday, and three reasons in the third point. Will you remember them?
You should. Because my googling about mayday (specifically the “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” repetition) led me down another trail. This one about the rule of three.
For memory, persuasion and emphasis, there’s power in threes.
Kurt Carlson at Georgetown University and Suzanne Shu at UCLA examined the phenomenon. They called their study “When Three Charms but Four Alarms”.
The researchers specialize in marketing and behavioural science. They found that in messages intended to inform us, sway us, motivate us, more isn’t always better. While three claims were convincing, four created suspicion.
In the study, research subjects were presented with a number of marketing messages or scenarios. In each case, there were anywhere from one to six selling features.
For instance, packaging or an ad for a cereal brand would be presented with just a few or all six of these attributes: healthier, better tasting, crunchier, sweeter, organic, higher quality ingredients. Three features sold it. More than that had diminishing returns.
Research subjects were also told about a hypothetical friend’s hypothetical ex. If the fictitious boyfriend was described with three favourable qualities, the subjects thought he was great. Once a fourth quality was added (“He’s intelligent, kind, funny and cute”), the subjects’ had less positive perceptions of the boyfriend.
Carlson explained why. “When the number of claims exceeds three, the message receiver, who feels the description has gone too far, will draw the inference that the whole set of claims is untrustworthy,” he said.
So overselling doesn’t just mean overpromising. It can refer to the sheer volume of messages.
“We become skeptical of people who make more than three claims, if we are in a setting where we know they have a motive to persuade us,” said Carlson. “Be careful. Three claims is optimal.”
In communications, the rule of three crops up in many ways.
Present three benefits. List three steps. Keep a presentation to three ideas. Make each point in three ways, or three times. Have a beginning, middle and end.
Repeating certain words, phrases or sentences in groups of three is a rhetorical device. So is using words, phrases or sentences with parallel structures. Or lengths. Or cadences. Audiences key in on the pattern.
Three has a rhythm that two and four often lack. Consider these trios:
- Mind, body and soul.
- Faith, hope and charity.
- Earth, wind and fire.
- Blood, sweat and tears.
- The good, the bad and the ugly.
- Work, rest and play.
- Reduce, reuse, recycle.
- Snap, crackle and pop.
Three just feels like a whole group. Trilogies complete a story.
I’ve leaned on that here. By making references to memory, persuasion and emphasis. Inform, sway and motivate. Words, phrases or sentences. Structures, lengths or cadences.
They’re all sets of three. Audiences tend to key in on such patterns.
So apologies to top 10 lists and five-year plans. If you want to stand out, three is the magic number.
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.
May 1, 2019