The Rule of Three: How to Master the Art of Effective Callbacks
By Evan Braun
How frequently do you need to say something before someone remembers it? This is a really important question for a writer. Well, not just for writers—it’s true for all different types of communicators.
When I work with clients, one of the most common editing notes I find myself giving is that an idea hasn’t been established clearly enough.
Let’s look at some examples. Perhaps I’m working on a novel and we’re in the third to last chapter of the book when all of a sudden some guy named Peter shows up at the main character’s front door and the two have a short but plot-critical conversation.
Wait, who’s Peter?
“How could you not remember?” the author asks me later. “I mentioned him! Back in Chapter Two, when we were talking Aunt Susan’s family tree. Remember? Her first husband had a nephew she really liked? Peter!”
Okay, so here’s what happened. The author mentioned Aunt Susan’s first husband’s nephew Peter, but it only came up one time. One sentence in a book of thousands of sentences, and a sentence that didn’t seem to pertain much to the story at hand—at least, it didn’t seem to pertain to it at the time.
Is it reasonable that the reader should have deeply internalized this small detail, in anticipation of it potentially coming back two hundred pages later?
In short, no. You can’t expect that the reader is going to have a perfect memory of all these minor details. Your knowledge of the book you’re writing is encyclopaedic. The reader’s knowledge is much more cursory. And that’s normal.
Another example. Let’s say I’m editing a Bible study of the book of Job. In an early chapter, the author lays out ten takeaways regarding the deal made in heaven’s throne room between God and Satan pertaining to Job’s suffering.
A hundred pages later, the author discovers that he needs to refer back to one of those takeaways, but she only mentions it obliquely, in passing, assuming that the reader will put the pieces together and know what she’s talking about.
Rather, the reader is left confused, unable to figure out what the author means. Instead of strengthening the reader’s understanding, the failed callback has had the opposite effect.
Which brings us back to the question we started with today: how frequently do you have to say something before someone remembers it?
As I mentioned, this is a problem for all communicators, not just writers, so let’s look for help in a different medium. Have you ever listened to an advertisement on the radio and noticed how repetitive it sounded? The ad may only be a few seconds long—no more, no less—and it has to get its message across efficiently.
For the advertiser, the most important detail is probably the phone number of website. Which is why the ad may conspire, awkwardly, to repeat those items several times.
“Need your carpets cleaned? Call A1 Carpet Cleaners today, 555-678-9000, for great deals and fast service! That’s 555-678-9000. Don’t this chance pass you by! Give us a call now—555-678-9000.”
Chances are they’ll be mentioned three times. Once isn’t enough. Repeating the concept helps to solidify it in a person’s memory. Three times gets that concept into the proverbial endzone.
You can repeat an idea beyond this, but it can start to become an irritant. The person you’re communicating with may feel condescended to, thinking, “Yeah, yeah, enough. I get it already.”
So when you’re writing a book, you will want to pay close attention to this principle.
First, identify your core ideas, the elements you want the reader to really internalize. It’s a bit of a cliched question, but a helpful one: “If you only remember a few things from this book—or today’s speech, or a conference call, or a college course, etc.—make sure it’s (fill-in-the-blank).”
Second, be sure those concepts are mentioned three times. The first time in full, exhaustive detail. The second time, mentioning enough detail for the reader to recall it. And the third time, in shortened form, usually as part of an overall summary.
Third, make sure these references are spread out around the book more or less evenly, so that the reader won’t have the opportunity to forget the message. Spacing out the repetitions also has the effect of disguising the underlying formula.
If you’ve got something important to say, make sure you’re saying it three times. Landing in this sweet spot will help you to become a better, more effective and efficient communicator in every area.
About this Contributor:
Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. Braun is an experienced professional editor, and has worked with Word Alive Press authors since 2006. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.