Here’s a tip for professional communication: limit content to 3 to 6 points per concept. I like to call this the “3-to-6 Rule.” For example, when writing for a professional audience, aim for 3 to 6 sections, or 3 to 6 paragraphs, or 3 to 6 bullet points. This will help your reader absorb information and actually hear what you are trying to say.
The human brain needs structure to absorb information. Less than 3 concepts per section indicates too much structure. More than 6 concepts indicates information overload. In my experience, I’ve found that the 3-to-6 range is right in the sweet spot — enough to demonstrate substance but not enough to overload the reader.
Consider this example: You are explaining the selling points of a new business venture to senior management. You launch into a list of 20 (!) arguments for why the venture will succeed. Your audience may be initially impressed by the volume, but they will be lost in the content. After a while, they may even feel like you are stretching to get 20 reasons — 20 reasons, really? Instead, condense the list into 3 to 6 concepts to concisely explain and support the venture. You’re trying to plant in their minds walkaway arguments — what are the 3-6 most compelling points you want them to remember? No one will remember 20.
If longer lists are needed, divided them into sublists with separable, independent topics or categories. That way your reader can absorb the 3-to-6 categories at issue, and then dig deeper (ideally into the 3-to-6 bullet groups) if needed.
I’ll close with a meta-example, of the 3-to-6 reasons to use the 3-to-6 rule:
- Brain absorption. Your audience’s brains are looking for structure, so give it to them! They will absorb the material much better.
- Having enough content. Fewer than 3 means that you often don’t have enough substance to support the point. Rethink having a “list” at all.
- Keeping things streamlined. More than 6 bullets means that you need to rethink and divide into subgroups.
- Guidelines are helpful! Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, even the 3-to-6 rule, but guidelines are helpful in many cases. Consider the 3-to-6 paragraphs in this post and the 3-to-6 bullets in this list. Was it on target for you?
Originally written: September 2016. Republished: February 2018.