“Say more — two more sentences.” — Columbia University literature professor, in response to upstart student-poet Alan Ginsberg’s first remark, in class in the 2013 movie Kill Your Darlings

If you want to appear knowledgeable or otherwise prepared in a job interview and not embarrass yourself, try to know at least three different facts about anything that you claim to have knowledge of—whether you are the one being interviewed or doing the interviewing.

Likewise, be ready to answer or ask three closely-related, including follow-up questions about any aspect of the job, the company, your resume (if you are the applicant), your values, etc.

It’s like baseball: Pitching three dazzling fastball strikes over the plate and on the money every time is the path to perfect pitching of yourself as well as of a ball. The difference between the “3-Strike Rule” in interviewing and in baseball is that with interviewing this way, it’s “3 strikes—yer in!”.

Three—that’s what I recommend as the mathematical, information-theoretic and demonstrable minimum, which will also usually suffice, to confirm you know what you are talking about.

The Illusion and Magic of 3

The explosive growth of not only the quantity and variety of information, but also its depth, cross-connections and accessibility pretty much makes knowing at least three things about anything a cinch these days.

Yet, about many subjects, many people barely know two and regard an approving or disapproving judgment about the subject as a third “fact”–e.g.,

1. “You know, cholesterol is bad.”

2. “LDL, which is somehow related to cholesterol and a lot of foods we like is really bad.”

3.“Knowing that makes me feel bad.”

When I was a student, I sat down—once—to read Volume “A” of the Encyclopedia Britannica. I didn’t get very far, but remember the section on Aristotle, which I got to by skipping ahead. All that I recall is that his father

1. Was a physician.

2. Served in the court of King Amyntas the III.

3. Had roots in Macedonia.

So, theoretically, if I were applying for a philosophy teaching position, I might be able to bluff my way through in any mention of Aristotle’s father, by citing three related facts about him.

That’s how the “3-Strike Rule” works. Why is another matter.

The Logic of the “3-Strike Rule”

My claim that it takes three facts to be convince others that you know what you are talking about, three integrated questions to really impress, etc., can be supported and clarified by a mathematical and a logical model that I use to explain why so many things come in threes—such as

  • Goldilocks and the 3 bears
  • Ho,ho,ho!” [Santa Claus]
  • 3-strikes in baseball
  • the bad luck of “3 on a match”
  • san-san-kudo”–the 3 cups drunk from 3 times in a traditional Japanese wedding ceremony
  • 3 coins in a fountain
  • 3 witches of Macbeth
  • Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye” in court proceedings
  • the Trinity
  • the standard 3 knocks on a door
  • 3 numbers on a combination lock
  • 3 beeps of photocopiers
  • For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow—that nobody can deny!” [certainly not after that many repetitions]
  • the 3 Little Pigs
  • 3 Blind Mice
  • the 3 Stooges
  • the 3 Wise Men, bringing 3 spices

As I’ve explained elsewhere, 3 is the minimum number of single signals required to assure that a message is accurately decoded and interpreted. One reason for this is mathematical, the other more or less logical.

Start with the latter: “3 on a match is bad luck” is not a mere superstition. It sums up a harsh lesson learned in the trenches of World War I. Lighting three cigarettes with just one match turned out to be a good way for the third infantryman to be shot by a sniper.

That’s because the lighting of the first cigarette—the first signal or message—attracted the sniper’s attention as “stimulation”.

When the second soldier had his cigarette lit with the passed match, that served to identify the light as a match, rather than as a lightning bug or campfire spark—thereby completing the essential “identification” stage.

Finally, when the unfortunate, doomed third soldier lit his cigarette with that match, he confirmed the tentative identification and got shot—in the final, “confirmation” stage.

Displays of knowledge are exactly like that: The first thing you say is the attention getter—the stimulation; the second more specifically identifies the subject matter and eliminates many alternative interpretations of what you’ve said, while the third confirms that you know what you are talking about.

This process is very much like the “Ho, ho, ho!” of Santa Claus or the “Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye!” of a town crier—the first grabs everyone’s attention; the second tentatively identifies it for what it is; the third confirms the identification as correct.

A second, more mathematical explanation of the power of 3 can be seen from the perspective of a “tie-breaker” vote that settles any issue.

If I want to send you, in binary code, a “1” and also want to be sure that, if there’s a transmission error en route to you—namely, that you receive a “0” instead of the intended “1”, you’ll realize it, what I have to do is send you two “1”s.

If one of them is different, for example, “1,0” or “0,1” you’ll know there’s an error.

However, you won’t be able to determine whether the 0 or the 1 is wrong.

To ensure you can detect and also identify the specific error, I have to send you “1,1,1”. Assuming there is only one error, you will know what the intended message is, by noting which two are the same, e.g., “1,1,0”—which means I was sending you “1”. Likewise, “0,1,0” means I sent you “0”.

This kind of “fail-safe” coding is called a “parity check”.

Again, I believe that displaying knowledge, in general, is like that: If I want you to believe or understand that I know what I’m talking about, I should communicate 3 “bits”, “bytes” or alleged facts chained as links supporting confirmation, as a minimum.

Now, this knowledge-display rule is based on analogous reasoning, not on a strictly mathematical proof.

However, I’m pretty much convinced that human information processing is very strongly biased toward such a 3 Rule—as the many examples given above suggest, and that our processing of ostensible knowledge claims conforms to the same model.

Applying the 3-Question and Comment Rule

The same goes for asking questions: If a line of questioning achieves closure in three steps, it is very likely to be very insightful, engaging and not so long as to seem like an interrogation on a single topic, nor so short as to suggest a lack of interest or superficiality.

That’s what has made the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears so timelessly enchanting.

Another logical way to look at what happens when you display your knowledge is that the first thing you say is like an initial claim or conjecture, whereas the next two are akin to getting a first and second opinion.

This too is only a very rough analogy, but it taps into the idea that somehow a third claim or opinion is a kind of tie-breaker, which is what medical second opinions represent—there’s the opinion of the first physician, the second and yours, at least with respect to your opinion about which of the other two to accept.

Other suggestive analogies can be cited to reinforce the credibility of the 3-Strike model—the most obvious being that the most natural way to describe any process is that it has a beginning, middle and an end [the AA 12-Step program notwithstanding].

When you present three related facts or questions about whatever you are talking about, you may be providing unconscious completion and closure for the listener.


Q: “What were your responsibilities in your last position?” [Answer]

Q: “How much authority did you have?” [Answer]

Q: “How did you feel about the mix?” [Answer]

Can you feel the exquisite closure and discern the waltz 3-step strategy of this line of questioning?

Of course a complete and perfect waltz requires two dancers to execute; hence, in anticipation of a “partner” who can frame such smoothly integrated and complete moves and steps, the wise candidate will either be well prepared to follow, or, where necessary or possible, take the lead in laying out the steps.

For example, pitching the following three comments, whether in response or volunteered, or in unbroken or interrupted sequence, represents a smart and complete application of the 3-Strike Rule:

Comment 1: “I have been fortunate to experience and have had the kind of responsibility that fosters both discipline and personal growth.”

Comment 2: “Of course, I also appreciate and have been privileged to have had the authority to implement some aspects of my personal vision as well as our corporate and team mandates.”

Comment 3: “Most gratifying was the nearly perfect balance of both I enjoyed, which has come to define one of my key career considerations and objectives.”

If this triplet doesn’t seal the deal and win a job offer with a 3-month probationary period or an invitation to a second and third interview…

…consider showing up for your next interview in a 3-piece suit.


Like this article? Subscribe today! We also offer tons of free eBooks on career and recruiting topics - check out Get a Better Job the Right Way and Why It Matters Who Does Your Recruiting.
in Interviewing]