The Winning Number is 3

One of the deadliest sins in most messages and sales presentations today is the tendency to say too much. Everyone in your company with an opinion weighs in on the story and, presto, you have a bloated story that pleases internal powers, but actually confuses and frustrates your customers.

Do you remember the old television commercial with the boy asking a wise owl how many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop? The owl takes the sucker, and begins to lick, “One, two, three…crunch,” the owl bites into the candy and confidently proclaims it takes three licks to get to the center.

Many marketers and salespeople have a similar question when it comes to positioning a solution: What exactly is the very best number of claims you should share with a potential prospect to maximize the impact of your story?

Kurt Carlson from Georgetown University and Suzanne Shu from UCLA took a close look at this question. Their conclusion was that if customers know the message is coming from a source with a persuasive motive, then the optimal number of positive claims guessed it, three.

In fact, Carlson and Shu say that once you share a fourth claim (or more), you cross a tipping point where you begin undermining your case. They state that “once the sufficiency of three claims is breached, the full set of claims is seen with skepticism, regardless of how many claims are presented.”

Size (of the argument) does matter

Persuasion expert and Stanford University Business School professor, Zakary Tormala has proven that the easier you make it for people to process your story, the more likely they will be to agree with you, and the more confidence they will have in their decision.

For example, in experiments where “deciders” were broken into two groups and one was asked to provide two arguments in support of a controversial position and the other group was asked to come up with 10 positive arguments, the people who only had to produce two reasons ended up with more favorable attitudes than those who had to generate 10.

Tormala explains that the easier it is to generate and remember the information in favor of something, the more supportive information people assume there must be.  Conversely, having difficulty remembering all arguments for something induces the perception that there is little support available.

Related research also indicates that if you force people to process a large and difficult list of supporting reasons for a decision, they actually begin to generate a number of “unrequested thoughts” that support the other side of the argument.

Is this going to be too complex?

Will I really use all of these things?

Am I paying for things I really don’t need?

Present your “value wedge”

Obviously, marketing and salespeople must make it simpler and easier for prospects to process your position to improve the odds they will choose you. More specifically, however, it appears you can maximize the power of your sales message by sharing no more than two or three claims to support your story.

There is a simple tool and test you can use to break the curse of knowledge and keep your company from burying your best story in too many “me too” arguments. It’s called the Value Wedge.

Most people generate messages that unwittingly put them in the center of this Venn diagram. For instance, they say a lot of things about themselves that sound a lot like everyone else. Also, it seems disconnected from what prospects really need to do, or, at best, they are linking their offering to the same known customer needs everyone is talking about.

The best opportunity for differentiation, as well as keeping your story focused on the best two or three arguments, is to identify your “Value Wedge” where your message meets three important criteria:

1.  Are you identifying an unconsidered, undervalued or unmet need that is real to the prospect and puts their status quo in jeopardy? You must show prospects an inconsistency in their current model that gets them to care about doing something different than they are doing today.

2.  Can you attach that “new need” to a unique or advantaged strength that isn’t obviously available or typically specified by every competitor? You need to tell a clear story that shows the contrast between the gaps and deficiencies in the way your prospect is doing things today, and how those challenges will be solved with your new approach. 

3.  Can you defend that story as different from your competitors, as well as defend the positive business impact you are claiming? You will need to arm yourself with proof points of times when comparable companies have identified the stated challenges and agreed to make the changes you recommend, and come out the other side with documented success.

If you can answer these questions, find your Value Wedge and keep the positive arguments for your solution or service to no more than three claims, you, too, will be as wise as Mr. Owl.  


The “value wedge” is all about identifying an unmet need while differentiating your company from competitors.

Tim Riesterer is Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer at Corporate Visions, Inc.