Carnegie Mellon University

Magic Numbers

By Ed Barr

Use These Magic Numbers When You Present

Numbers have magical properties and can be especially useful in communication. If you’re in the process of creating a PowerPoint presentation, for example, think of using a set of numbers, such as these.

The Magic Number Three

Stop, drop and roll. Location, location, location. Past, present, future. Birth, life, death. Faith, hope and charity.  We remember triads. Do you remember these movie trilogies: Matrix, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars? Are you in sales? If so, ABC: always be closing! Christians have an important trio: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 

In China three (三), pronounced san, is considered lucky due to its similarity in sound to the word that means birth.

The Magical Number Seven

In 1956 George A. Miller of Harvard University's Department of Psychology published a paper called, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information."  Miller argued that the number of objects an average human can hold in short-term memory is 7 ± 2.  That plus or minus means that some people can only remember five concepts at one time and a few can remember nine, but most of us can only hold on to seven.

Can you name the Seven Dwarfs? Most people can. How about the Seven Wonders of the World? We all remember the Seven Digit Phone Numbers of our friends and family. The list of sevens is fascinating:

  1. Your week has seven days.
  2. The planet has seven continents;
  3. It also has seven seas.
  4. The Lotus flower on Buddha’s pedestal has seven petals.
  5. Some people believe that each person has six more look-alikes, a total of seven, anywhere in the world.
  6. The Christian Bible says that it took seven days for God to create the world.
  7. The rainbow has seven colors. Right, Roy G. Biv?

(We’d like to forget the Seven Deadly Sins and replace them with the Seven Cardinal Virtues.)

All numbers have significance in all cultures and we won’t address them here.  Suffice it to say that when you group your information into threes and sevens, your audience will have an easier time remembering your list.  When you present, you want the audience to pay attention to what you say, remember what you said, and act on your suggestions (a threesome). For that reason, follow what the research has shown: we remember the three and seven number combinations.