Episode 83: August 11, 2011
by Lisa B. Marshall
What is the rule of three? What are some examples? How can YOU use it to be more effective? That's coming up in today's article.
Did you notice? I cleverly used the rule of three to introduce the rule of three. Why? Because it's simple, it's powerful, and it works. I've briefly mentioned the rule of three in other articles but it's such an important communication rhetorical tool that I wanted to spend more time discussing it.
What is The Rule of Three?
The rule of three is a very general rule in speaking, in writing, and in music, that states that concepts or ideas presented in threes are inherently more interesting, more enjoyable, and more memorable.
It's no accident that the number three is pervasive in well-known stories: the three little pigs, the three musketeers, or the three wise men.
It's no accident that you are likely familiar with these three part quotes: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; “sex, drugs, & rock n' roll”; “truth, justice, and the American way” (of course, these are the causes for which Superman fights).
It's no accident that good stories have a beginning, middle, and end and that video games, films, and literature are often written as three connected works in the form of a trilogy.
My improv coach, Kristin Schier, explained the rule of three this way. She said, "The first time you say something, it's an incident, the second time you say something, it's a co-incidence, but the third time you say something, it becomes a pattern". In fact, she’s right, three is the smallest number of elements you need to create a pattern (or break a pattern).
So today, I'll cover three quick and dirty tips (come on did you really expect any other number?) to help you use the rule of three.
Tip #1: Slice the Speech Into Groups of Three
Perhaps you’ve heard the old advice for structuring a speech. Dale Carnegie said, "Tell them what you going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them". And for beginning speakers that advice is good because it addresses two common rookie mistakes. It reminds beginners that they need to preview and summarize and not just start or end in the middle.
If you've got more than three ideas that you’d like to present, then you’ll need to group your ideas into three bigger categories.
However, I think an interesting and memorable structure is a bit more complicated. For example, the beginning has additional elements besides just previewing the speech; and the end has more elements that just telling them what you just told them, or summarizing. In fact, I've discussed how to effectively begin and how to end a speech in other articles (so I'm not going to cover that here).
I’ve even previously discussed one way to effectively organize the middle of a speech with the rule of threes. In the two-part article on how to write a speech I suggested using a three-story structure. To do that you create the middle by first choosing three adjectives related to your story and then telling stories that are examples of those adjectives. In the three stories structure, the middle of the speech explicitly and simply states the three main points, which are then supported via stories.
Tip #2 Use a Three Part Organization Structure
However, that's not the only three-part structure for the middle that works. A more generalized form of this structure is to organize the middle by choosing three main ideas (not just adjectives). In this general structure each of the three main ideas are then supported via a variety of evidence (which could include stories, but also might be examples, statistics, analogies, comparisons, questions, and quotations). The hard parts are choosing which three (and only three points) will make the biggest impact and then choosing the best supporting mix of evidence.
If you've got more than 30 minutes and you've got more than three ideas that you’d like to present, then you’ll need to group your ideas into three bigger categories. I like to imagine a speech like a pie. I first slice the pie into three pieces; a piece for the beginning, a piece for the middle, and a piece for the end. The longer the talk the bigger the middle piece will be. Then I divide the middle piece into three smaller pieces, and I keep dividing up the pieces into threes until the points are bite sized.
Tip #3 Use the Rule of Three for Phrases, Sentences, and Words
Finally, you’ll want to think about applying the rule of threes to specific phrases, sentences, and words. When I was initially describing the rule of three did you notice that I repeated the phrase “it’s no accident” three times? “It's no accident that the number three is pervasive in well-known stories…It's no accident that you are likely familiar with these three part quotes…It's no accident that we tell stories with…”
Why did I do that? We’ll, what can I say, it was no accident! But seriously, the repetition helped to emphasize the point I was making—that purposefully presenting ideas in threes helps makes them more memorable. It also served the purpose of breaking up a larger list of examples. I thought it was important to provide more than just three examples of the rule of three, so I decided to give you three groups of three.
When choosing the specific words that are part of your grouping of three it’s important to select words that are parallel in structure. It’s also helpful if they follow a similar cadence, but it’s not required.
One Final Point About the Rule of Three
One final point I’d like to make: you don’t always have to follow the rule of three. Rules are meant to be broken. But before you break the rules, it’s good to understand them better. So your homework for this article is to think about a recent speech you delivered. How could you have used the rule of threes to create a more powerful presentation? What organizing structures might have been more effective. What word choices might have been better? How would you revise your talk to take advantage of the rule of three?
This is, Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker. Passionate about communication, your success is my business.
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