The Rule of Three

Most speakers know about the importance of using “The Rule (or Law) of Three.” Most of us are not aware where it came from. We use this ancient mathematical law of proportion in ways we don’t even think about. Abraham Lincoln learned it in his one-room schoolhouse. Even Aristotle, in his Art of Rhetoric, referred to “three types of speeches” and “three forms of proof,” although he also divided ideas into two parts and four parts as well. Lewis Carroll, in addition to writing the Alice in Wonderland stories, was a mathematician at Oxford referred to The Rule of Three more than once in his writings. In his “Mad Gardener’s Song” he writes:

He thought he saw a Garden-door
That opened with a key:
He looked again, and found it was
A double Rule of Three:
“And all its mystery,” he said,
“Is clear as day to me.”

Later on in “The Hunting of the Snark,” he says:

I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.

Suffice to say, irrespective of its mathematical overtones, the number three is truly magical. Speech coaches insist that people can most easily remember something if it is said three different times. Shakespeare used it. (“Friends, Romans, Countrymen”) Thomas Jefferson used it. (“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”) U.S. Marine Corp instructors teach that a Marine should limit his or her attention to three tasks or goals. And the Jay Lenos of the comedy world frequently follow this formula. (The first comment names the topic, the second sets a pattern, and the third unexpectedly switches the pattern, which is funny.)

Even Idea-Bank.com* is filled with examples of The Rule of Three expressed in quotations. On the Query page, we typed in: “three things” and were told that the Quotations file would yield 73 different quotations using that phrase.

So where has all this been leading us? Simply that focusing your message on no more than three significant points, and repeating them in different ways throughout your presentation, is certain to give your presentation the maximum impact. Using The Rule of Three is powerful!

In case the above seems overly dogmatic, some authorities suggest that The Rule of Three is more commonly followed in Western culture and that “a rule of four” can be found to be typical in other cultures. Dr. Jerry Tarver, retired professor of speech communications emeritus at the University of Richmond and a noted speechwriting instructor, points out that there are many famous examples of “fours” and “twos” in famous declarations (FDR’s “Four Freedoms” and Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat”). A good example of “twos” is Patrick Henry’s famous “Give me liberty or give me death!”

Emerson’s dictum that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” is probably applicable here but we still think The Rule of Three is a powerful technique in fashioning memorable human communications.

*This newsletter is adapted from a segment in The Idea Bank Newsletter. If you would like a free sample, email francis@idea-bank.com and mention Patricia Fripp’s newsletter SpeakerFrippNews.

 
  1. Perhaps a better example of Carroll to use would be in The Hunting of the Snark: “What I tell you three times is true.” This advice also presages redundancy checking that is so common in modern computing.

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