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The Rule of Three in Speech Writing

Most of you will be familiar with the expression “Three is a Magic Number”. This expression proves very true when it comes to speeches and presentations. In this post you will learn more about the usefulness of the rule of three in speechwriting.

When can you use it? Why is it so effective?

What is the Rule Of Three?

First let me introduce to you the rule of three – a powerful technique that you can easily learn, practise, and apply to every area of public speaking. Simply put, the rule of three is a very general principle that states that ideas presented in threes are inherently more interesting, more enjoyable, and more memorable for your audience.

Rule of Three

In ancient times, the Roman’s understood the rule of three and referred to it with the Latin maxim “omne trium perfectum” which means “everything that comes in threes is perfect”. Nowadays we have English sayings such as “third time lucky” and “third time’s a charm”, which seem to reflect the same idea.

In fact you will see the rule of three applied in every single area of your life. Information presented in groups of three sticks in our heads better than other clusters of items. For example:

  • Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  • The three wise men
  • The good, the bad and the ugly
  • The three little pigs
  • Goldilocks and the three bears
  • Blood, sweat and tears
  • Location, location, location
  • Stop, look and listen
  • Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

Rule of Three

When is the Rule of Three Used in Speechwriting?

1) To Divide Up a Speech

It’s no coincidence that the best speeches have a clear beginning, middle and end.

Dale Carnegie once said,

Tell them what you going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them

As discussed in How To Write A Speech, this approach is always very effective. To dive a little deeper, the body of your speech can be broken down into a further three sections i.e. the three main points you’d like to discuss.

Rule of Three

Fewer than three points will not give you quite the same amount of punch in your speech, while more than three risks putting your audience to sleep. By applying the rule of three you can get it just right.

2) To Emphasise Phrases, Sentences & Words

Put simply, using the rule of three to repeat phrases, sentences and words helps you to emphasise key messages in your speech. Why is this? The most plausible explanation is that since people are generally good at pattern recognition and three is the smallest number of points required to create a pattern, information presented in threes forms a pattern which can be more easily remembered. As a result, information presented in a group of three is more memorable than information presented in groups of say, 2 or 5.

The Rule of Three in Action

Some very famous speeches have used the rule of three with great effect:

Barack Obama’s Inaugural Speech

Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered

Rule of Three

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address

We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground Government of the people, by the people, for the people

Steve Job’s Stanford Commencement Speech

It means to try to tell your kids everything you thought you’d have the next 10 years to tell them in just a few months. It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. It means to say your goodbyes

Rule of Three

Furthermore, Steve Jobs applied the rule of three in nearly every presentation and product launch he made during his time at Apple.

  • In 2007 he introduced the first iPhone as the “third” of Apple’s revolutionary product categories.
  • In 2010 Jobs first introduced iPad with a slide showing the tablet as a “third device” between a smartphone and a laptop. The iPad, he told the audience, would come in “three models”: 16, 32, and 64 GB.
  • In 2011 he introduced the iPad 2 as “thinner, lighter, and faster” than the original.

In Summary

The rule of three allows you to express concepts more completely and increases the memorability of your speech. So start using it today!