Rule of Three in Speech Writing

According to a Business Insider article written by Ira Kalb of USC’s School of Business:

“Our brains evolved in a way to protect us from harm. As part of our protection system, we like to have choices. We know that if we don’t have choice in a dangerous situation, we may not find a way out of it. On the other hand, our brains also know that if we have too many choices, we often get confused.”

It is well established that us humans can only hold a small amount of information in short term, or ‘active,’ memory. In fact, modern day scientists have put the number of items we can easily recall in short-term memory close to just three or four “chunks”.

Despite the research, in the world of presentations it is still all too common to observe an audience being attacked by a bout of information overload. So, if your listener will only remember small amounts of information from your presentation, why overwhelm them with twenty messages?

Rule of Three

The Rule of Three is 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. Information presented in a group of three sticks in our head better than other groups.

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 sayings such as “third time lucky” and “third time’s a charm”, which reflect the same idea. In fact you will see the Rule of Three applied in every single area of your life. For example: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Three Wise Men, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Let’s examine some opportunities to use the Rule of Three in our speeches and presentations.

1) To Divide Up a Speech

It is no coincidence that the best speeches have a beginning, middle and end. The outline of an effective speech has three sections: an introduction, body and conclusion. The repetition is powerful because it can make a message more persuasive, more memorable, and more entertaining.

Dale Carnegie

Dale Carnegie once said,

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

Furthermore, the body of your speech can be broken down into three smaller sections i.e. three ideas you’d like to present. Fewer than three may not give you quite the right amount of punch in your speech, while more than three messages risks putting your audience to sleep. Applying the Rule of Three you can get it just right.

2) To Emphasise Phrases, Sentences & Words

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.

Since 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 that presented in groups of say, two or five.

Examples of the Rule of Three

Some very famous speeches have applied the Rule of Three, and to great effect.

Rule of Three

Barack Obama’s Inaugural Speech

Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered.

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.

Steve Jobs also applied the Rule of Three in almost every 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 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.

Three is a Magic Number

The Rule of Three allows you to express concepts more completely and increases the memorability of your speech. Try to apply it in your next speech. Divide a presentation into three parts. Introduce a product with three benefits. The Rule of Three — it worked for Obama, it worked for Lincoln, it worked for Jobs, and it will work for you.