Article Category: Speechwriting

How to Add Power or Humor with the Rule of Three


Rule of Three Speech WritingIn the first two articles of this series, we learned how using the rule of three can improve your speeches by [1] writing triads of words, phrases, and sentences and [2] by applying three-part speech outlines.

In this article, you will learn how adding an unexpected twist to the third element can add power or humor to your speech.

Rule of Three + Unexpected Twist = Speech Gold

As we’ve learned in the earlier articles, there’s something magical about words, phrases, or sentences that come in sets of three. Three-element sets are found in many cultural areas, including religion.

In Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma, author Nick Morgan searches for an explanation:

Why do we respond so powerfully to them? It’s a mystery — something psychological. Some say it has to do with religious symbolism, since there are groups of three in most major religions, but that may be putting the cart before the horse: the religions may have settled on groups of threes for the same psychological reasons that everyone else finds them powerful. Whatever the reason, we find something complete and satisfying in a group of three, like a three-legged stool that can stand firmly on uneven ground […]

We find something complete and satisfying in a group of three, like a three-legged stool that can stand firmly on uneven ground

-- Nick Morgan

Triads are a classical speechwriting technique, but you can squeeze even more power out of them by carefully choosing your order and adding a twist to the third element.

In Lend Me Your Ears: All you Need to Know about Making Speeches and Presentations, Professor Max Atkinson suggests one way to add a twist:

If your third point is the most important of the three, making it longer is a simple way of implicitly highlighting its greater significance compared with the first two.

The third element in a list of three is often followed by a pause when speaking, so it will linger longest in your audience’s memory. This creates a natural emphasis on this element, even if the three elements are perfectly parallel.

You can take advantage of this natural emphasis by deviating from true parallelism. You could make the third element longer, or shorter, or give it a twist in meaning. All of these will cause your audience to think deeper.

In Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark advises writers to “establish a pattern, then give it a twist”. He notes that three parallel elements create a rhythm of “boom boom boom”, but adding a twist to the third element creates the more memorable “boom boom bang“.

Consider the “bang” created in these examples where the third element deviates from the pattern in length and/or meaning:

  • Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness [U.S. Declaration of Independence]
  • Truth, Justice, and the American Way [Superman]
  • Sex, Lies, and Videotape [movie title]
  • “we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America” [Barack Obama’s Inauguration Speech]
  • God, grant me
    the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
    the courage to change the things I can; and
    the wisdom to know the difference.
  • “[1] 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. [2] It means to make sure everything is buttoned up so that it will be as easy as possible for your family. [3] It means to say your goodbyes.” [Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement]

Humor and the Rule of Three

Adding a twist to the third element is also the key to creating humor in your speeches.

Consider one popular example that is attributed to both Benjamin Disraeli and Mark Twain:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Why does this work? Let’s break it down. The first two elements (“lies” and “damned lies”) set a pattern in the mind of the audience. They expect a third element such as “white lies”, “torturous lies”, ‘or even “deadly lies”. Humor results from the mismatch between expectation and reality.

I like this technique because it is like a magician who is able to distract us with one hand while deftly completing the “trick” with the other. In speeches, the pattern distracts, and thus magnifies the surprise.

Humor results from the mismatch between expectation and reality.

Thus, the recipe for a humorous triad in your next speech is simple.

  • Set a pattern with the first two elements to create audience expectations. These elements could be words, phrases, or sentences.
  • Break the pattern with the third element. Maximize your audience response by making the third element as absurd as you can while ensuring there is still a connection.

In my “Face the Wind” speech (the focus of a 10-article series on Speech Preparation), I opened with a humorous triad.

Eighteen months ago, my wife and I traded our condo keys for house keys. [1] Our floor space doubled. [2] Our mortgage tripled. [3] Our income didn’t change.

This triad works because the pattern begins with doubled and tripled. The audience expected quadrupled or some other multiplier in the third element.

To perfect the rule of three  humor technique, study stand-up comedians. Watch for it the next time you are watching the monologue on the late-night talk shows. The first sentence introduces a new topic. The second sentence establishes the pattern. The third sentence breaks the pattern with a punch line.

Some time ago, I delivered a humorous (and rhyming) speech about the (fictitious) origins of Toastmasters. In the couplet below, I suggested (with tongue firmly in cheek) possible motivations for young men to improve their speaking skills:

Strong speaking will earn you money, diamonds and pearls,
Dignity, respect, and — most importantly — girls!

The couplet above includes two different triads:

  1. The first triad — money, diamonds and pearls — includes three common material benefits. It is not very memorable because all three elements form a consistent pattern.
  2. The second triad, on the other hand, begins with two desirable character traits — dignity and respect — and concludes with an unexpected twist. This line provokes laughter from audience members. They expect the pattern to continue with another noble quality (e.g. wisdom, charisma, confidence); while the third element may be human, it’s not exactly noble.

Remember, the last element of your triad is the key which will determine whether you are humorous, memorable, or forgettable.

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