Article Category: Speechwriting

How to Use the Rule of Three in Your Speeches


Rule of Three Speech WritingThe rule of three is powerful speechwriting technique that you should learn, practice, and master.

Using the Rule of Three allows you to express concepts more completely, emphasize your points, and increase the memorability of your message.

That’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

What is the rule of three? What are some famous examples? How do you use it in speeches? Read on!

Rhetorical Devices Article Series

Western Culture and the Rule of Three

Trios, triplets, and triads abound in Western culture in many disciplines. Just a small sampling of memorable cultural triads include:

  • Christianity
    • Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
    • Heaven, hell, and purgatory (Catholicism, primarily)
    • Three Wise Men with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh
  • Movies & Books
    • The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
    • Sex, Lies, and Videotape
    • Superman’s “Truth, Justice, and the American Way
    • Nursery rhymes such as the Three Little Pigs or Goldilocks and the Three Bears
    • In a more general sense, there is the allure of trilogies as with Indiana Jones, The Godfather, The Matrix, Star Wars, and many others.
  • Politics
    • U.S. Branches of Government: Executive, Judicial, and Legislative
    • U.S. Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”
    • French motto: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité
    • Abundance of tri-colored flags
  • Civic, Organizational, and Societal Mottos
    • Fire safety motto: Stop, Drop, and Roll
    • Olympic motto: Citius, Altius, Fortius or Faster, Higher, Stronger
    • Real estate: Location, Location, Location

Historic Rule of Three Speech Examples

Speechwriting is, of course, part of our culture. Examples of the Rule of Three can be found in some of the most famous speeches ever delivered:

  • Julius Caesar
    • “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered)
  • Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
    • Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears.
  • 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
  • General MacArthur, West Point Address, 1962
    • Duty, Honor, Country” [repeated several times in the speech]
  • Barack Obama, Inaugural Speech
    • we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America

What’s Magical About the Rule of Three?

It is reasonable to ask what’s so special about three? Why is it so popular in our culture? Aren’t there just as many examples of two- or four-element famous speech lines?

For a famous duo, there is Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death.

For a classic quartet, it is tough to beat Winston Churchill’s “I would say to the House as I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.

Despite examples like these, there is something magical about the Rule of Three in the way that it allows a speaker to express a concept, emphasize it, and make it memorable.

In his book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark provides insights to the magic of the number three:

The mojo of three offers a greater sense of completeness than four or more.

-- Roy Peter Clark

… the “encompassing” magic of number three … in our language or culture, three provides a sense of the whole …

… in the anti-math of writing, the number three is greater than four. The mojo of three offers a greater sense of completeness than four or more. …

Use one for power. Use two for comparison, contrast. Use three for completeness, wholeness, roundness. Use four or more to list, inventory, compile, and expand.

Rhetorical Devices — Rule of Three

The rule of three describes triads of all types — any collection of three related elements. Two more specific triad variants are hendiatris and tricolon.

Hendiatris

A hendiatris is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a central idea.

Examples of hendiatris include:

  • Veni, vidi, vici.” [Julius Caesar]
  • Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité [French motto]
  • Citius, Altius, Fortius” [Olympic motto]
  • Wine, women, and song” [Anonymous]

Tricolon

A tricolon is a series of three parallel elements (words or phrases). In a strict tricolon, the elements have the same length but this condition is often put aside.

Examples of tricola include:

  • “Veni, vidi, vici.” [Julius Caesar]
  • Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” [Advice for speakers from Franklin D. Roosevelt]
  • Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation – not because of [1] the height of our skyscrapers, or [2] the power of our military, or [3] the size of our economy.” [Barack Obama, Keynote speech to Democratic National Convention, July 2004]

Contemporary Speech Examples using the Rule of Three

Using the Rule of Three allows you to express concepts more completely, emphasize your points, and increase the memorability of your message.

Nearly every speech critiqued on Six Minutes has wielded the magic of the Rule of Three, as shown by numerous examples below.

  • Click through the links to read the detailed analysis.
  • Watch the speech being delivered, and note the delivery of these key triads.
  • Note how memorable these passages are within the whole speech.

Examples like these cross a wide array of speech types and settings. You can study these examples, and then apply the lessons to your own speechwriting to see how you can incorporate the Rule of Three.

Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered.

[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.

You’re the ones [1] who feed us, [2] who wipe our tears, [3] who hold our hands or hug us when we need it.

A sandal of hope when you reach out.
A sandal of joy when you listen to your heart.
A sandal of courage when you dare to care.

Tobacco. [long pause]
Alcohol. [long pause]
Guns. [long pause]
Criminal items seized in a search [slight pause] of a 6th grade locker in a bad school district.

Rhetorical Devices Article Series

Your careers will be determined largely by how well you speak, by how well you write, and by the quality of your ideas… in that order.

… we cannot predict when the wind blows. We cannot predict how strong it will be. We certainly cannot predict its direction.

Other Magical Ways to Harness the Power of Three in Speechwriting

The next Six Minutes articles in this series show you how to apply the Rule of Three to speech outlines, and how to create humor with the Rule of Three to get your audience laughing.

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future articles.

Comments icon21 Comments

  1. Hi Andrew

    You’ve put together a fantastic resource here. Another dimension of the Rule of Three is structure. The best stories, screenplays and folktales often have three parts to them. Olivia

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Hi Olivia:
      Structure, indeed! That is the focus of the next article in this series… coming soon.

  2. You missed one of the most important groups of 3 ever … The 3 Stooges !

    Great article. Well researched (except for missing the Stooges) and I really enjoyed it.

    Thanks,

    D. Mark “Dave” Wheeler

    1. Andre Pilon says:

      And the greatest.. The THREE… Musketeers.

      OK they end up four.. so??

      This proves that the rule of three works.. It attracts … (you name it) even more.

  3. Thanks to the late Gail Jefferson, we’ve known for years that most lists people use in everyday conversation have three items in them. But I don’t believe there’s anything magical about it, for reasons given at:
    http://maxatkinson.blogspot.com/2008/11/why-so-many-lists-of-three-mystery.html.

    I am, however, in no doubt about its rhetorical effect, which is why it’s dealt with in more detail in my book ‘Lend Me Your Ears’ (Chapter 6).

  4. Simon says:

    Thought you might appreciate this example from a training course we ran recently… we were working on exercises along these lines when one group came up with this fantastic summary of a good meal.
    1/ Shopping
    2/ Chopping
    3/ Troughing

    Pure genius! :)

    S

  5. carol says:

    I would also like to think that the rule of three also corresponds to the average attention span of an adult. when making a presentation, two seems to short while four is too much. three seems to be the perfect number to make a point. thanks. great post. :)

  6. Allyncia says:

    I love this article. I was thinking about this very concept yesterday. When I prepare for a seminar, I know that I have to take my research, audience, and purpose to create “The Three.” Five is fine, but people forget. Three can cover just enough bases.

  7. Excellent article. To the point. Extremely useful.
    Thanks.

  8. I have been groping in the dark for an area to talk on, at my 2nd Toastmaster speech. I loved “The Rule of Three” article! I’m a Malaysian born Indian and therefore by no stretch of the imagination, of western breeding. However, I loved your explanations elaborations on the rule of three. I also identify with the completeness conferred by “threes”; Just as the writer mentioned the holy trinity as an example, the hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva come to mind as an examples in Indian/ Southeast Asian culture. Classical Indian Music as well as languages such as Tamil and Sanskrit have numerous examples of the rule of three. You’ve inspired me to use these in some way for my 2nd Toastmaster speech! Thanks for the idea!

  9. I found the blog.
    I read it.
    I’ll do it!

    Thanks!

  10. Many thanks for this invaluable resource. I will point my friends, colleagues and students towards it. Rgds Vince

    PS – I remember George Bush saying about 5 years ago, that ‘What Iraq needs now is peace, justice and security.’ The three stuck in my mind…

  11. Peter says:

    Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. ;-)

    Great article.

  12. Jayadev says:

    Excellent article on Speech- craft!!
    Here are two more triads:
    - Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic (sometimses the 3 ‘R’s)
    - Wine, Woman & Wealth (the 3 inducements)

  13. Wyi says:

    My favorite example of the Rule of Three–and the one taught to my now adult children–”THREE IS A MAGIC NUMBER” from the Schoolhouse Rock education series! My grandbabies are now learning the tune(s)

  14. Hey Andrew!

    Great Article!

    I really enjoyed the variety of sources you pulled from.

    I find it amazing how much I actually think, speak, and write in “threes” without effort.

    Whether the phenomenon of threes is something innate or a product of conditioning (most likely a bit of both), it is nevertheless powerful.

    It just feels right. Syllogisms, Jokes, and Stories naturally take on the pattern

    Good Job! Love the blog!

  15. Pete says:

    The rule of three is right under our noses, yet I never thought anything of it!
    An aha! moment you could say.

  16. Ben Fusaro says:

    Direct,
    No-fluff,
    Excellent!

    1. Andrew Dlugan says:

      Thanks, Ben.

  17. Marlene McIntosh says:

    Very informative resource. Thanks Andrew.

  18. Une fօis de plus un poste réellement plaisant

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@FunnyBizzSF @FunnyBizzSF — Apr 4th, 2014

How to Use the Rule of Three in Your Speeches:
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“Your careers will be determined largely by how well you speak, by how well you write, and by the quality of your id… http://t.co/49d2TvqVYB

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What’s Magical About the Rule of Three in Speaking? via @6minutes http://t.co/ZNqaNTdbaO

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How to Use the Rule of Three in Your Speeches http://t.co/NPyXS7eOCU via @6minutes

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The Rule of 3 is at the heart of all things funny. Here are some tips on how to use it in your presentations: http://t.co/fCRI0pJrsk

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Words threes | Ponderandpray — Jun 26th, 2012

 

Power of 3 — Sep 30th, 2012