The Rule Of Three – A Simple Way To Add Impact To Your Speeches

“There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies and statistics.” (attributed to Benjamin Disraeli)

“Education, Education, Education.” (Tony Blair)

“thinner, lighter, faster” (Steve Jobs, referring to the iPad2).

What do these statements have in common? They use the rule of three.

The rule of three is a simple rhetorical device which can add great impact to a key point.

There is something very satisfying about having three items in a sequence. Just having two doesn’t work, there aren’t enough items to build up a rhythm, and four seems too many.

Three seems to be the perfect number. Often, the first two in the list create an expectation or establish a pattern which you can then use to give the third maximum impact.

“Dogs look up to us, cats look down on us, pigs treat us as equals.” (Winston Churchill)

Notice how the first two points in this example also use repetition and contrast to set a pattern, leading you to wonder what is coming next. The third point introduces humour by being unexpected.

This is a common technique used by comedians. They use the first two points to build an expectation, then make the third point something different, exaggerated or outrageous.

“They were tough times when I was growing up but we had a lot of things you don’t get now – a sense of innocence, a sense of community, rickets.” (me)

If you have three items to put in a list, think carefully about which one you put at the end. Since the sequence builds up to give the final item most impact, that should be your key point.

Also, think about the length of your points. Pay attention to the rhythm of the sentence. Usually, the longest item should be at the end.

“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (American Declaration of Independence)

Try saying this as, “Life, the pursuit of happiness and liberty.” It just doesn’t work, does it?

You may notice that my (supposedly) comic example above reversed this and put the shortest item (“rickets”) at the end. This is because the first two items used the same construction, “a sense of”, and the funny point was emphasised by being different – a single word – as well as by being unexpected. So you can play with the “rule” and see what feels right.

, Alan Matthews ,