A “Rule of Three” Case Study: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg

You’ve no doubt heard me address the “Rule of Three” before . . . the classical, rhetorical technique developed centuries ago by the Ancient Greeks, which said that words or phrases delivered in threes are inherently easy to remember. This is in part due to the fact that three is the smallest number that can create rhythm as well as a pattern.

It’s a powerful way to deliver a message both in the series of words or phrases you use and in how you format your speech. On Tuesday, May 17, 2011, at Barnard College, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg opened her commencement speech with the following lead:

You may not remember one word I say. You may not remember who your graduation speaker is (although for the record, Sheryl with an S). You may not even remember that it was raining and we had to move inside. But you will remember what matters, which is how you feel as you sit here, as you walk across the stage, as you start the next phase of your life.

Note Sandberg’s immaculate use of the Rule of Three here. I usually recommend that all of my clients watch—or at least read the transcript of—Sandberg’s speech on Barnard’s website, as it offers a good example of a blueprint to successfully use the Rule of Three in different ways throughout a speech. It relies on a solid structure, relevant statistics, and stories to support her content. She opens and closes it with impact while addressing the main problem within forty-five seconds and using the Rule of Three to introduce her key points and calls to action.

Take a look and pay close attention: You’ll notice just how often she relies on this rule to underscore important moments and keep her talk moving along at a brisk pace. For example, early on she uses the Rule of Three to mark the significance of her audience’s great milestone: “Today is a day of celebration. Today is a day of thanks. Today is a day of reflection.” As a follow-up, she quickly shifts the focus by asking each graduate to reflect on today’s significance. Also, to get the audience thinking about her topic, she asks three questions: “What will you do with this education you worked so hard to achieve? What in the world needs to change? What part do you plan on playing in changing it?” 

Next time you sit down to write a speech, keep Sandberg and her use of the Rule of Three central in your mind. Not only is it an excellent means of distilling down lots of information into digestible chunks, but it will make your message more memorable as well. Whether it’s the past, present, or future, make your speeches effective, powerful, and memorable. Learn more about the Rule of Three as well as other techniques that will dramatically improve your speech delivery by visiting http://www.aclimbtothetop.com.