The Powerful, Inspirational, Magical Rule of 3

“We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This phrase—“life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—remains timeless in large part because it’s so simple. It’s as poetic as it is impactful. It incorporates a 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.

The Rule of Three is everywhere – from the delivery of comedic sketches and stage productions to the layout of classical movements and literature. This pattern has successfully been applied to the marketing and advertising industry as well – pay attention and you’ll see plenty of your favorite brands incorporating this approach.

There’s a reason for that, a marketing pioneer in the 1950’s named E. St. Elmo-Lewis articulated three key copywriting principles, which he felt were crucial for effective advertising:
1. The mission of an advertisement is to attract a reader so he will look at it and read it.
2. Then to interest him so that he will continue to read it.
3. Then to convince him, so when he has read it, he will believe it.

Attract, interest, and convince – sounds like a pretty good formula for your next presentation…

So how does this apply to you? Well, it’s no surprise that for speakers, three is—and always has been—the perfect number. List two things— black and white, up and down, right and wrong—and audiences tend to contrast the two. Rattle off a string of four ideas and people often forget half of what was said. There’s a certain rhythm, however, to linking together three ideas that resonate with listeners and readers.

I always refer my clients to a brilliant commencement speech given at Barnard College by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She began her speech with the following:

  • You may not remember one word I say.
  • You many 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 3 here. By saying YOU to open each phrase, she spoke directly to each member of the audience. Sandberg’s speech, which can be found on Barnard’s web site, offers an excellent blueprint for how to successfully use the Rule of 3 in different ways throughout a speech while hitting most of the benchmarks that I look for in grading one.

Next time you sit down to write a speech, keep the idea of the “Rule of 3” central in your mind. Not only is it an excellent means of distilling down lots of information into digestible chunks, it will make your message more memorable as well. Whether it’s the past, present, or future, make your speeches effective, powerful, and memorable. Keep in mind, one of the paths to being a great public speaker is to practice, practice, practice.

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