The rule of 3 rules the world

Diana Burns | May 19, 2017

It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the bees are buzzing.

See what I did there? No? Aha! I used the rule of three. It’s a rule that is embedded deep in your subconscious, even if you don’t realise it. And it has a big impact on how well your writing and public speaking connects with people.

Three is the magic number

Three seems to be a magic number in communication. It’s everywhere. Take Goldilocks and the three bears. Those bowls of porridge Goldilocks tasted were too hot, too cold, or just right. The beds Goldilocks tried were too hard, too soft, and just right.

At a more adult level, we see the number three reflected in the three-act structure of plays, films, TV series, speeches, and more. It’s even at the heart of Christian religion: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Somehow, the rule of three is a form we seem to intrinsically understand and find satisfying. The simplest way to describe it is that everything has a beginning , a middle, and an end. But like so much in life and in writing, behind that apparent simplicity lies some cunning complexity and an understanding of the human psyche.

Three repetitions is just right

Three is the number of repetitions that works best when you want to make a point strongly. If you analyse some of the great speeches made by famous orators and politicians, you’ll find the rule of three at work everywhere.

Steve Jobs’  Commencement Address to Stanford graduates in 2005 is one of the most viewed speeches on the internet. He started it by saying that he wanted to tell them three stories, and that’s what he did. Each story was simple, powerful, and full of emotion.

Michelle Obama’s speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention was widely lauded as brilliant. If you go through the transcript, it’s bursting with great examples of the rule of three.

Here’s one:

You need to be steady, and measured, and well informed.

Image, Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Conference 2016.

Michelle Obama at the Democratic National Conference 2016. Image by Ali Shaker/VOA / Public Domain

Here’s another:

I want a leader who is worthy of that truth, a leader who is worthy of my girls’ promise and all our kids’ promise, a leader who will be guided every day by the love and hope and impossibly big dreams we all have for our children.

Now that’s a beauty. It has the rule of three twice in one sentence.

I could go on. You’ll find the rule of three everywhere once you start looking. Churchill, of course, was partial to it: ‘Never, never, never give up.’ So was Shakespeare, and most classical writers.

Use the rule of three in persuasive writing

Another useful way to think of the rule of three is in persuasive writing. If you’re trying to persuade someone to give you permission, money or resources, they always have to know what’s in it for them. One of the best and simplest ways to reflect that in your proposal or business case is to make sure that you talk about them, or ‘you’, about three times as often as you talk about yourself (‘us’, or your company’s name). Including lots of ‘you’ helps your reader to feel that you’ve placed them first, and meeting their needs is your highest priority. And that’s a good step towards the ‘yes’ you want.

Understanding and using the rule of three can be a secret weapon in your success.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.