December 15, 2022
4 min read
“I came; I saw; I conquered.” “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” “Lock, stock, and barrel.”
What do these lines have in common? You’ve heard them, you remember them, and they each have three parts. You’re aware of these lines and recall them, in part, because of their structure. This is known as the rule of three, and you can use this technique to speak with more confidence, clarity, and impact. (See what I did there?)
Read more to understand the rule of three and find out why it works — particularly if you want to make your audience laugh. You’ll also get a chance to use Yoodli’s free AI speech coach to practice using the rule of three in speeches.
The rule of three is simply the idea that delivering words or concepts in a batch of three makes a particular impact. The effect might be profound (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) or humorous (“He came; he saw; he capitulated”).
Leveraging the rule of three in speech helps communicate roundness, wholeness, completeness — in a lock-stock-and-barrel, hook-line-and-sinker sort of way. There’s something about “threeness” that’s particularly satisfying. Two seems incomplete; four starts to get complicated. Three feels “just right.”
Speaking of Goldilocks, remember the three bears? How about Wynken, Blynken, and Nod? We also remember the three little pigs and the three wise men (even though the Bible doesn’t tell us how many there were, the tradition interestingly established them as three). France will always have the three musketeers and “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” In the Bible, God is described as three-in-one and the number three often symbolizes completeness (there’s that concept again or, perhaps, for the first time).
Advertising and public service slogans often leverage the rule of three because they know it works. “Snap, Crackle, and Pop.” “Stop, drop, and roll.” These slogans live on many years after their introduction.
When the rule of three is used for comedic effect, it’s also known as the comic triple. Often, the joke teller uses two similar, expected elements followed by one dissimilar, unexpected element. It’s a surprise that knocks people out of a mental groove.
Watch as Yoodli co-founder Varun Puri, a self-described non-funny person, uses the rule of three to tell a joke. If you don’t laugh, Varun promises to apologize, try harder, and start wearing Groucho glasses.
Okay, okay — If Varun and I haven’t made you laugh yet, here’s an example of the comedic triple from professional comedian Harland Williams: “When you die there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. When my father dies, he’ll see the light, make his way toward it, and then ﬂip it off to save electricity.”
Check out more examples and tips for using the rule of three for comedic effect.
When you use the rule of three in your communication, it’s easier for you to remember what you want to say (it boosts your confidence) — and it’s easier for your audience to remember what you said (it boosts your impact).
Using the rule of three in speeches also can help your audience follow along if your three points are detailed. You might include prompts such as “first,” “second,” and “third,” and count with your fingers to add a visual element.
Let’s look at an example, followed by some practice exercises you can use to train yourself to use the rule of three in communication, becoming so natural at it that you can use the technique even in impromptu speaking.
Angel, a small business owner, is asked to deliver the commencement address at the community college. He brainstorms with his wife Rubi, asking her to think about what pieces of advice she wished she had when she left school. Together, they come up with 10 things.
Rubi tells Angel that he’d better not give the graduates a list of 10 pieces of advice because they’d roll their eyes, nod off, and remember about two of them. Angel studies the list of 10 and realizes that each one relates to one of three themes.
Organizing his advice into three buckets makes it more memorable for him and his audience. Thirty years from now, those students will be far more likely to remember that work matters, people matter, and the future matters.
Now that you have a good handle on how you can use the rule of three in speeches to punch them up and make a lasting impact, give it a go with some exercises. Use the rule of three in your responses.
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