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The Rule of Threes

by Matthew Arnold Stern

", hope, and charity..."

", liberty, and the pursuit of happiness..."

"...of the people, by the people, for the people..."

Why do so many speakers say things in threes? There are several reasons for this. Well, three to be exact:

  • Threes are how we normally organize information.
  • Three force us to focus on important details.
  • Threes amplify the importance of a concept.

The main reason for using the rule of threes is that it makes a speech easier for us to remember and deliver. And when a speech is easy for us to remember, it is easy for the audience to follow and retain.

Threes are how we normally organize information

We are used to events having three parts, a beginning, middle, and end.

In science, we create a hypothesis, research, and present our results.

In fiction, we start with an inciting incident, create rising action, and end with a climax. Look at the story of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." (See?) The inciting incident is when Goldilocks goes to the bears' house. The rising action is when she tries out the porridge, chairs, and bed. (Notice that there are three events.) The climax is when the bears find her and chase her out of the house.

In speeches, we also use three parts: we say what we're going to say, say it, then say what we just said.

By using threes, we use a pattern to which listeners are accustomed. We also use a logic that is easy for us to follow and remember.

Threes force us to focus on important details

When putting together a speech, we are confronted with a choice of dozen of ideas and hundreds of supporting facts. Which ones do we use? All of them?

The problem with including as many ideas as possible is that we wind up bombarding the listener of a laundry list of facts. The listener can't absorb the information, and we can't present each concept in sufficient detail to support our subject.

By limiting ourselves to three ideas to present in our speech, along with three supporting facts for each idea we present, we can focus on the key points we want to make and develop them in more detail.

Think of it as the "In-N-Out Burger" approach to public speaking. In-N-Out Burger is