The Latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” means “everything that comes in threes is perfect”. Today this concept is referred to as the Rule of Three. Great orators, poets, and storytellers recognize the rule of three and use it to enhance the power of their words.
The human brain responds to patterns and three is the smallest number that can be used to form a pattern. This combination of pattern and brevity helps make concepts presented in a pattern of three more interesting, more logical, and more memorable. Add a fourth or fifth item and the brain gets confused and will not retain as much of the information.
When structuring a message or defining key points, use one for power and two for comparison or contrast, but use three to express a concept, emphasize it, and make it memorable.
The Rule of Three Provides Foundation and Structure
The key is to never put more than three pieces of information in front of your audience at any one time. By organizing your message in a simple pattern of three it can be expanded on while keeping the message clear, understandable, and easy to remember.
Authors, presenters, and storytellers often structure their work using triplets or three-part structures. Framing a story in terms of the beginning, middle, and end is an example of the three-part structure in its simplest form. Shakespeare made good use of this concept in his three act plays that employed a pattern or progression in which the set-up is created in Act One, confrontation occurs in Act Two, and resolution occurs in Act Three.
A typical three part outline consists of an Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Within the body, there are three main points or ideas. In this general structure each of the three main ideas are then supported with facts or examples. The challenge is determining the three points (and only three) that will provide the biggest impact. With each point, identify three pieces of supporting evidence which could include examples, statistics, questions, or quotations.
If you have more than three ideas to present, group the ideas into three broader categories. Think of your speech, paper, or presentation as a tree with three main branches representing the three key ideas. Each main branch or idea can then be further divided into smaller subsets of three until the points are covered to whatever degree the topic and forum requires.
Another powerful way to use a three-part structure is to tell an audience what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell them what you said. Framing the message around the past, present, and future is another common three-part structure.
The Rule of Three Applied to Sentences, Phrases, and Words
We all recognize the impact of Thomas Jefferon's call for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. This is an example of the powerful rhetorical device known as a tricolon. Tricolons are a series of three words, phrases or sentences that combine to make a single, powerful impression. While they are typically parallel in structure, length and/or rhythm, tricolons are particularly effective when the third element is longer or more powerful than the preceding two.
Lincoln effectively used this structure throughout his Gettysburg address as he called for, “a government by the people, for the people, and of the people.” Another great example in this same speech is Lincoln’s reminder to the audience that “we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground.”
Tricolons provide rhythm to break up monotony and provide an interesting cadence to what might otherwise be a bland presentation. In addition to providing emphasis, repetition of clauses promotes a heightened mental ability to process the sentence as a whole and make it memorable. That is why “Veni, vidi, vici" (I came; I saw; I conquered) still resonates more than 2,000 years after Julius Caesar wrote that famous line in his letter to the Roman Senate.
The Rule of Three for Better Organized and More Effective Communication
Crisp, clear, and compelling communication generates interest, creates buy-in, and encourages people to act. So why do speakers launch into long-winded rambling monologues? Why do presenters bore audiences with painfully long PowerPoint presentations? Why do people send dense emails that burden the recipient with information overload?
There are three root causes of rambling monologues, tedious presentations, and overly dense messaging:
Lack of preparation or laziness. Crafting high impact communication takes effort. Many people would rather wing it than work at it. Undisciplined communication sends a message that the presenter is lazy and did not care enough about the message or the audience to prepare.
Lack of content knowledge. The inability to synthesize the data to distill and highlight the relevant from the minutia often indicates a thin veneer of expertise and a limited understanding of the topic. Albert Einstein's perspective was, “if you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”
Lack of confidence or lack of conviction. Confident communicators present a simple and straight-forward message. People who lack confidence or conviction tend to overcompensate by churning out more information than needed in the hope that something will stick or some piece of information will resonate.
Rather than projecting a lack of preparation, knowledge, or confidence, use the Rule of Three to become a more disciplined and effective communicator.
The secret is to remember that no matter how many things are included in your speech, how many bullets are on the slide, or how many ideas are included in your email, your audience will only remember three things. Rather than leaving what is remembered to chance, stick to three ideas, three points, or three requests. Refine the message it has been distilled to the essence what needs to be communicated and eliminate everything else. Less is more.
Repeat these key ideas three times by structuring the message to have an introduction/overview, a body, and a summary/conclusion. Alternatively, tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then remind them what you told them.
Since people remember things presented in threes, use tricolons to create sentence structures that have rhythm, repetition, and resonance. Above all else, avoid information overload. Keep the message as simple as ABC or 1, 2, 3. Stick to three key points since that is all your audience will likely remember.