3 spotlights to emphasise the rule of three in speech writing

The Power of the Rule of Three in Speech Writing

A well delivered speech, a speech which leaves an impact, always has these small nuances that make it as impactful as they are. They aren’t necessarily details you find in books or papers. It might not even stand out to the audience on a conscious level.

But these finer details are what take a speech from good to great. The rule of three is one such finer nuance that you can add to your speech to make your message a little more complete, powerful and memorable! (see what I did there?)

What is the Rule of Three?

When it comes to public speaking, the rule of three is basically when you use three statements to iterate a single message. Why is that important? Because we as humans tend to remember a message more clearly when it is presented thrice. Think about it – the most famous quotes use the rule of three:

  • Blood sweat and tears
  • Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)
  • Government of the people, by the people, for the people

Here are some examples of the rule of three in some of the most famous speeches in history:

We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground.

Abraham Lincoln (Gettysburg Address)

Never in the history of human endeavor has so much been owed by so many to so few

Winston Churchil (Wartime Speech)

Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered.

Barack Obama (Inaugural Speech)
Obama using the rule of three in his inaugural speech

The words are not the same, but three examples or statements to drive home one message can become a powerful sentence.

Valuable reads: 15 Powerful Speech Opening Lines (And How to Create Your Own)

Why is it important to use in your speech?

Saying something three times is enough to create some sort of pattern. The first time you say it, it’s just a word. The second time you say it, it creates intrigue and the third time you say it, it creates a trilogical pattern.

You can also break patterns for humour using the rule of three which we shall get to later in the article. The rule has multiple purposes. I’ve seen speakers use it to evoke different emotions in their audiences.

I remember this one speaker – what an amazing speech he gave. His title itself used this technique of three. It was called: Push, Pull, Love. The speech beautifully rounded up the speaker’s message continuously leveraging the rule of three. Needless to say, most of us remember it to this day.

Using the power of three, you can better inform your audience, make them laugh or even motivate them! Keeping the focus on a single message and repeating them in different ways throughout your presentation, is certain to create maximum impact. It’s simply a great way to add more spice to your speech and make it all the more powerful!

“Tell them what you going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them”

– Dale Carnegie

How to Incorporate the Rule of Three Into Your Speeches

One of the simplest ways of using the rule of three in your speeches is by slicing your entire speech up into three parts. And by that, I don’t mean slice it up into an introduction, body and conclusion (that’s obvious!). But instead, break up your body into three further ideas.

Speeches are powerful when they have three ideas which drive home the same message. I’ve written about this previously as well. For example, when you use three anecdotes which talk about a problem, you can use two different situations which showcase the problem and the third story can be the game-changer – where you find a problem to that solution. Lots of speakers do that and it works wonders!

Valuable reads: The Ultimate Guide to Structuring a Speech

How to Say it in a Sentence or Phrase

When using the rule of three in sentences, don’t just say all three words/phrases normally. Saying something in a sort of trilogy can have a lot of impact – so you should say it correctly! I’ve seen speakers who use this technique without even knowing it, but it really makes no difference to their speech. They either say it in a very monotonous tone or say it too quickly or slowly.

When using the rule of three, make sure you say it a manner that tells a micro-story in itself. The first word is the intro, the second is the build-up and the third is the conclusion. Unfortunately, there is no one way to say it. It completely depends on your speech and the kind of emotion you are trying to evoke.

Experiment with different methods – try saying it fast, try saying it slowly but with more emotion, try rushing through the first two and slowing down for the last one.

There are multiple permutations and combinations you can try! Have fun with it and see which one works best for you!

How to Use the Rule of Three for Humour

We might define comedy as the unexpected contrasted to the expected. This is probably why completely unexpected (almost random) jokes stand out and make us laugh the hardest! However, a clever way to incorporate humour would be to build up an expectation, make the audience feel they “get” what’s coming next…and then smash it!

The rule of three can be a powerful tool to use to make your audience roar with laughter doing just that. The reason it works is that the rule of three allows you to build up (but not finish) a pattern. When you say two things which are in relation to each other, the audience has an expectation for the third thing. They have a perceived notion in their minds. When you break that, it creates humour.

A brilliant example of this is a speaker I saw at Toastmasters. He was talking about his college days – about how he had these big dreams but eventually ended up in a dull 9-5 job.

Here is one line he used to make the audience laugh using the rule of three:

“I wanted to become a dancer, become the Michael Jackson of my city! And as you all would expect, I ended up becoming…an accountant.”

It might not sound very funny in text. The way you say it also counts. Let me try and help you visualize that:

“[1] I wanted to become a dancer {said it with a lot of swagger and a big smirk}, [2] become the Michael Jackson of my city {continued to build on that grandeur with his body language}! And as you all would expect [3] I ended up becoming {maintained the same, cocky body language} …an accountant {completely changed his body language and tone of voice to sounding very disgusted in himself}.”

Even Seth MacFarlane, the comedian who went on to create the beloved show Family Guy, used the Rule of Three brilliantly in his Harvard Commencement speech back in 2006.

While talking about his New England origins, Seth goes on to say (in a British accent) “While I treasure my formative years in the land of chowder, lobster and gonorrhea…”

As soon as he said gonorrhea the audience burst out laughing!

seth macfarlane using the rule of three for humour in his harvard speech

Watch how does that here.

Rule of Three for Persuasion

The reason the rule of three is used in so many speeches is that its ability to persuade is superbly powerful.

It’s because of the way we as humans process information. Pattern recognition is something we are amazing at – we’ve been conditioned to do so, and the reason the rule of three works for well is because three is the smallest number required to create a pattern.

It helps the message stick. It helps the message be remembered long after the speech. It helps the message manifest into action.

Take Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here is a highly persuasive excerpt from one of history’s most iconic speeches:

We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

See how he uses the rule of three here? Bold statements like these and repetition made his speech as persuasive as it is.

When trying to persuade someone, also think of using the rule of three as a mindset – that is – talk about the other person three times as often as you talk about yourself. This helps highlight to the other person what’s in it for them which is key to persuasion.

Valuable reads: The Secret of Writing a Persuasive Speech (On Any Topic) | Ethos, Logos, Pathos is Not Enough

When you use the rule of three, it’s not just what you say that matters, but how you say it as well. Combine the two together and you have yourself a powerful, memorable and (sometimes) humorous statement!

Hrideep Barot

Hrideep Barot is the founder and chief writer at Frantically Speaking, a portal to help people learn everything about public speaking. The purpose of franticallyspeaking.com is to showcase the lessons that he has learned (and still learning) from his numerous stage experiences and mentors over all these years.