The Rule of Three Technique for Public Speaking

Three is a magic number in the field of communication. This article explains why and what you can achieve when you use the power of three to address the public.
The Rule of Three Technique for Public Speaking
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 16 June, 2023

The art of communicating a message is a necessary virtue for great orators and lecturers. However, we also sometimes need to be able to transmit ideas effectively and create an impact on whoever we’re speaking to. There are some useful strategies for doing this, such as the Rule of Three technique.

Although its name evokes a well-known mathematical formula, in this case, it refers to a rhetorical or literary figure that consists of grouping elements in threes.

There are many ways to apply it. In fact, it can become the secret to giving an effective speech, making a sale, or even telling the best jokes and stories to your friends.

The Rule of Three

Dave Linehan is the author of the book, Bulletproof: The Official Guide to Public Speaking. He explains The Rule of Three as presenting ideas in threes. This is because they’re more interesting, enjoyable, and memorable for the audience.

It’s difficult to assign authorship to this technique. In fact, it’s been used since the times of Ancient Greece. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that this civilization is considered to be the cradle of rhetoric. Implementing the Rule of Three provides good results. Proof of this is its application in political speeches, as referred to in a publication in Atlantis Press.

This technique also has a place in traditional tales, artistic works, and all kinds of human creations. For example, the Bible speaks of the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”, Rubens painted “the three Graces” and three words define the national spirit of France: “liberty, equality, fraternity”.

Moreover, we can find many other examples in everyday life. For instance, the three colors of the traffic light (red, yellow, and green) and the three main verb tenses (past, present, and future). Also, some of the best-known movies and books come in trilogy format.

It’s evident that the number three has some kind of magic that captivates us in terms of written and spoken language. But, what is it that makes this number so special? There are several reasons. We’re going to detail them below.

Group of people conversing and applying the rule of three to public speaking
The workplace, especially the sales department, greatly benefits from the Rule of Three.

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The brain creates clusters

The brain works in a hierarchical manner. This means that it groups elements together to handle information more efficiently. Therefore, presenting a series of disordered data isn’t the same as structuring a discourse or presentation based on a few connected ideas. The minimum number of elements required to create a grouping or pattern that satisfies the brain is three.

Three is a comfortable number for memory

Not every kind of grouping of elements is valid since human memory has a limited capacity. More specifically, our short-term memory. It allows us to retain information and keep it active for a short period of time.

Short-term memory is limited both in time and in the amount of information it holds. It was previously thought that this limit was approximately seven elements. However, recent studies such as this one published in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, suggest that the figure is closer to four.

So, why the rule of three? Because this is a number that’s more comfortable as it’s not too close to the limit.

Three is more persuasive

When you try to persuade or influence someone or want to motivate them to do something,  you might offer them several reasons. And, three is the key number to make your argument convincing. If you give them fewer reasons, your speech won’t be so effective. Moreover, you’ll encourage them to be skeptical.

Three gives a feeling of fullness and roundness

A triad gives the feeling that the text, sentence, presentation, or argument is complete. Using three elements makes the idea fuller, rounded, and more satisfying. You can verify this for yourself in the texts that you read or lectures that you listen to.

Even in sharing jokes with friends, the rule of three provides good results.

How to use the rule of three to speak in public

This simple technique can be applied in different contexts. For instance, to achieve more successful presentations, generate sales in a business, or improve your oratory skills. The premise is simple. By grouping the elements into threes, you increase the value of your communication. To better understand it, take note of the following ideas:

  • If you want to promote a product, highlight its features with three adjectives. For example: “Good, reliable, and cheap”.
  • Use three sentences when communicating a complete idea. For instance: “Yesterday I went to look for him. I thought he’d be at home resting. I made a mistake”.
  • If you want to explain what your business, website, or content on social media is all about, compress the information into three concise sentences and place them in a visible location.
  • When creating a slogan or tagline, choose three main words. These can be nouns (as in the motto of the French Republic) or verbs (eat, drink, enjoy).
  • Organize your speech in three stages. Do the same if you’re writing a text. This is clearly seen in literary works that present an introduction, a middle, and an end.
  • Keep as a reference the three central ideas of your argument. For example, if you want to convince your partner why you should go on vacation to a specific place, focus on three main reasons.

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Increase the value of your communication with the Rule of Three

The above are just a few ideas, but you can use this technique any way you choose. At first glance, you might think it’s far too simple but it actually produces really positive effects.

In fact, using the Rule of Three will help you make an impact, persuade your audience, and help them remember your message. Ultimately, it’ll help you communicate more effectively.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.