How to use the 'Rule of Three' to create engaging speeches

May 17, 2021 - Gini Beqiri

One fundamental function of the human brain, and the brains of all animals, is to integrate information gathered from our surroundings to help us interact with each other. However, pattern recognition is a core functionality of the human brain and sets us apart from other species.

Language is a complex behaviour that uses patterns in the form of symbols, sounds, and words to encode meaning from speech. We have a superior ability to process patterns in our world and transfer our understanding to others.

An effective way to communicate ideas is to create patterns that are simple and easy to recognize. Three is the smallest number needed to form a pattern.

The Rule of Three

The Rule of Three is based on how our brains function - how we recognize and create patterns on a daily basis. The Rule of Three revolves around the observation that ideas given in threes are especially interesting and memorable to an audience.

People remember and are more engaged with concepts that are presented in groups of three. You can use the Rule of Three as a simple formula to make engaging speeches.

Many memorable lines and quotes are grouped into threes. It is no coincidence that 'good things happen in threes'! In Ancient Rome, the Latin phrase 'omne trium perfectum' meant everything that comes in threes is perfect.

The Greeks also had a figure of speech for the magical power of three - hendiatris, meaning 'one through three'; three words are used to express a single idea. Other examples that embody the Rule of Three are:

  • "Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" from the United States Declaration of Independence
  • Veni, vidi, vici, meaning "I came, I saw, I conquered"
  • Breakfast, lunch, and dinner
  • Blood, sweat, and tears
  • Lights, camera, action!

Hermann Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve expresses how learned information is forgotten over time. Research shows that after an hour, people will typically forget 56% of what you have presented them. After 24 hours, 66% of the presented information is forgotten. And after six days, this number creeps up to 75%.

Forgetting curve

Forgetting curve, image from What Is The Forgetting Curve (And How Do You Combat It)?

Echoic memory pertains directly to memory rooted in auditory information and retention. If you use visual cues in your speech, this will activate visual memory in your audience.

Modern technologies like video conferencing, digital signage, and the internet allow for expanded use of visual cues. Additionally, these technologies increase the potential size of your audience by allowing you to deliver speeches even when you are not in the same room.

Using both visual and auditory signals combined can often help your audience better remember the information you present.

While some people have greater capacities for memory, if your speech is not developed in a way that makes remembering an easier task, most of the information will be forgotten soon after you finish presenting. Your audience's brains will not have to work as hard to retain your material if it clearly follows a pattern. Make sure that the small amount that people will remember are the major points in your speech.

The Rule of Three is pervasive in other areas of study and in famous religions.

In classic liberal arts the trivium is threefold and consists of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Grammar is the art of creating and combining symbols to portray thoughts, while logic is the art of reason. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion; it uses both grammar and logic. Public speaking and delivering engaging speeches involves the art of rhetoric.

A speech that is engaging to an audience might not seem that different in structure from other speeches. Often the difference between an impactful speech and a speech that falls flat lies in our subconscious and unconscious minds.

According to Freudian psychology, your unconscious mind has primal feelings that cannot be brought to the surface at will, while your subconscious mind cannot be consciously processed in a moment, but can be recalled. Your subconscious and unconscious mind might not seem to influence conscious thought because their effects require analysis from your conscious mind. Gut feelings often arise from something your subconscious and unconscious mind has picked up.

Understanding how we process information can help you create engaging speeches that will captivate your audiences.

The Rule of Three for Speech Structure

Structure is important in classical modes of communication such as writing, and in speeches as well as in modern, derivative modes of communication such as video conferencing, social media, and digital signage. The structure of your speech can influence how you hold your audience’s attention.

Greek philosopher Aristotle declared that a play should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Famous plays by playwrights such as William Shakespeare and his contemporaries, were often structured into five acts by editors after being published. However, their works were fluid and meant to be continuous or even stray beyond this structure. Today, the five-act structure has been replaced by the three-act structure.

Likewise, speeches should have a beginning, a middle and an end. Three segments, in accordance with the Rule of Three. The beginning is characterized by an introduction that grabs the listener’s attention.

The middle, or the body of your speech, contains the bulk of information. You can also use the Rule of Three in formulating the content for the body, and stick to having three main points. If you have less than three, your speech may seem incomplete to the audience. More than three points could cause your audience to lose interest and even fall asleep.

Finally, the end or conclusion is a summary that repeats key points mentioned throughout your speech. The conclusion will be the last thing your audience will hear, and through repetition, they will be able to remember what you discussed.

Using the Rule of Three in the structure of your speech can be powerful and engaging and can be applied creatively. There are a variety of proposed structures that are based on the Rule of Three and expand on the overarching structure of an introduction, body, and conclusion.

For instance, you can split your speech into past, present, and future. In this way, you have outlined your speech so each segment can function on its own.

In the first segment, you can discuss the past and the problems that are faced.

The second segment can discuss the present and you can clearly outline the decision that needs to be made. In this part you will then share the options available to solve the problem and your analysis of them.

The final segment can bring your audience to the future, the result of the correct action being chosen.

Instead of using the body of your speech to lay out three main points with three sub-points for each, consider developing the content by listing pros of the solution you are proposing, then outlining all the cons. The final point in your body can be the recommendation. Ensure you use repetition in the conclusion and go over the major points of your speech.

The Rule of Three for Emphasis

In visual art, the rule of thirds is used to create focal points for the created image. Your eyes are drawn into the picture if key elements are placed along horizontal and vertical lines split into thirds.

In like manner, you can use the Rule of Three to bring emphasis to the key points in your speech. You can use three statements for each point in your speech to help each point pack a punch. More points can make it seem like you are belabouring the main idea, and fewer points might be less interesting.

For example, you can use three anecdotal references for key points. The first two can describe the problem with clarity and the final, the third story, can address the problem but also showcase the solution.

The intonation of your voice can be used to drive the three points forward. The first two points can be rushed and said quickly, and the last point can be said slowly and with a higher degree of emotion. Consider even flattening your voice during the first two points and build up excitement in your voice as you present the third point.

Pattern recognition is about creating anticipation in our minds; you can flow with the natural rise in anticipation and create emphasis by using the Rule of Three.

Forgetting curve

The Rule of Three for Humour

Emotion reinforces pattern recognition in our minds. People are inherently social by nature and emotions contribute to our survival. Adding elements in your speech that bring about emotional responses from your audience can help transform your speech into a memorable event that will stay with them.

Since the human brain is constantly evaluating its surroundings to try and create patterns, you can use the Rule of Three to create moments of surprise or humor in your speech.

Joke structure is often based on triple formats. The setup and preparation forms a pattern that leads to a memorable punchline. After two points, your audience will already see the similarities and expect the third point to complete the pattern in their mind.

However, you can take the speech in a different direction and completely surprise them, similar to how a magician reveals the final flourish much to everyone’s amazement after a slow buildup.

Eliciting an emotive response to your speech will help your audience remember your key points and the message you are hoping to convey.

The Rule of Three for Persuasion

In 1960, Paul Maclean, a famous American neuroscientist, described a triune model for the human brain. This model divides the brain into three distinct areas:

  • The primal brain
  • The emotional brain
  • The rational brain

The primal brain is responsible for fight-or-flight responses, the emotional brain generates feelings, and the rational brain forms logical thought and is capable of complex reasoning.

Modern advancements have allowed for detailed brain-imaging technologies and have discredited Paul Maclean’s model. Various regions of the brain show activity instead of three distinct regions during the three activities listed.

Even though the triune model is an oversimplification of how signals in the brain actually work, this model can help provide insight into how people process information from their surroundings. A persuasive speech can be created if each of the three minds of your audience becomes engaged.

You may hope to persuade your audience into action with your speech. Aristotle identified three tools that are fundamental to persuasion:

  • Ethos
  • Logos
  • Pathos

These form the rhetorical triangle. First you will need to establish ethos.

Ethos is a Greek word that translates to “character”, and your audience will need to trust your moral character and credibility so they can trust what you will say next. This contributes to your audience's primal thought processes and their survival instincts.

Logos translates to “reason”. You will need to support your argument with logical reasoning and patterns. Sound arguments cater to your audience's rational mind.

Pathos translates to “emotion” and establishes the importance of appealing to the emotional side of your audience. Emotions will resonate with your audience and persuade them. If your audience can feel your speech, their emotional brain is engaged.

With ethos, logos, and pathos, you can involve the three main processes of the human brain. You will have the ability to captivate the entire mind of your listener.

The Rule of Three can even take the rhetorical triangle further. When you deliver your speech, talk about your audience three times as much as you discuss yourself. This pattern will reinforce the importance of how they can derive benefit by following your suggestions. They will be able to trust you because you have shown that your focus is on how you can benefit them.

Engaging Words

The power of the smallest number needed to create a pattern was realized by ancient civilizations. While society has changed, the fundamental way that our brains function has not changed; patterns still drive us. The Rule of Three is a simple principle that is rooted in the essence of our brains and how we create patterns.

Harnessing the Rule of Three in various aspects of a speech can help engage your audience and give them something to remember. Consider using the Rule of Three in speech structure, emphasis, humour, and for persuasion in your next speech.