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Rule of Three
Rule of Three
Rule of Three
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Overview

Was De La Soul right, is three really the magic number? Dive into this model and decide for yourself. 

The Rule of Three is a communication principle arguing that three is the optimal number of examples, points and/or characters to use for the most satisfying, impactful and memorable results.  

CAN’T SEE THE FOREST FROM THE THREES ;). 

Once you start looking, you’ll see the Rule of Three everywhere, for example:

  • Speeches: The Rule of Three is used by famous orators from Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama to Martin Luthor King Jr. For example, think of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

  • Storytelling: the three-act play is a universally established narrative structure consisting of set-up, confrontation, and resolution. In addition, famous book series are commonly written as a trilogy such as the Lord of the Rings, Larsson’s Millennium series, and the Hunger Games. 

  • Characters: From the Three Little Pigs, Three Bears, right through to Harry Potter working with Hermione and Ron. 

  • Marketing: three is commonplace in taglines, branding and marketing campaigns. For example the Olympic motto of ‘Faster, higher, stronger.’

  • Comedy: a common structure for a joke is set up, build anticipation, punch line. In addition, the “A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walks into a bar” type joke uses the pattern and punchline power of three. 

  • Religious narratives: in Christianity from the Three Wise Men right through to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 

  • Visual communication: Beyond written and spoken communication, this model translates to film, virtual merchandising and photography via the Rule of Thirds, which involves breaking up a screen or canvas into grid lines, making nine boxes. The idea is to place focal elements at the intersections of the grid rather than the centre to provide greater engagement, energy and interest. 

HOW TO MAKE BETTER USE OF THREES. 

There are a number of arguments about why the Rule of Three works. One is the prevailing view that working memory can only process around three or four new elements at any point in time. Another is the observation that three is the most efficient number of points required to establish a pattern. Others point to the satisfying rhythm of three sentences, words or phrases.  No matter why it works, if you want to experiment with the Rule of Three you can apply it in a number of ways: 

  • Use three words to describe an idea.

  • Use three examples to illustrate a point.

  • Use three sections to structure a narrative.

  • Use three points to communicate a message.

  • Repeat an important message three times. 

  • Use three personas or characters in a story.

  • Describe three steps to outline a process.

  • Use the Rule of Thirds to compose an image.

IN YOUR LATTICEWORK. 

The Rule of Three plays well with other communication models. It’s no coincidence that Aristotle’s Rhetoric is built on three key elements of Ethos, Logos and Pathos; it’s highly recommended that you combine the Rule of Three with Minto’s Pyramid when presenting information; and the three-act structure is often woven into the Hero's Journey. 

It is a versatile model though, so take it beyond communication and think about incorporating the Rule of Three into experiments using Split Testing, in productivity as you use it to limit your current ‘doing’ in your Kanbans, and even in decision making as you choose how to weight your Pugh Matrix. The possibilities are endless.

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Actionable Takeaways
  • Weave the Rule of Three into your communication. 

Practice using three examples, making three points, and/or structuring your argument in three sections. 

  • Emphasise something by repeating it three times. 

If you need something to be remembered or to stand out, try calling it out or talking about it three times. 

  • Apply the Rule of Three to other areas. 

Experiment with using three in comedy and jokes; using the Rule of Thirds in your visual communication and photography; and even in your productivity techniques by having a maximum of three things on your to-do today list at any point in time. 

Explore More
Rule of Three is featured in these playbooks:
Limitations

Overuse of any communication technique can become jarring, and the Rule of Three should simply be seen as one of the arrows in your toolkit. To that end, mixing your approach and changing the rhythm of your sentence structure is important. 

In addition to rhythm, sometimes using two examples or points can be useful to provide a binary or contrasting view rather than pointing to a pattern. 

In Practice

Martin Luther King Jr— I have a dream. 

The Rule of Three is a feature of many of King’s speeches. This site breaks down his most famous speech, and captures this key example: 

“When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Note that even the list of six items — black men and white men etc. — has been grouped in three groups of two, to maintain the rhythm of the Rule of Three. 

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Origins & Resources

Evidence of the Rule of Three can be traced back as far as Aristotle and biblical writing. Aristotle, inherently captured it in his Rules of Rhetoric, though it is unclear who formally named and identified the ‘rule’, thus we’ve left the model uncredited. 

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