Speechwriters often achieve their aims through simple techniques like repetition. The science of listener attention has many rules that a speechwriter can exploit to make an audience remember or respond to a speech. (A poor speaker, of course, can sink a great speech – but let’s stick to writing for now.)
One of the most powerful of all of these techniques, is the rule of three. Why are there three musketeers? Why three bears? Why does the Olympics use as its slogan “Faster, Higher Stronger”?
Speechwriting is an art form aimed squarely at exciting specific responses. Where a painter may wish to evoke a mood, part of their work is also to allow their audience to experience whatever a given painting may spark in them. A speech may well do this, too; but a speechwriter often also has a specific aim – to persuade, to cajole, to convert an audience to their point of view. The rule of three is a great tool to deploy in reaching that goal.
Time and again, research has found that humans like the number three: they remember information given to them in threes more easily, and respond more positively to arguments that marshal their facts in threes, too.
This isn’t all that mysterious. Speechwriters will tell you that rhythm is key to a good speech: if you can write with a steady rhythm then an audience will attend to your words. The rule of three enables a writer to pack a lot of rhythm into a relatively small section of speech. That’s a sweet spot because we want an audience to remember what we say – and the more concise we are the better chance we have of achieving that.
Not only that, but the rule of three most often appears in list form, and providing a number of examples or rationales makes a speaker seem knowledgeable. The rule of three allows a speechwriter – and a speaker – to be memorable, brief and authoritative. No wonder it’s so powerful – and so well used.
If anything, the rule of three’s ubiquity can limit its effectiveness. Use it cleverly and with flair – deploy it if not sparingly then always smartly. A list will always seem too short without three entries, and often too long with four or more. Have you ever wondered why Tony Blair talked about “education, education, education”? Now you know.
In other words, the rule of three is one speechwriting tool you shouldn’t forget, forsake or forestall. See what I did there? Do the same in your speeches and you’ll make a big impact.