How to Use the Rule of 3 to Structure Your Communication

how the rule of 3 can improve communication
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The Rule of Three for Writing, Public Speaking, Decision-Making and More

As a leader, I often have to speak, at short notice, to various groups of people. This might be in the context of a meeting, while facilitating training, or even at a social function where I might be asked to “say a few words”. When this happens, I have a simple hack that helps me prepare, even if I have just a few seconds. That hack is the rule of 3. 

Using the rule of three I quickly come up with three main points that become the structure of any impromptu public speaking. Equally, when I write an essay or article, I start by identifying three core arguments or facts. And again, when decision-making, I generate three courses of action before making my choice. 

So, the rule of 3 can be used in many different contexts, but why three? What makes us use trios of information?

What is the rule of three and where does it come from?

The rule of 3 is very simple. Any time you use a triad of information in your communication you are using the rule of 3. A lot of the time we do it unconsciously but there is a long history of using the rule of three to structure stories, speeches, and teachings. 

Caesar exclaimed “Veni, Vidi, Vici!” (I came, I saw, and I conquered) but even before that,  Aristotle recommended the following three-part structure for successful rhetoric:

  1. Ethos –first establish credibility and character
  2. Logos – then bring in the rational argument and facts
  3. Pathos –then engage the emotions and connect with an audience

Why are threes so powerful and memorable?

So, history demonstrates that there is something about triads that connects with us on a psychological level and supports effective communication. The rule of 3 certainly encourages clarity, brevity, and memorability.

More recently, neuroscience research has shown that we can generally only remember 3-5 pieces of information. The more complex the information the harder it is to recall all the elements, so it is no surprise that psychologically we fixate on threes. We also forget huge amounts of information, and the attrition of data happens almost immediately (as shown by Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve). Therefore, using a clear structure as with the rule of 3 encourages better recall. 

How do you use the rule of three?

The rule of 3 is most associated with writing and is one of the easiest modes to practice using the method. Authors use it at the micro and macro scales and you can too. At the small level, a sentence might include a trio of associated words, clauses, or points (as I have just done here). 

In stories, it is common to have triads of characters such as the three bears in Goldilocks. Equally, you can also have three significant events such as the houses of straw, wood, and brick in the three little pigs (which of course also has a trio of characters).

In more formal writing, the structure also often falls into threes. The most obvious is the idea of having a beginningmiddle and end. This can be further broken down into threes, for example in an essay you might have the introduction, the main body and then a conclusion (a three-part structure) but then the main body could involve three main arguments and each of these might have three supportive points. Of course, it does not always end up this way, but it can be a great way to get started on a writing project or for creating an essay plan. 

On a larger scale, many books come in groups of three or start as trilogies. Here The Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman) are obvious examples.

Three Acts in Plays and Trilogies in Movies

The rule of 3 extends into other writing such as scripts and screenplays. Modern plays and movies often have three acts that internally follow this structure:

  1. The Protasis (exposition) where we meet the main protagonists
  2. The Epitasis (complication) where things take a turn and don’t go to plan
  3. The Catastrophe (resolution) where the story finds closure – happily or not

Furthermore (similarly to novels), movies are often released in threes. For example, the Star Wars saga, which was originally a trilogy, became a trilogy of trilogies (under George Lucas’ production). And this is often the case. Literature and films are often envisioned as trilogies but then stretch beyond that due to popularity (e.g. Indiana Jones, The Matrix or the Bourne Trilogy). 

The Rule of Three for Public Speaking, Publicity and Persuasion

We have already seen that the rule of 3 extends back to the public speaking advice of Aristotle and the ancient philosophers. More recent and well-known advice for public speaking is:

“tell them, tell them again, then tell them what you said.” 

Anon

When you consider how little people remember then this is very good advice indeed for any communication. 

Simon Sinek, when talking about effective communication, recommends using the ‘Golden Circle’ structure of:

  1. Why – to explain the motivation behind something and engage the emotions (through the limbic system and older part of the brain)
  2. How – to explain how this will help people
  3. What – to cover the benefit in logical terms (engaging the neocortex or rational brain)

This premise is explained in his bestselling book Start With Why and reflects his background in advertising (probably more than his expertise in neuroscience). Sinek knows what makes something catchy or sticky (in marketing terms) and you will also notice that there are similarities to Aristotle’s advice, even if there is a difference in order. 

The Rule of Three: Absolute Rule or Just a Guideline?

The rule of 3 is not really a rule. As with any conceptual model, it is an aid to thinking, not a set of firm laws we must adhere to. In the words of Captain Barbossa (from The Pirates of the Caribbean), “The (rule of 3) is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Even within this article, I have demonstrated just that. When drafting this post, I did initially utilise a three-part structure. That structure has evolved and becomes less obvious as I have edited the writing. There are still various examples of triads in the sentences that you can pick up on.

So, do use the rule of 3 as a tool to help you – play with it and experiment – but don’t feel constrained by it. And next time you have to write an email, construct a meeting agenda or have a telephone conversation, jot down three things as a starting point. It will really help!


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