Three is a magic number.
As great communicators from Julius Caesar to Barack Obama know, good things come in threes. In fact, there is the Rule of Three.
Constructing facts, ideas or expressions in three parts just feels natural. It is a structure that is pleasing to the eye, easy on the ear and creates the biggest impact.
There – two uses of it in one paragraph. And I wasn’t even trying, says Andy Comber, PR Manager at matm, a marketing, design, web development and PR agency in Jackfield, near Telford, Shropshire.
That is why being aware of the power of the number three in copywriting is so important. You may use the concept naturally. Sometimes it is good to deliberately make use of the dramatic benefit it brings.
The number three appears everywhere: there are three-line and three character jokes (think Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman), three picture comic strips (think Dilbert), three act plays and, often in news media, the three line factfile.
There is even a name for the concept. A constructed phrase such as “Veni, Vidi, Vici.” that has three grammatically and logically connected elements is known as a Tricolon.
Speech-writing author Dr Max Atkinson has analysed many famous speeches and says three-part lists almost always appear somewhere. He includes the technique in a six part (that’s 2×3) list of successful speech-writing techniques:
- Three-part lists
- Contrasts combined with lists
- Bold imagery
- Audience analysis
The two most important, he says, are contrast and three-part lists. Here are examples from President John Kennedy’s inaugural speech in 1961:
- Contrasts: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
- Three-part lists: “Where the strong are just, and the weak secure and the peace preserved.”
- Combining contrasts and lists: “Not because the communists are doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.”
Adolph Hitler is one of the most notorious users of the Rule of Three. Winston Churchill fought back – with blood, sweat and tears. Only he actually said, “blood, sweat, toil and tears” but the Rule of Three is so strong, most memories have deleted his toil.
So, whenever you write any copy or make any presentation, think of the Rule of Three. And remember, the reader or audience will only ever remember a maximum of three things you ever say.