The Rule Of Three

Chicago “Times,” November 20, 1863, “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dish-watery utterances of the man who has been pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

This criticism was written about the two-minute, 246 word, speech given by Abraham Lincoln a day earlier on the battlefield at Gettysburg.  A speech many consider to be the most eloquent oration in U.S. History.  A lot is made of this quote from the Times because it was critical of what came to be known as the Gettysburg Address, a speech that the president is reported to have scribbled on an envelope in about 24 minutes on the train ride there.  But it wasn’t…written on the back of an envelope.  It was hand-written on three pages, and the original is in the Lincoln Room at the White House.  Lincoln wasn’t the keynote speaker at the dedication either.  He followed a two-hour speech given by Edward Everett.  The reason you don’t see any other quotes critical of the speech, is because there probably weren’t any, and you have to look into the politics of the “Times” (later the Chicago Times-Herald defunct 1901) to understand why.  When the paper was purchased in 1861, by William Storey, a pro-slavery paper that was founded in 1854, the editorial content denounced the policies of Abraham Lincoln and was even suppressed by General Burnside because of its anti-Union sentiment.  Easy to see why they would write that Lincoln’s speech was “silly, flat and dish-watery.”

Most of us know at least the first verse of the Gettysburg Address because we had to memorize it in grade school.  I’m going to do it from memory and see how I do.  “Four score and seven years ago, our father’s brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”  I made one mistake.  The word “on” should be “upon.”   Most of us didn’t know what a “score” was either.  If you do the math, it’s 87 years, which means a score must equal 20.

Something I just learned about the Gettysburg Address, is that it uses the presentation technique called the “rule of three.”  This rule dates back to the times of Aristotle.  “…that government of the people, by the people,  for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  It’s all about the theory that people generally remember three things easily.  You will remember three things from a presentation, so if you group them and emphasize them, as Lincoln does, the point he wanted to get across is in his last sentence.  The rule of three can be even broadened to include the entire presentation.  It has a beginning, a middle and an end, and you should use groups of three whenever you can, with the understanding that less is more. The shorter the presentation the more likely it will be remembered, at least those three things.

Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) – Julius Caesar

Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears.” – Mr. Shakespeare

“Stop, Look and Listen.”  Remember that rule before crossing railroad tracks?

So I thought I would look at a few other famous speeches and see if that rule of three is in there.  Let’s look at Kennedy’s Inaugural address.   “Let every nation know… that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”  He violated the rule here and gave five, so we probably didn’t remember “support any friend” or “oppose any foe,” which caused him some foreign policy problems down the road.  He used a lot of “list” phrases in the speech.

How about FDR’s famous speech after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger.”   There it is, the rule of three.

Clinton used the rule of three several times in this speech:   “As anyone close to me knows, for months I have been grappling with how best to reconcile myself to the American people, to acknowledge my own wrongdoing and still to maintain my focus on the work of the presidency.”

So the next time I’m preparing a presentation, writing an essay, or composing a speech, I’m going to remember that rule of three.  I’m going to find the three things I want you to remember, list them, maybe several times, and be aware that if I give you four or five, you’re likely to forget them.  It’s going to be short, and I’m going to end with that list of three things.  Yeah, that next speech, like I do that very often.  WTF.



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9 responses to “The Rule Of Three

  1. Your favorite niece

    The rule of three also applies to decorating. Three of something is more appealing to the eye.

    • Since I know nothing about decorating, I’ll take your word for it. Makes sense. In Journalism we learned that if you used two words together with an “and,” you just weren’t sure which word you wanted to use, so I never went so far as to use three.

  2. The rule of three is also important in comedy. A lot of jokes involve three parts, or three people and it is the third one that is the punchline. If you observe sitcoms, you usually get two set up lines and then the third is the funny, like this:
    “Da da da”
    “Da da da”
    “Da da da da da!”
    (See, it’s funny even without words!).

  3. I’d like to think I can hold more than three ideas in my head, but you’re probably right. More than three and I’ll start to have that glazed, dazed, and crazed look in my eyes… 😉

  4. Great post!
    Thankfully, I’ve always remembered to pick up my three kids. 😉

  5. I love making lists and during an early edit of my manuscript I discovered that love carried over to my book. I had sentences with “lists” that were too long. It sentences became much stronger when I “listed” three things or less.

    • I hate making lists. Means I have more than three things to get done, which I can remember without writing a list. LOL Interesting about how the sentence becomes stronger when you narrow the list to three or less.

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