Looking to jazz up your writing?
Want to make it stronger, more engaging, more… memorable?
That’s where the Rule of Three comes in handy. It’s a neat little writing principle that’s easy to apply once you get the hang of it.
Don’t worry, if this is as mysterious as a cat to you, you’ve come to the right place.
I’ll explain the Rule of Three (or the Rule of Thirds), why the technique works, and how to use it. We’ll also look at 60+ examples, so you can see exactly what I’m talking about.
Let’s dive in.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil: What IS the Rule of Three?
In writing, the Rule of Three is the idea that groups of three words, phrases, or ideas are more engaging, effective, and memorable.
Science has determined that the human brain is wired for pattern recognition. And studies show that a person’s short-term memory (“working memory”) generally holds no more than 3-5 things at one time.
Patterns help people process information quicker and retain it longer. And since three is the smallest number needed to make a pattern, using this magic number helps ideas stick in your head.
The ancient Japanese proverb “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” is a well-known phrase. So when you see the title of the 1989 comedy “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” your mind automatically wants to finish the sentence — because the three-part phrase is “sticky.”
Or, as the Latin phrase Omne trium perfectum states: “Everything that comes in three is perfect.”
Socrates, Plato & Aristotle Walk into a Bar: Who Invented the Rule of Three?
If you said the Greek philosopher Aristotle, you’re right.
Aristotle noticed that people find it easiest to remember 3 things. And he expanded that observation in the discourse “Rhetoric,” where he divided persuasive writing (and speaking) into 3 main areas:
- Logos (logic or rational thinking),
- Ethos (character or reputation) and
- Pathos (emotional appeal).
According to Aristotle, a person’s ability to persuade others depends on how well they can appeal to each area of this “rhetorical triangle.”
I Came, I Saw, I Conquered… Content Marketing
So what makes the Rule of Three so powerful, especially in content marketing, copywriting, or other forms of persuasive writing?
Well, we’ve seen that it establishes a pattern, which the brain likes.
Using the magic power of three in writing also builds a solid structure for our thoughts to latch onto.
Dividing content (or speeches) into three components helps the brain organize, comprehend, and remember ideas easier, faster, and longer.
Want to emphasize a key idea?
Divide it into 3 bullet points.
Want to surprise an audience?
Use the Rule of Three, but break the pattern (more on that in a minute...).
Bottom line, the Rule of Three in content marketing anchors ideas into the brain. Like gum on a brand-new shoe, the words stick.
Location, Location, Location: The Magic of Three is Everywhere
You can find the Rule of Three here, there, and everywhere. And to prove my point, here are 30 examples:
Folktales & Fairytales
- The Three Musketeers
- 3 Blind Mice
- The Three Little Pigs
TV & Film
- The Three Stooges
- Jerry, Elaine & George (Seinfeld)
- Harry, Hermione & Ron (Harry Potter)
Logos & Marketing
- Snap! Crackle! Pop!
- Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
- “Lighter, Thinner, Faster.” (Steve Jobs on the iPad 2)
Mottos & Credos
- Faster, Higher, Stronger (Olympic motto)
- The Few. The Proud. The Marines. (US Marine motto)
- Truth, Justice & the American Way (Superman credo)
Government & Law
- “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…” (Judicial oath)
- “Preserve, protect and defend…” (Constitution of the United States and the US Presidential Oath of Office)
- “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” (Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence)
Safety & Health
- Stop, Drop, and Roll (Fire safety campaign)
- Slip, Slop, Slap (Australian skin-cancer campaign)
- Hands, Face, Space (UK Pandemic Campaign)
- Ready, Set, Go
- Lights, Camera, Action
- Show ID, Take out liquids, Remove shoes & jackets (TSA instructions)
Religion & Spirituality
- Father, Son & the Holy Spirit (The Holy Trinity)
- Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh (Gifts from the Three Wise Men)
- Mind, Body, Spirit (Holistic healing)
- Sex, Drugs & Rock-n-Roll
- Wine, Women & Song
- “Turn on, Tune in, Drop out.” (Leary on LSD)
Presentations & Public Speaking
- “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you just told them.” (Dale Carnegie)
- “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)
- “Speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Alright, Alright, Alright: Rule of Three Examples in Famous Speeches
And here are some famous (and memorable) speeches that use the Rule of Three technique.
- “Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered.” (Barack Obama’s 2008 Inaugural Speech)
- “Our priorities are education, education, education.” (UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair)
- “While I treasure my formative years in the land of chowder, lobster and gonorrhea…” (Seth McFarlane’s 2006 Harvard Commencement speech)
An Englishman, an Irishman & a Scot: The Comedy Rule of Three
Comedians use the Rule of Three to get a laugh. They start with the set-up, build anticipation, then break the pattern to surprise their audience with the punchline.
See if you can identify the 3-part structure in these jokes:
- “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. The barman looks at them and says: Is this some kind of a joke?” (Frank Carson)
- “The good news is…we’ve been running a lot of focus groups and we know exactly what Gen Z-ers want. The bad news is it’s Netflix.” (Jimmy Kimmel)
- “A date is an experience you have with another person that makes you appreciate being alone.” (Larry David)
Learn, Practice & Master: How to Use the Rule of Three
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. How do you actually work the Rule of Three into your writing?
Let’s find out.
Things That Come in Three: How to Write in 3 Parts
Effective stories (content, speeches, films) use a three-act structure:
- Beginning (intro)
- Middle (body)
- End (conclusion)
Whether you’re screenwriting or crafting a product launch, the rule applies: The beginning sets the stage, the middle builds anticipation (or provides the bulk of information), and the end delivers either a satisfying resolution or a surprise in the form of a twist.
In content marketing, the beginning lets the reader know they’re in the right place and the end concludes with a call to action (resolution).
The middle, well, that’s the fun part. Because, when you structure your content with Rule of Three techniques, you can transform dry, mundane material into something memorable.
Technique #1: Ideas, Categories & Evidence
With this technique, you start with three main ideas. Then add evidence to support each idea, using stories, examples, statistics, quotes, etc.
If you have more than three main ideas, group your concepts into three big categories; then divide each category into 3 smaller categories. Keep dividing the categories into three pieces until all your points are easy to understand.
Finally, add your evidence — something for each point.
This technique gives your post a strong structure, especially when using lists and bullet points.
Check out these posts to see how they used the Rule of Three.
- How to Magically Transform Your Boring Blog Using These 3 Types of Videos
- Kindle Direct Publishing: How to Make Real Money on Amazon
- How to Write a Paragraph in 2020 (Yes, the Rules Have Changed)
Technique #2: Characters, Situation & Style
In this technique, three characters experience the same situation in different ways, which emphasizes the key take-away.
- Goldilocks and the Three Bears (Robert Southey)
- The Witches of Eastwick (John Updike)
- Scrooge (Charles Dickens)
Technique #3: Adjective, Adjective, Adjective
A great way to create sticky content is to use three adjectives describing one topic and then write a story (or provide details) about each adjective. You’ll end up with three well-supported key ideas describing your main topic.
Here’s the process:
- Step 1: Choose your topic and brainstorm a list of adjectives to describe it.
- Step 2: Choose your 3 best adjectives and write a personal “definition” for each, describing what makes each adjective significant in relation to your topic.
- Step 3: Write a story (or details) about each adjective that relates to your topic.
Steve Jobs skillfully used this technique during the iPad 2 launch in March 2011.
The memorable take-away “faster, thinner, lighter” made headlines in newspapers, magazines and blog posts around the world.
Playful Patterns of Three: Using Tricolon, Hendiatris & Alliteration
Tricolon, hendiatris and alliteration are all literary devices that create cadence to make your content more memorable.
They’re fantastic for emphasizing particular points.
Compose a group of three sentences, phrases, or words that parallel one another in structure.
- “We can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground…” (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)
- “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” (Benjamin Franklin)
- “What a time we had: splashed through bogs, ate like hogs, slept like logs.” (Holling Vincoeur in Northern Exposure)
Use three words to express a single idea.
While this device works well in storytelling (using 3 adjectives is often stronger than just one), hendiatris is especially effective for advertising slogans, taglines, and speeches.
- Dark, cold, and dingy
- The quicker picker-upper (Bounty tagline)
- “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…” (Julius Caesar, Act III)
Construct a series of two or more words that begin with the same consonant sound.
Often used as tongue-twisters, alliteration is a terrific technique to emphasize important ideas (and super-savvy to use in subheads).
- Peter picked a peck of pickled peppers.
- “Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.” (The Beatles)
- Polish Your Post So It’s Smoother Than a Slip ‘n Slide (Subhead from How to Write a Blog Post in 2020: The Ultimate Guide)
For more on alliteration, check out 66+ Alliteration Examples to Make Your Message More Memorable.
Jazz Up Your Headlines: Three by Three!
And let’s not forget your headlines.
These Rule of Three techniques can turbo-charge ’em:
Triple Your Power with Three Nouns, Verbs or Adjectives.
- 7 Psychological Tricks for Turning Fleeting Visitors into Loyal Fans
- How to Find Your Passion, Discover Your Strengths, and Rule the World
- 6 Stunning Visuals That Will Make Your Content Memorable, Shareable, and Beautiful
Clinch the Click with Alliteration.
- 801+ Power Words That Pack a Punch and Convert like Crazy
- 10 Simple Twitter Tactics That Will Get You More Traffic Today
- 9 Surefire Strategies for Standing Out in a Sea of Sameness
Entice with Intrigue By Mirroring a “3-Act Story” in Your Headline.
- Suicide, Shame, and the Painful Truth about Achieving Your Goals
- On Dying, Mothers, and Fighting for Your Ideas
- The Snowboard, The Subdural Hematoma, and The Secret of Life
See One, Do One, Teach One: Unleashing Your Rule of Three
So there you have it.
The not-so-mysterious Rule of Three: a simple (but powerful) strategy to make your writing more effective, engaging, and memorable.
Now it’s time for you to pick 1, 2, or maybe even 3 of the above techniques to jazz up your own writing.
Divide your ideas, throw in a tricolon, add alliteration.
Prepare for accolades.