September 7, 2012

“I’m here to grant you three wishes…”: aka The Rule of 3

Have you ever wondered why the genie/fairy godmother, etc always grants 3 wishes when he or she emerges from their lamp or their glowing orb? The reason for this is what’s known in my business as The Rule of 3: we can only remember three things—at point four we stop listening.

(This rule holds true in numerous other children’s stories and songs. Should you doubt me, consider 3 bears, 3 pigs, 3 blind mice, 3 musketeers…..)

This device is also a favorite of speechwriters as was evidenced by First Lady, Michelle Obama on Tuesday night.

(Note, please, this is not a political piece. This is a piece about structure. That said, if you were to ask me if I think the First Lady did an extraordinary job, the answer would be yes. She evidenced passion, commitment and authenticity—speaking of 3 things—all of which are invaluable to a good speech.)

But back to my examples:

In her memories of being courted by her husband, Mrs. Obama referred to 1. The rusted-out floor of the car he drove; 2. The coffee table he found in the dump, and 3. His one pair of decent shoes that were a size too small.

She spoke of their being 1. so young, 2. so in love, 3. so in debt.

She noted that when it came to his 1. character, 2. his convictions, and 3. his heart, that being president hadn’t changed him.

She told the story of his poring of letters from constituents: 1. from a father with bills to pay; 2. from a woman with cancer; 3. from a young person with lots of promise, but without a lot of opportunities.

Each of these choices made her easier to hear—making it easier for us to remember what was said.

So the next time you sit down to write a speech, consider what 3 adjectives you might use to describe your product; what 3 points you might want to make; what 3 stories you might want to tell.

It will help turn what you say from fairy tale into reality.

Frances Cole Jones

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