Paul Smith's Articles for Spotlight Magazine

Ready, Steady, Go...!

Test your English - what's missing at the end of the following phrases:

  1. The Father, the Son, and the ?
  2. Sex, Drugs, and ?
  3. The Good, the Bad, and the ?
  4. Blood, Sweat, and ?
  5. Friends, Romans, ?

Most English speakers will complete these well-known sets with Holy Ghost, Rock'n'roll, Ugly, Tears, and Countrymen. The human mind seems designed to work with groups of three; it loves a trinity.

Three different things is also an easy amount for most of us to remember - give us four, five, and six items and we start to get lost. This is why we naturally cluster telephone or credit card numbers when we speak them. Our short-term memory can comfortably handle groups of three - thus 036-597-216-90 is easier than 03659-72169-0 . The same applies to spelling, when you are spelling a new word over the telephone - make it easy for yourself and your listener, use the 3 rule: "My name is Peter Sobbotkewich, that's SOB-BOT-KEW-ICH.

You'll find the rule of 3 everywhere. Many jokes give two examples to get our minds moving in certain direction, and then with the third example we get hit with the surprise punchline. The following "one-liners" are all composed of 3 elements:

  • What lies at the bottom of the ocean and twitches? A nervous wreck.
  • My first job was working in an orange juice factory, but I got canned: couldn't concentrate.
  • Depression is merely anger without enthusiasm.
  • If your feet smell and your nose runs, you've been made upside-down.

An old British army dictum states that in giving orders to troops you should always give instructions three times: "Tell them what you're going to tell them; tell them; and tell them what you told them. It's almost as if we need the first time for orientation, the second for understanding, and the third for remembering. A similar injunction by the United States Marine Corp quoted by INC. Magazine states: "The rule (of three) dictates that a person should limit his or her attention to three tasks or goals... The rule prescribes boiling a world of infinite possibilities down to three alternative courses of action. Anything more and a marine can become overextended and confused. The marines experimented with a rule of four and found that effectiveness plummeted."

This principle is certainly applied by advertisers who claim that we need to see an ad at least 3 times in order to recognize, retain, and remember it.

Politicians of all colours use the rule of three in speechmaking not only because it makes information more digestible, but because an audience is almost certain to applaud if the last sentence of the speech contains 3 elements:

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"

"Train, train, and re-train"

"All free men wherever they may live are citizens of Berlin;... and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words... "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Such a rhetorical device gives power and memorability to a presentation and creates a strong feeling of completion - no wonder the ending of Kennedy's speech at the Berlin wall carried such force.

We can use the rule of three to make our lives more effective - it sharpens thinking, improves communication, and is as easy as A,B,C!

Paul Smith

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