Do You Use The Rhetorical “Rule of Three”?

Well, you should.

I’m referring here to rhetorical device of organizing and presenting topics, words or phrases in groups of threes. Sadly, I neither discovered nor perfected the Rule of Three. But I intend to learn it, practice it and perfect it. (See, I did it right there.)

The Rule of Three enjoys a long history. Writing in the November, 2013 issue of Toastmaster, Washington, D.C.-based speaking consultant Denise Graveline reminds us that the Rule of Three “grew out of the ancient oral storytelling tradition. That tradition is the way we shared information before writing it. Over time, storytellers found that they and their listeners could most easily remember stories structured in three parts, which is why so many fairy tales have triads in them (think three little pigs or three blind mice).” (Id. at 16-17.)

Andrew Dlugan has written extensively on using the Rule of Three in his popular blog Six MinutesHe discusses and gives examples of two special “triad” variants: hendiatris and tricolon. “A hendiatris,” Dlugan writes, “is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a central idea.” Examples? Consider these:

  • Veni, vidi, vici.” – Julius Caesar (trans: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
  • “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” – French motto
  • “Wine, women, and song.” – Anonymous

“A tricolon,” Dlugan tells us, “is a series of three parallel elements (words or phrases). In a strict tricolor, the elements have the same length but this condition is often put aside.” In addition to Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici,” Dlugan quotes advice Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to speakers: “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”

I’m not sure I ever gave the Rule of Three any serious thought before, though I recall my father, teaching me photography as a kid, talked about using patterns of three when composing a photograph. According to Dlugan, we can see examples of the Rule of Three at play throughout history: in religion (Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit), movies (Sex, Lies & VideotapeThe Good The Bad And The Ugly), politics (Executive branch, Legislative branch and Judicial branch of government; Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); sales or advertising (in real estate: Location, Location, Location). Of course we learn about triads in music theory, as well.

Even though I never gave much conscious thought to the Rule of Three, I think that, like most rhetorical conventions, it penetrated into my thinking and composition through the magical osmosis of reading good writing. Dr. Seuss, for example.

Whatever the source, I unconsciously used the Rule of Three when I created my dreaded “elevator speech.” As much as I think the 30 second elevator speech has no place in a normal conversation between people who have an IQ over, say, 50, you would be surprised how effective it is to have a well-crafted self-advertisement handy when you are at a business or networking event and everyone in the room is asked to introduce themselves and describe what they do. I find myself in these situations about once a week. My elevator speech, I’m not at all embarrassed (well , actually . . . I am a little embarrassed) to recite:

I’m Alex Craigie. I’m a Partner in the Los Angeles office of Dykema. My practice currently focuses on helping Southern California employers [1] prevent, [2] manage and [3] resolve employment disputes as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

An example of a hendiatris at work. I might vary parts of this to suit the audience. For example, if I’m working a room that doesn’t have a clue who or what a “Dykema” is, I might throw in that it is a “premiere Mid-West full-service law firm. ” No matter what, though, I always include my core description which centers around three verbs which describe what I do: I prevent, I manage and I resolve.

So think about invoking the Rule of Three.

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Repetition, Rhetoric, Dr. Seuss and Dr. King

Most writers who take their prose seriously have a few favorite rhetorical devices. When these are used well, they contribute to what is loosely referred to as style. When used poorly, they . . . well, I try not to think about that.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you probably recognize that I tend to heavily favor two such devices, alliteration and repetition. (It’s actually only one device, since alliteration is a form of repetition.)

Blatant, obvious, excessive repetition–at least in written form (rather than a speech)–is really only appropriate for a children’s book. Since I’ve been reading lots of children’s books over the past few years (two per night is the current average, though my daughter only let’s me choose one of the titles), I’ve come to really appreciate a writer who is not only a master of the children’s story, but a brilliant practitioner of repetition: Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Seuss Geisel).

One of my favorite examples of Seussian repetition, probably among his most subtle examples, appears in And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. The good doctor there writes:

“Unless there’s something I can fix up,
There’ll be an awful traffic mix-up!

It takes Police to do the trick,
To guide them through where traffic’s thick–
It takes Police to do the trick.”

Another fine example shows up in that perennial favorite graduation gift, Oh the Places You’ll Go!:

“But on you will go
though the weather be foul,
On you will go
though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.”

Perhaps the most famous, obsessive, blatant and brilliant example of Seussian repetition is found in Green Eggs And Ham:

“I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I will not eat them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them ANYWHERE!”

Lest you think this is all child’s play, repetition was a device of choice for a man who was unquestionably among the most compelling American rhetoricians of the last (or any) century, Dr. Martin Luther King. Even if many of us cannot recite from memory all of the details of Dr. King’s “dream,” his use of repetition has helped that speech and his message remain central in the (post) modern American consciousness. He said:

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

I have a couple of further thoughts. As I said, repetition in texts intended to be read, not heard, must be handled with kid gloves. If  you incorporate Seussian repetition into a brief (or a blog post meant for adults), readers will think: (1) you’re an idiot, (2) you’re making fun of them, or (3) both. Because I value the opinions of both judges and blog readers, I take great care to be judicious with my repetition. Like any rhetorical device, its potency recedes with overuse.

Even in a speech, there is a real danger, if you get too cute with repetition, that your audience will think: (1) you’re an idiot, or (2) you’re an idiot who thinks he’s MLK.

Judiciously used, however, repetition in a writing or a speech can add impact, reinforce your message and make it memorable.

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