We love threes in stories. Other numbers are also available: 12 Apostles, 10 Commandments, Seven Deadly Sins, the Famous Five and Fantastic Four. But we find threes again and again (and again): Perseus and Macbeth meet three witches; Goldilocks deals with three bears; Wise Monkeys, Wishes and Little Pigs all come in threes. We even structure stories themselves in threes: past, present and future; before, during and after; beginning, middle and end.
Winston Churchill loved a tricolon (the rhetorical use of threes). He famously promised the British people “blood, sweat and tears” in the dark hours of World War Two. Actually, he promised “blood, sweat, toil, and tears”, but we only remember three out of the four.
So, here are three reasons why we love threes, followed by some ways (guess how many) that you can use threes in your next story or presentation.
- Three is short. You can get three things into a tweet or onto a slide.
- Three is enough. We can hold between five and seven things in our minds at once. When you allow for distractions (“Ooh, I wonder if I’ve had any likes yet”, “That guy’s looking at me funny”, “How long’s this going to take?”) there’s only room in your listeners’ heads for three things you want to say, max.
- Three is a pattern. Once is just a random event. Twice might be coincidence. Three times is proof (in a folksy, rule-of-thumb sort of way). Four is just more of the same. Five, a boring list.
So how can you use threes when you’re telling a story or making a presentation?
- Emphatic Three. Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education” or Margaret Thatcher’s “No, no, no!” Simple repetition or on a rising scale: OK, we get it.
- Set Up and Contrast Three. “Never before in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Churchill’s Battle of Britain tribute sets up the huge scale of what was at stake (“so much” and “so many”) before contrasting with tiny scale (“so few”) of the victors. Lead your listeners left once, then twice and they will be half expecting you to go left a third time. When you switch to the right, the contrast is unexpected and delightful. This also works for Little Pigs (straw = failure; sticks = failure; bricks = success) and Boys Who Cry Wolf.
- Dialectical Three (aka The Goldilocks Three). For Hegel, it was thesis, antithesis and synthesis. For the rest of us, it’s the bowl of porridge that’s too hot, the bowl that’s too cold and the one that’s just right. Use this three when you want to appear moderate, taking the sensible centre ground between extremes.
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