“Why is it always three with you Irish?” my English friend Dave said (most days).
Three makes a word sound the Irish accent battles to get its tonsils around and in doing so often gets a comment or a confused look. (If you want to hear an Irish accent in full effect ask an Irish person to say 33 and a third. It certainly won’t be the first time they have been asked! ).
Approaching the finish line of the San Francisco Half Marathon I thought Dave may have a point. Every joint and muscle screamed to stop but it wasn’t far now. The cliff jumping injury in Greece that got me a vet instead of a doctor was reminding me recent words from a surgeon in San Francisco. “You have stage 4 arthritis and the left ankle of a 75 year old. You need to treat it such and stop running”.
Words I selectively choose to ignore seemed pretty appealing right now. I was running race number 1084 and I wasn’t the only one. When my friend Arash suffered his spinal cord injury he was declined most therapy and even the cost of a wheelchair by the race sponsor, a large medical insurance provider. As a small form of one fingered solute to them several of us ran on the same photocopied bib number to avoid the race fee.
My ankle began to lock up but I was in the home straight now. 21 097.494 agonizing meters slowly became 400 and finally 100. Several thousand who started were now filing in with lots of space between them. The race announcer perched in a temporary wooden look out tower at the finishing line was calling out each person as they approached the line to loud spectator cheers and applause. I squeezed every last ounce of drive out of my drunken feeling legs and put my head down for the final drive. The hand held microphone of the announcer cackled to life. “Next we have approaching the line from Burlingame, give it up load for Ana Carolina Fuj…….”. He stopped mid last name. A look of pure confusion awash his face as our eyes made contact. I have been called a lot of things in life but Ana Carolina was seldom one. I should have at least photocopied a male registrants number it seemed! I laughed and the additional dopamine seemed to give me the extra push to drive to the line. As I crossed up I glanced at the race-timing clock mounted above the finish line. It read 1:33:33.
Maybe it is always 3.
According to Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras, 3, which he called triad, is the noblest of all digits. The number 3 has held sway over math, science, astronomy, arts and literature for millennia until, finally, it reached its apex in 1973 with the pilot episode of “Schoolhouse Rock”:
Three is a magic number.
Yes it is, it’s a magic number.
Somewhere in the ancient, mystic trinity
You get three as a magic number.
The past and the present and the future,
Faith and hope and charity,
The heart and the brain and the body
Give you three.
That’s a magic number.
Not quite Greek philosophy, but its magic is widely known and used by writers, marketers and comedians alike. If you want to write in a more entertaining and memorable manner, write with the Rule of 3. This rule is a basic structure for jokes and ideas that capitalize on the way we process information. We have become proficient at pattern recognition by necessity. Three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. This combination of pattern and brevity results in memorable content. And that’s why the Rule of 3 will make you a more engaging writer.
This rule is one that has existed for a long time but I had to figure it out through trial and error. When I told jokes in certain sequences, I noticed they were always most effective when I reworked them into groups of 3. It seemed that audiences were trained to laugh on the third item. So, if I made one quick joke, and a second quick joke, the laugh would always be biggest on the third one. If I remove any of these elements (leaving only two) or added extra ones (creating 4 or 5) the bit is never as effective. It’s strange but true.
The Rule of 3 at its most basic, establishes a pattern then ends with something unexpected. This derailment, a break away from the pattern created by the first two items, builds tension and creates surprise usually resulting in loud laughter.
Information presented in groups of 3 also sticks in our head better than other clusters of items. For example: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” “blood, sweat and tears;” “sex, lies and videotape.” When the iPhone was launched, it was launched as 3 products (Pod, Phone, Internet Communicator Device) all in one new cool product. It was no coincidence that it was pitched in this way. It automatically became more memorable. Examples are seemingly endless: NFL, NBA, NHL, CNN, NBC, BBC, TED, UPS, SAS, SAP, You can do it, Yes we can, get the idea?
Let’s have a look at the Rule of 3 in action with a couple of jokes. Written out and analyzed like this they don’t sound that exciting, but when delivered to a live audience they generate big laughs.
The first one comes from Jon Stewart. “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everybody in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
The twist here is obviously the last part. The triplet in the set, “I killed them and took their land,” comes as a shock because he used the first two parts of the joke to create an event in your mind that is very familiar; this way, you think you know where you’re going to end up. He starts with a broad picture and something everyone will understand: “Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way.” Then he begins to narrow the vision in a way that his audience will relate to and personalize: “I invited everyone in the neighborhood, we had an enormous feast.” These lines allow you to recreate your own Thanksgiving memories in your mind, thus making you feel like you know where he’s heading. Then, the twist, the derailment, the laugh line, always third in the set: “and then I killed them and took their land.”
This next joke is one I wrote when I was starting out in comedy. I wrote it when I learned of this pattern. To be honest, I hate telling it, but it follows the structure and sequence, uses the Rule of 3, and always produces a big laugh every time.
“My girlfriend is always driving me crazy about going to Napa. I gave in and brought her. It turns out she doesn’t even like auto parts.” With the first two parts of this joke I am creating the image of California’s wine country, conjuring up images of couples spending time drinking wine in this famous wine region. Napa, of course, is also a chain of automotive service centers—the last place in the world my girlfriend would want to go.
That is the third item in the sequence. That is where the pattern breaks. Due to this twist, the punchline, this joke gets a big laugh every time I’m on stage (watch it here). By following the Rule of 3, whether it is in your joke writing or even just in the way you deliver important information, your words are far more likely to be memorable. Your audience’s minds are ready to receive information in groups of three. You should use that to your advantage.
Whether you are Irish or not, it’s always 3!