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What is The Rule of 3?

by David Allan Van Nostrand

The Marx Brothers

Their comedy act began on vaudeville stages in 1905, moved to Broadway, and then on to motion pictures. Theirs was a stage mother whose parents were a ventriloquist husband married to a yodeling harpist wife, said to be the source of the boys’ desire to perform. Groucho wisecracked, Harpo was a mute, and Chico was a shyster. Brother Gummo left to become a talent agent and was replaced by brother Zeppo, a vocalist.

Five of the Marx Brothers 13 feature films are on the list of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Comedy Films. Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), and Animal Crackers (1930) are considered by many to be their best. Groucho was the most successful and long-lasting brother, emceeing a comedy quiz show on television from 1950 to 1961. 

The Ritz Brothers

Al, Jimmy, and Harry were from a family of singers and dancers. As a comedy trio, they performed in vaudeville in the 1920s and then made films up to the 1950s. They were loud and boisterous shtick comedians who danced, sang, and relied on physical comedy and ethnic humor.

The Three Stooges 

This famous vaudeville and comedy team made 190 short films over a period of 24 years. Their comedy was physical, in the tradition of vaudeville and burlesque. They had bizarre haircuts and spent a lot of time performing what Britannica calls “cartoonishly violent acts, such as slapping, punching, eye-poking, hair-pulling, and attacking each other with hammers, saws, and anything handy.” Curly was the patsy, Moe was the bully, and Larry was their foil. Their lowbrow humor was polarizing — people loved them or hated them. When Curly retired after having a stroke, he was replaced by Shemp, brother of Moe and Curly.

The Rule of Three

This storytelling principle makes things easier to remember by simplifying them and emphasizing key points. Threes are universally powerful because things that come in threes have a rhythmic brevity. It’s as easy as 1-2-3 to learn your A-B-Cs.

Three is the minimum number of cases required to show a pattern 

A single occurrence often happens by chance alone, the second could be a coincidence, and the third we perceive as a pattern. Our brains are constantly seeking patterns to make sense of the complexity of the world around us. Threes are deeply embedded in our individual and collective consciousness as easy ways to remember things.

Why threes?

It is widely held that humans are very likely preconditioned to recognize, remember, and respond favorably to things that come in threes. One explanation is that in the Christian world, children grow up with the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or the Holy Ghost, depending upon your religious training). Other trios that are familiar to many are Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, thrown into the fiery furnace in the biblical Book of Daniel. Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus were visited by three wise men who brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The number three appears in the Bible 467 times. These things would have believers unknowingly preferring triads, defined as three connected things. Once you are aware of the properties of things that come in threes, you see them everywhere.

Traditional folk tales have lots of threes

Stories like these began as oral traditions passed down from generation to generation: Three Blind Mice, the Three Little Kittens Who Lost Their Mittens, and Rub-a-Dub Dub, Three Men in a Tub. In one well-known folk tale, a little girl visited the forest home of three anthropomorphic bears just after they went for a walk. The bowls of porridge left on the table were tempting, so the little girl tried the first one. It was too hot, so she tried the second, and it was too cold. The third was just right, so she ate it all. She tried out the chairs and beds, finding them too hard, too soft, or just right. These triads are extremes with a midpoint and are the basis of The Goldilocks Principle, a marketing strategy that offers high-end, low-end, and middle versions of products, sometimes labeled as Good, Better, Best.

In the physical world

After being beaned by a falling apple while contemplating gravity, Newton put forth his three laws of motion. Atoms are made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Solids, liquids, and gases are the three states of matter. Length, width, and height are the tools used to calculate the dimensions of solid objects. Humans experience birth, life, and death. They think about the past, present, and future. Each day has a morning, afternoon, and evening, the times they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

On television 

Out on the Ponderosa, Ben Cartwright’s sons were Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. My Three Sons were Rob, Chip, and later, Ernie, when Mike was written out of the show for being too old to live at home. Betty, Bud, and Kathy were the kids on Father Knows Best. Donald Duck’s nephews were Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

In music

Alvin, Simon, and Theodore were The Chipmunks. Australians Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb were the Bee Gees that figured so prominently on the soundtrack of the film Saturday Night Fever. Then there was Peter, Paul, and Mary, the Kingston Trio, Three Tenors, Supremes, Police, Rush, Genesis, Nirvana, Destiny’s Child, Depeche Mode, Goo Goo Dolls, Dixie Chicks, Run-D.M.C., Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, James Gang, Grand Funk Railroad, and ZZ Top.

In jokes

In what is called the triple, the first line of the joke is the setup, the second line is the buildup, and the third line breaks the pattern with something unexpected. The tension built by this style is released by the surprise in the third part, often called the punchline, which is intended to make audiences laugh.

In government

Superman fought for truth, justice, and The American Way, which is the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights were granted to citizens by a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The whole truth, the real truth, and nothing but the truth.

The expository style

It’s a three-step procedure used by speakers and writers. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end and is designed to explain things to listeners and readers. Limiting your presentation to three points gives it maximum impact and memorability.

  1. You begin by telling your audience what you’re going to tell them. Whether it’s called an introduction, a preface or a preview, it primes the pump and sets the stage for what’s to come.
  2. The middle part is usually the lengthiest because it’s where you tell your audience the story you want to tell them.
  3. The end is where you tell them what you just told them. You use this recap as a summary of your three key points to reinforce your message and make it easier for your audience to retain what you wanted them to learn.

The repetition of the expository method has the power to make your message memorable, persuasive, and entertaining: sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.

Winston Churchill was a master of oratory

Some of his most memorable speeches included triads: “Never has so much been owed to so few by so many.” “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

The Rule of Three works because:

  • Three is the maximum number of disparate items that most people can remember after a single exposure.
  • It aligns with our cognitive processes. 
  • Lists of three things create brief, recognizable patterns.

Patterns make learning easier

Patterns help us make predictions and decisions. Those who believe in natural selection tell us that back in the early days of man, primitives who couldn’t quickly identify a pattern, draw a conclusion, and make a life-saving decision were eliminated.

Now, soon, later 

Rather than get bogged down in pointless detail such as trying to determine Which of the Seven Dwarfs is the Tallest, the best leaders assign priorities by determining which things are critical, which are important, and which are possibly useful in the future.

  • Assign a master craftsman to do things critical to your organization’s success.
  • A journeyman has enough training and experience to handle most of the important things.
  • Charge apprentices with tasks not vital to your success.

Bonus

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is an old gospel tune that would have at one time been called a Negro spiritual. Click here to listen to The Golden Gate Quartet perform it live.

Leftovers

When organizing a home or office, sort things into piles marked keep, discard, and can’t decide. People have egos, ids, and superegos. It was Julius Caesar who uttered the famous words veni, vidi, vici. On your mark, get set, go. Tic-tac-toe. Rock-paper-scissors. Win, lose, or draw. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

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