29April 2024

Public Speaking Tips for the Power of Three

Three is the magic number:
and for so many reasons.
Think of all of those rhymes, myths and fables:
- Goldilocks and three bears
- Three blind mice
- Three Billy Goats Gruff
- Holy Trinity
- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Most of us can quickly remember three things in most categories:
- brands of toothpaste
- British Prime Ministers
- Wimbledon Tennis Champions
- UK Olympic Gold medallists
Three suggests variety without it being overwhelming.

A choice of three suggests some variety, whereas a choice between two is literally limited to ‘either / or’.
Since most rhetorical forms use rhythm and repetition for impact, building structures around ‘three’ allows a speaker to make their point effectively and allows them a variety of ways of doing so.
Followers of Pythagoras believed the number 3 was the perfect number, the number of harmony, wisdom and understanding.
And who is going to argue with that?
In speaking, ‘Three’ is powerful.
'Two' might be a random repetition; three is an emerging pattern.
And once we have a pattern in mind, we can use it in many different ways to reinforce our point:
- same, same, same
- same, same, different
- big, bigger, biggest,
- short, short, long
- past, present, future.
The speaker can choose to make the pattern obvious to reinforce a message of use it more subtly to suggest order or neatness.

10 great and varied examples of the magic use of the number Three

  1. Prince of Wales

When Prince William spoke at the celebration of his father, King Charles’ coronation he told us:
  ‘For all that celebrations are magnificent, at the heart of the pageantry is a simple message: Service.
   My father’s first words on entering Westminster Abbey yesterday were a pledge of service.
   It was a pledge to continue to serve.’
This is quite a subtle one to start with: Service.
Notice the use of same, same, different: service, service, serve, and all are roots of the same word
and notice how each of those words is highlighted by being placed at the end of each subsequent phrase.
The message is strong but not unsubtle or blatant like….

  1. Tony Blair

‘Education. Education. Education.’
These were Tony Blair’s three priorities for a Labour Government.
As is often the case in politics, subtlety is not the key requirement; hence the frequent choice of ‘sledgehammer’ rather than ‘paint brush’.
So any cry of:
‘Never. Never. Never.’
‘Fight. Fight. Fight.’
‘Lies. Lies. Lies.’
will get the point across without much ambiguity.

  1. Voltaire

‘The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.’
Voltaire had an easy one here, as Holy, Roman and Empire are already three ideas,
but neatly dismissing an idea, a person, or an institution in three steps will always sound neat and resonant.

  1. Aristophanes

‘You have all the characteristics of a popular politician:
a horrible voice, bad breeding and a vulgar manner.’
Another put-down like Voltaire and again we sense the neatness of the ‘put away’ by the three attributes in the condemnation

  1. Chrurchill

‘Dogs look up to us
Cats look down on us
Pigs treat us as equals’
The charm of the statement is captured by the ‘same, same, different’ structure:
dogs look…cats look…. Pigs treat.
Many neat quotes are often slightly misremembered and often the result of the misremembering is to format them into a neater more rhetorical form.
I have seen this Churchill quote set out with the last line:
‘Pigs treat as equals.’
Thereby making each line, one of five syllables.
However, the six-syllable version highlights the different form of line three: look up, look down, as equals.
The most famous Churchill example is how the line:
‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’
is often simplified into the neater three of:
‘blood, sweat and tears’.

  1. Disraeli

There are three kinds of lies:
- Lies
- Damned lies and
- Statistics
Disraeli’s form pleases us, implying the form of ‘big, bigger, biggest’ by using successively one syllable, two syllables, three syllables.
Similar to Mark Anthony’s famous
‘Friends, Romans, Countrymen’
And like many jokes, the surprise is in the last line
(lies, lies....what comes next?)

  1. Julius Caesar

‘I came, I saw, I conquered’
(or properly in Latin: veni, vidi, vici’)
The latin resonates because it is alliterative, and each word has two syllables
The English version benefits from ‘same, same, different’ in word length
It is much more satisfying to the ear than another popular translation:
‘I came, I saw, I overcame.’
The reoccurrence of came in the first and the last phrase jars slightly: same, different, almost the same?
‘I came, I became, and I overcame’
would feel more pleasing (but it does change the meaning!)


  1. Abraham Lincoln

‘You can fool some of the people all of the time,
and all of the people some of the time,
but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.’
We have ‘same, same ,different’, while the repetition of ‘people’  and the use of ‘all’ in slightly different contexts in each line adds to the rhythm and balance.
The flurry of repetition has a lightly mesmerising effect, similar to a phrase I often use in teaching Public Speaking to stress that how we appear has greater impact than what we say:
‘Your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.’
I usually get a response of:
‘Sorry? – Can you say that again.’

  1. Vince Cable

Speaking against ‘Brexit’ and for remaining in the European Union, Vince Cable characterised Brexiteers as having:
‘nostaglia for a world where….
- passports were blue,
- faces were white and
- the map was coloured colonial pink.’
The impact is enhanced by the use of colours and although pink is not red, we do get a sense of the colours of a slightly washed out Union Jack.
The yearning for the past is very innocently captured in the use of these faded colours, especially effective when we consider that what Vince Cable is gently implying is that these people are backwards-looking racist colonialists.

  1. Placard at George Best’s funeral

Tony Blair’s speech writer Phil Collins highlighted this as one of the most compact and poignant pieces of rhetoric he had ever seen.
At the funeral of the footballer George Best (who was never able to play at a World Cup, as Northern Ireland were never able to qualify during his time playing),
Phil Collins says he saw a placard that succintly said:
- Maradonna good
- Pele better
- George Best.
No need to comment on the rhythm, wordplay and charm of that one!

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Michael's superb training style is underpinned by an incredible depth of knowledge and experience. Like all true experts, he delivers what he knows with ease and simplicity, exampling the skills he is teaching as he does so.

Very informative and great anecdotes which illustrated points and provided visual markers.

The most interesting training that I have ever taken part in! Experience + Wisdom + Perfect teaching approach.

The training was spot on. He really listened to us and customised his responses throughout.

Loved the creation of visual examples through the use of body and how relating the experience really helps demonstrate the message.

Very approachable and motivational. So much information, brilliantly delivered.

Loads of great analogies and stories - very friendly and helpful.

Very approachable and knowledgeable and good use of examples to simplify the material.

In just one day Michael was able to teach a class of children how to craft their own personal stories and experiences into powerful and engaging speeches that resonate with an adult audience as well as with a younger audience. It is a marvellous way to help them increase self-confidence and in the process - almost without them even realising it - become natural speakers and excellent communicators.

Michael has a style of speaking which draws the audience into his world, captivates them and leaves them with lasting memories of some of the descriptive phrases he has used and the information he has included. He also has the ability to pass the skills he uses in his own speaking on to those he trains.

Very good rapport, attention to detail, individual support, positive atmosphere and encouragement - a great place for learning.

• Very great example; how to express yourself, how to be engaging and how to match body language with what is said.