Some years ago, Dr Max Atkinson conducted an experiment. He wanted to find out if a novice public speaker could achieve a standing ovation for her maiden speech at a political party conference. In fact, the response of the audience was so enthusiastic that she ran out of time due to the amount of applause that repeatedly interrupted her speech. You can read about it and see a film of the event on Dr Atkinson’s website.
How did he do it? One of the main devices he used is both simple and effective: lists of three. Lists of two don’t cut the mustard (we’re left hanging) and lists of four or more are usually overkill.
The magic number when speaking and writing is three.
Winston Churchill was, of course, an outstanding and inspirational speaker. He often used lists of three:
Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.
As Dr Atkinson points out in his fascinating book Our Masters’ Voices, Churchill achieved additional resonance from the contrast (another key device) between ‘so much/so many’ and ‘so few’.
Once you get your ear in (as it were) you will hear politicians using this ‘list of three’ device all the time. The audience’s response is usually Pavlovian. As already mentioned, it works just as well in writing too.
Here are some more examples:
I came, I saw, I conquered. (Julius Caesar)
…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (Lincoln, Gettysburg address)
So: understand each other, respect each other, act with each other… (Tony Blair, speaking in Washington at the Common Word Conference, 2009)
And from Obama’s victory speech:
If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do.
If you’re interested, Wikipedia has a brief explanation of technical terms relating to ‘lists of three’.