In language, rhetoric, sparks

Question & Answer
Lists of Three

We use these techniques constantly, naturally, unconsciously in everyday conversation. When we step up to do a presentation something changes. Maybe we feel we have to use long words and complex sentences to show how erudite and knowledgeable we are. The effect, however, is something akin to reading the telephone book out loud.

Perhaps the easiest to use is the list of three. From “veni, vidi, vici” to “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, this technique has been found in every time, in every culture, in every country. There’s something magic about the number three. Perhaps it’s to do with rhythm, or perhaps it’s because it’s the smallest number of points where a clear relationship can be seen but, whatever the reason, it works.

Winston Churchill speaking in 1940 told the British, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” This is not, however, what people tend to remember. He is often misquoted as offering only “blood, sweat and tears”. Maybe this reflects our unwillingness to toil. I’m not all that keen on blood, sweat and tears either, so I suspect the real reason is that lists of three are simply more memorable.

So, if you have four points, do you really need to use all of them? Are they all so vitally important that you simply must say them? If you only have two points, could you find a third that you could put in the middle to give what you say more impact, more rhythm, more power?

Recent Posts