Triplets are a powerful tool in persuasive writing. Triple arguments sound more rhythmic to our ears, are more convincing, and work better than single or double arguments. So is it a coincidence that the previous sentence uses a trio? Absolutely not.
The power of the trinity in persuasive rhetoric was known to ancient Greeks and Romans. In ancient Greece, the term “tricolon” was coined to describe a sentence with three components of the same length and rhythm. There is also a well-known Latin saying attributed to Julius Caesar: “omne trinum perfectum,” which means “everything triple is perfect.”
Three Charms, Four Alarms
How many arguments should we present to support our thesis? Intuitively, we think using as many as possible is best.
However, a study by Kurt A. Carlson from Georgetown University McDonough School of Business and Suzanne B. Shu from the University of California suggests otherwise.
So, what did this experiment consist of?
The study showed the participants various descriptions of people, products, or objects, accompanied by a list of one to six positive arguments about them.
For example, when describing John, the researcher would list his positive traits as intelligent, kind, good, helpful, funny, and educated.
The researchers noticed that when three arguments were presented, the participants reacted positively and believed the description was accurate. However, when four or more arguments were given, the participants became skeptical, as if they didn’t quite believe the description and thought the speaker was being sarcastic.
Examples of Triplets
There’s something about threes that just sounds good. That’s why there are plenty of triplets in famous titles, sayings, and slogans.
Examples of slogans in threes:
- Liberty, equality, fraternity
- Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
- Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered)
- Government of the people, by the people, for the people (from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)
- Ethos, logos, pathos
- God, honor, country
- Citius-Altius-Fortius (faster, higher, stronger – the Olympic motto)
Examples of names, titles, and phrases that come in threes:
- The Holy Trinity
- Three Little Pigs
- The Three Musketeers
- The three circles of hell
- Three strikes and out
- Three sheets to the wind
- Blah, blah, blah!
- Yeah, yeah, yeah
- Save money, save time, save the hassle
Examples of phrases with triple arguments:
- After buying this product, your life will become easier, better, and more fulfilling.
- We can either continue doing what we have been doing, go back to where we started, or grit our teeth and fight harder.
- We won’t go back, sit still, and remain silent.
Examples of triple repetitions of the same word:
- The three most important things in the real estate industry are location, location, and location.
- Our highest priority will always be education, education, and education. (Tony Blair)
- It cannot be stopped. It cannot be turned around. It cannot be turned off.
In football, when someone scores three goals in one match, it’s called a hat trick. Interestingly, there is no name for scoring four goals. A win by forfeit is called a three-goal victory. In tennis, we have “game, set, match.” In hockey, there are three periods.
Most dramas are divided into three acts. In Shakespeare’s works, tricolons appear many times, such as in Julius Caesar’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” Interestingly, each following word has one more syllable: friends – one syllable, Romans – two syllables, countrymen – three syllables. This isn’t a coincidence. Shakespeare was a master of harmony, balance, and rhythm.
Steve Jobs started his best presentation, the launch of the iPhone, by mentioning three (not four or five) milestones in Apple’s development:
- 1982 – the introduction of the Macintosh
- 2001 – the introduction of the iPod
- The third milestone was… the day of the speech.
What’s even more interesting, Jobs also presented the iPhone (arguably the most revolutionary product in the company’s history), using the power of three:
Today we’re introducing three revolutionary products. The first is a touch screen iPod. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. The third is a breakthrough internet communicator.
Only a few moments later, Jobs revealed that these three revolutionary products were all contained in one device – the iPhone. The audience was ecstatic.
This was carefully planned. Jobs didn’t immediately announce that he had one great product with many innovations. Instead, he packaged his presentation into a series of threes. We all know the result: millions of iPhones sold, millions of fans, and millions of dollars earned by Apple.
The Power of Threes
Triplets give the impression of completeness.
If someone presents three arguments in favor of something, it must be good. After all, there are three arguments that confirm its excellence. With two, we might feel that there aren’t enough arguments – and therefore, not feel convinced enough. With four, we might feel there are too many – and thus, feel overwhelmed or skeptical.
The number three is optimal. It isn’t too much, but it isn’t too little. Three conveys harmony and balance. It’s completeness with two extremes and a middle ground.
At the same time, it confirms a specific pattern. For example, in mathematics, to draw a straight line, two points are enough. But if we have three points, and each of them creates our line, we’ll have the confirmation that all the points are on our axis. This makes us feel confident that we drew the line correctly.
Barack Obama frequently used triplets in his speeches. That may be why his statements were so harmonious, rhythmic, and pleasant to listen to. Here’s a fragment of his speech at Nelson Mandela’s funeral:
“Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell.”
Do you want to create presentations that inspire, persuade, and sell? Refine their structure. Practice them repeatedly. Support your thesis with arguments in threes.
And if you want to go even further with your communication skills you can check out my online course Professional PowerPoint Presentations available HERE>
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