The Rule of Three
And Occasionally Six.
Aristotle made the observation that people find it easiest to remember three things. The rule of three started with his writing, “The Rhetoric;” In fact, in many of the areas where the rule of three is practiced (and there are a lot of them), it is referred to as rhetoric.
In computer programming, the rule of three is a “rule of thumb” for class method definitions as well as code refactoring. It is a computation method used in mathematics and in statistics it is used for calculating a confidence limit when no events have been observed. In aviation, it is a rule of descent and in economics a rule of thumb regarding major competitors in a free market.
Even the contemplation of survival has its rules of three. The body’s ability to stay alive depends on three keys: three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food. Captive POWs are taught to stick together, survive and return. The TSA’s “Steps to Security” are show ID and boarding pass, take out liquids, and take off shoes and jackets.
It can also be found in the less tangible. The Pagan Law of Return states that, “whatever energy a person puts out into the world, be it positive or negative, will be returned to that person three times.” Arguably more macabre is the modern notion that celebrities die in threes.
Returning to Aristotle’s application of the concept to human communication, the rule of three is still most prevalent in the principles of writing, storytelling, and presentations (see how I did that?). Thomas Jefferson chose life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Many of the world’s most lasting jokes begin with three people walking into a bar (a priest, a reverend, and a rabbi or an engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician). It continues to be popular and effective, not to mention simple, for a story to have a beginning, middle, and end. It’s even more obvious in the structure of our large, epic movies—the trilogy.
Albeit, some trilogies are born as a way to continue a story beyond the ending of the original film, the result of the success of the original, made to satiate—as well as capitalize on—an audience that is clamoring for more. “The Godfather” eventually wound up telling the story of three generations of a family of gangsters. “Star Wars” gave us a hexology, telling the tale of three generations of Jedi knights.
In the movie game today, it is more common for trilogiess to happen by design, a way of telling the beginning, middle, and end of a long, epic story without taxing our audience, something the likes of Aristotle and Shakespeare were well aware. “Back to the Future,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and “The Hobbit” are perfect examples of this modern storytelling technique.
Not to be outdone by Aristotle and Shakespeare, the pages of this month’s Qualityoffers Hill Cox’s third installment of “Calibration Source Criteria.”
As always, enjoy and thanks for reading!