The Magic of Three
The number three is a magical number in the English language. We see it in movie titles as in “The Three Stooges, The Three Musketeers and The Three Amigos,” we see it as far back as being the most famous phrase in the Unites States declaration of independence – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, and we see it by speakers and comedians all across America.
I don’t know why this is so. We can theorize the reason for this phenomenon from today till tomorrow, and in fact some people have, but my philosophy is, “if something works – just go with it!” Why spend your energy trying to figure out the “why” of it when you can just be in the “now” and just go with it. If it is good for our founding forefathers, if it is good for Hollywood, then it is good for me – You see, there is the rule of three in action!
So how does “the rule of three” work to create humor? When comedians create their humor, they use what is called the “set up – punch”. Comedians use this set up-punch formula to get every one of their laughs. Comedians don’t always need to use the rule of three, they are so good at creating humor that they don’t always need to rely it, but for the rest of us speakers, using the rule of three is a technique that we should always use, and that if done right, can almost guarantee a laugh from the audience.
The psychology of the Set up-Punch Formula
What is the comedian’s secret to getting a laugh from the audience? Comedians are not psychologists, but they know how the human minds works – at least when it comes to getting a laugh. Comedians know three things about the human mind very well when it comes to humor.
1. That a “Spontaneous shift” is the key.
2. That proper timing is crucial
3. That the content must be appropriate for the audience
So what is a spontaneous shift? A spontaneous shift is when the speaker puts the audience on one track. The speaker fills up the mind of their audience with a vivid picture of one particular thought or idea and just at the point when the audience is expecting to continue on that track, the speaker suddenly puts them on a totally different track and Walla a laugh occurs!
The key here is spontaneous. From the speakers perspective, it may not seem spontaneous, because the speakers is prepared and knows what he or she is planning to say. However, from the perspective of the audience it definitely comes across as spontaneous. How many times have you had conversations with friends or family and laugh seemed to easily flow. If you think about it, you will probably realize that the instant the laugh occurred, someone said something spontaneous and which also put everyone else’s thoughts on another track.
Putting your audience on another thought track is not enough. You also need to have your timing down in order to make an impact and receive a laugh. Your punch line needs to come immediately after the set up. If you wait too long, you will lose the impact potential of your punch line.
When using the rule of three, you are essentially doing the same thing as what comedians do with their set-punch in their comedy routines, but your set up will be a bit longer.
The rule of Three in Action
A friend of mine and fellow speaker, Marry Cheyne, had used the rule of three extremely well when she delivered her speech “Nelly” at the Toastmasters 2009 international convention. She gave some background about how challenging and uncomfortable it was for her to come to Australia as a 7 year old Chinese. She then said, “I was so uncomfortable that I felt like a fish out of water, like a bird out of its nest, like a guest (pause) at a toastmasters meeting.” The last line, “like a guest at a toastmasters meeting” was the punch line. The other two lines were the set up for her punch line.
The background story gave the audience the “thought track” of her being uncomfortable, The first two lines went along that track – uncomfortable like a fish out of water , uncomfortable like a bird out of its nest and then she throws the twist – Like a guest (she pauses) and then says “at a toastmasters meeting”. The audience was expecting her to stay serious, but she doesn’t. She spontaneously puts their thought on another track and walla she gets a laugh!
The Rule of Three must be Adaptable to Your Audience
When coming up with the right content for the rule of three, make sure your content is applicable to your audience. When Marry came up with her content, she knew who her audience was. It was a room full of fellow toastmasters. So everyone in her audience knew how uncomfortable a guest at a toastmasters club meeting feels, because at one time or another everyone was a guest before they became a member. That is why it was funny to that audience. Her line would not have been funny to a group of people no affiliated with toastmasters and surely she would not have used it. So always make sure that your content is appropriate to your audience. Enjoy tinkering with “the rule of three” for your next speech!