Flashback to October 1996. Soon-to-be-Prime-Minister Tony Blair is delivering his speech at the Labour Conference. And says:
Ask me my three main priorities for Government and I tell you, education, education, education.
It’s an echo of one of the most famous quotes to come out of the business world: Conrad Hilton’s ‘location, location, location.’
There’s a rapturous round of applause: several members of the audience go misty-eyed and – on YouTube at least – ‘Things can only get better’ swells in the background.
But supposing Blair had said, ‘Ask me my priorities for Government and I tell you, education, education.’ Yes, there’d have been a round of applause – but half the audience would have shrugged and said, ‘Is that it?’
Supposing he’d said, ‘education, education, education, education?’ The reaction would have been even less favourable. ‘What’s he talking about? Four priorities and all he can come up with is education?’
Nope, two’s not enough and four is too many. Three is the magic number.
Whether you’re making a speech or writing copy, if you’re making a list it needs to be in threes.
Three sounds right. And as I say every time I talk about writing, if it sounds right when you read it out loud, it almost certainly is right.
Think of the phrases we use every day – ‘game, set and match; ‘hook, line and sinker;’ ‘lock, stock and barrel.’ Clearly I could make a much longer list, but then it wouldn’t be a three – or a tricolon if you want the technical name.
As Mark Forsyth writes in his truly excellent The Elements of Eloquence, the tricolon has a sense of completeness. “It’s perfectly suited to grand rhetoric.” He uses the example of Barack Obama’s victory speech – which packed 21 tricolons into its 25 minutes.
It’s perfectly suited to your writing and speaking as well. When I’m writing for clients – anything from a blog post to web copy to a speech – I’ll look to include tricolons. In a blog post they help the reader to ‘hear’ my client speaking: in a speech they’re simply indispensable.
You don’t need to limit yourself to single words either. ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!’ And let’s leave the last word on tricolons to Shakespeare’s Henry V: ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’
Trust me. The tricolon works. Use it.