Excerpt from “Punchline Your Bottom Line: 76 Ways to Get Any Business Audience Laughing” by David Glickman.
This is one of those techniques that comedians have been using for centuries. I’m sure that even the funnier cavemen were etching three drawings on the wall of their caves—the first two normal, the third one funny. That is the essence of the Rule of Three—a list of three things; with the first two being perceived as “normal” or fitting to the idea being conveyed, and the third one catching the listener by surprise in its outlandish contrast to the others.
Notice I said “listener.” The Rule of Three is designed to be enjoyed by the ear. While it can work in print, it doesn’t have the same impact that hearing it can. There is a rhythm that is created with the three items, regardless of how short or long each item is. (Although shorter is always better.)
Here’s an example from one of my programs: “I remember when I first started in this business years ago. I had dreams. I had hopes. I had….hair.” With the setup, the listener is expecting to hear something like “I had dreams. I had hopes. I had courage.” Instead, they’re hearing “I had dreams. I had hopes. I had….hair.” (I take an ever-so slight pause before the word “hair.”) They’re surprised and they laugh.
Another example: “One day we’re hoping to open offices in some major cities. New York. Los Angeles. Okeechobee.”
And it can be in the form of longer sentences or a series of questions: “How many of you here have a graduate degree?” “How many of you here have a bachelors degree?” “How many of you still get the Weekly Reader delivered to your home and had somebody else write your resume for you?”
If you need to list more than two “normal” items in order to make a point, then don’t make your fourth one or fifth one a funny one. You still may get a laugh, but it won’t have the power that the Rule of Three gives you. You can do multiple Rules of Three in a row, too, which begins to build anticipation with the audience with each successive one.