The Rule Of 3

The Rule Of 3

by Tracy Johnson

The magic number is three. Two is not enough. Four is too many. Three is just right. The Rule of 3 is all around us. Be alert and you will recognize it in places you would never imagine. Yet few broadcasters use the technique intentionally. But work at it a bit and breaks will be sharper. Content will stand out. Stories will be more interesting. Listener reaction will be greater.

The concept is that humans are conditioned to respond to a rhythmic pattern of three things.

That’s why pastors are taught to deliver a three-point sermon, buying options are usually in three tiers, and stories have three parts (a start, middle, and end).

But the Rule of 3 goes even deeper.

The Rule of 3

Think about stories from childhood.

  • Cinderella was a story of a young girl and her two stepsisters. Three girls.
  • Goldilocks came upon a house of Three Bears. Remember the chairs? The first was too hard. The second was too soft. The third was Just Right.
  • The Boy Who Cried Wolf sounded the alarm twice, and everyone responded. But after the third time, the story moved forward.

There were the Three Little Pigs. Not two. Not four. Three.

The same pattern is in the Bible. Jesus’ told parables, often using The Rule of 3. In His story of The Good Samaritan, the first two figures passed by. This built anticipation for the third. And it is in the third example that the story takes a dramatic turn and builds to a conclusion.

So what do these examples have to do with a radio show?

Plenty. There are applications everywhere.

If a break has too much information, listeners get lost. It becomes hard to follow. The segment becomes confusing, too long, and it feels heavy.

But a story with just two key elements often comes off as shallow. Three is usually “just right”.

That means good parts will need to be edited and left out.

The Rule Of 3 In Storytelling

Here’s how to apply The Rule of 3 to storytelling.

Drama: Add options to help listeners identify with the central character of a story. For example:

It was late at night and I was sitting on the subway, headed uptown. It was quiet and nearly every seat was open. We stop and a woman gets on. She’s wearing a cape, clearly hadn’t showered in days and had the strangest look in her eyes (notice there are three qualities in her appearance!).

She made direct eye contact with me, then started down the aisle directly toward me, reaching into her grimy bag (Again, she does three things).

Just as I expected the worst, she pulled out a paper flower. Then began to smile.

I  knew she was going to sit by me. So what could I do?

Well, the doors hadn’t closed yet. I could jump off and escape. But then I’d have to wait for the next train (Option 1).

Or I could pretend I hadn’t seen her, and lay my bag down on the seat next to me to encourage her to sit somewhere else. But that would be horribly rude, and even though she was…interesting…she seemed harmless enough. (Option 2).

So here’s what I did….I (Continue the story with Option 3).

Inserting the Rule of 3 slows the story and builds drama. By adding options that may not have been present at the time of the event, the listener is better able to identify with the character to anticipate what happens next.

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Another way to use the Rule of 3 is when preparing a show. Some personalities use the storyboarding technique to manage details and visualize how the break will develop.  This can help maintain momentum to keep the audience’s attention.

This is a good way to ensure there are enough (but not too many) breadcrumbs in the story.

Apply the Rule of 3 by including two major breadcrumbs (or mini-payoffs) that resolve a small dilemma. This satisfies “what will happen next” curiosity. But each mini-payoff should also point to the third payoff. Building to the conclusion increases anticipation to the ultimate conclusion, satisfying their curiosity for “how will this turn out”.

Multi-Break Content

Some shows specialize in serialized content across multiple breaks. This can drive additional quarter-hours, as long as the storyline supports it. And if it moves forward.

So a key question is often how many breaks are ideal for multi-break content? And the answer, magically, is three. It’s hard to stay fresh beyond three breaks. Content usually becomes redundant. Two breaks feel like it doesn’t establish significance.

Here’s how to manage it:

Break 1: Set up the story by introducing characters (if any) and main points. For example, a relationship story could start with a problem. Establish one or both characters involved.

Break 2: Build details into the story, creating anticipation. Add perspective and exaggerate the issues using the Three E’s of Entertainment. As new details emerge, emotion in the story evolves and causes stronger connections with the audience.

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Break 3: Build drama toward resolution. Turn up the volume, focusing on a surprise twist (remember the Third Little Pig).

3 Stories in a Feature

Ironically, three is the best number of elements when presenting information in a feature. I usually recommend three stories in a newscast or entertainment feature. Three stories in sports. It has a rhythm that’s easy to follow and doesn’t get bogged down.

For example, instruct traffic reporters to touch on three major areas in each report. If temperatures are part of the weather forecast, announce three locations and temps each time

3 Personalities on a Show

There are many more examples of how the Rule of 3 works for radio shows. In fact, the ideal number of (main) personalities on a show is three.

A third voice adds a powerful dynamic that takes the show beyond where two can go. But when a fourth main personality is added, it becomes chaotic and hard to follow. Listeners have a difficult time figuring out who’s who, and it’s much harder to remember individual names.

This isn’t to suggest that a duo can’t win, or that more than three is a mistake. But it does make it more challenging.


There are no absolute rules that must be followed to succeed in personality radio. But pay attention to the Rule of 3.  Experiment with it and apply some of the concepts. And let me know how you’re applying the Rule of 3.


Jesus The Storyteller Can Transform Your Show

How To Storyboard a Radio Segment

Tips to Maintain Forward Momentum In A Segment

The Art Of Dropping Breadcrumbs In A Story

How To Create & Manage Serialized Content

Turn Up The Volume: Exaggeration Is The Key To A Great Story

Storytelling Basics Seminar on Demand

The Radio Storyteller’s Toolbox

Storytelling Basics eBook

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