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. Yet few broadcasters use the technique intentionally. But work at it a bit and breaks will be sharper, the content more memorable, and stories will be more interesting.
Humans are conditioned to respond to a rhythmic pattern of three things. That’s why pastors are taught to deliver a three-point sermon, products are offered 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 your 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 using The Rule of 3. In His story of The Good Samaritan, the first two passed by, building anticipation for the third. That’s when the story takes a dramatic turn and builds to a conclusion.
How To Apply The Rule Of 3 In Storytelling
So what do these examples have to do with a radio show? Plenty. There are applications everywhere.
If a segment has too much information, listeners get lost because it’s hard to follow. It becomes confusing, long, and it feels heavy. But a story with two key elements seems shallow. Three is “just right”.
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, then started down the aisle 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 suspense. Adding options allows the listener to identify with the character.
Show Prepping The Rule of 3
Another way to use the Rule of 3 is when preparing a show. Some personalities use a storyboarding technique to visualize how the story will develop. This can help maintain momentum and is a good way to ensure there are enough (but not too many) breadcrumbs in the story.
Some shows specialize in serialized content across multiple breaks. This can drive additional quarter-hours if the storyline supports it.
So a key question is how many breaks should be planned for a multi-break story? The answer, magically, is three. It’s hard to stay fresh beyond three breaks. Here’s how to manage it:
Break 1: Set up the story by introducing characters and main points. For example, a relationship story could start with a problem. Establish one or both characters involved.
Break 2: Build details to create tension and anticipation. Exaggerate the issues using the Three E’s of Entertainment. New details pull the audience deeper into the drama.
Break 3: Build toward the payoff. Turn up the volume to focus on a surprising twist (remember the Third Little Pig).
There are many other ways to apply the Rule of 3, including:
- 3 is the best number of stories when presenting information in a newscast or entertainment feature. It has a rhythm that’s easy to follow and doesn’t get bogged down.
- Traffic reports are best when limited to three major areas.
- The ideal number of (main) personalities on a show is three. A third voice adds a dynamic that takes the show beyond where two can go. But when a fourth main personality is added, it can become chaotic and hard to follow.
There are no absolute rules that must be followed but pay attention to the Rule of 3. Experiment and let me know how you’re applying the Rule of 3.
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
4 Ways to Turn Up The Volume in Storytelling
Storytelling Basics Seminar on Demand
The Radio Storyteller’s Toolbox