by Tracy Johnson
When telling stories or constructing breaks on the air, the storytelling Rule of 3 can be a great tool. Not many personalities use the technique. Or if they do, they don’t do it intentionally. But once you know about it and work at it a little, you can sharpen breaks, content and stories.
The Rule of 3 is everywhere. When you know about it, you start to recognize it in places you would never imagine. 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. Or a public speaker is coached to deliver three main points. The audience has a hard time remembering more.
But the Rule of 3 goes deeper than that.
Consider stories you know of from childhood.
Cinderella was a story of a young girl and her two stepsisters. Three.
Goldilocks came upon a house of Three Bears. Remember the chairs? The first was too hard. The second too soft. The third was Just Right. The Boy Who Cried Wolf sounded the alarm twice, and everyone responded. The third time, nobody reacted and a tragedy followed.
Then there were the Three Little Pigs. The same pattern is in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. In both of these stories, the first two figures (the pigs who built their house of straw and sticks, and the priest and Levite) set up anticipation of the third. And it is in the third example that the story takes a dramatic turn and builds to conclusion. The third creates surprise, a foundational element of effective storytelling.
You may be wondering what those stories have to do with your show, and how you perform it. Plenty. There are applications everywhere. Here’s how you can apply it:
If your break has too many points, listeners will get lost. It’s too hard to follow. When details are added to four or five (or more) key elements, the break becomes confusing, long and just feels heavy. That may mean you have to edit some good parts from your content. But that’s okay. It’s more important to be clear.
Similarly, a break with two key elements often comes off a shallow or flat. Like Goldilocks found in the Three Bears story, three is usually “just right”.
Within the story, adding options for the storyteller can help listeners identify with the character, and when you provide three options, it drama for the third choice. 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. She made direct eye contact with me, and started down the aisle directly toward me, reaching into her grimy bag. And she pulls out a paper flower, and begins to smile.
I knew she was going to come and sit down right by me. Now what am I going to 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. Or I could pretend I hadn’t seen her, and lay my bag down on the seat next to me…and maybe spread out a little to encourage her to sit somewhere else. But that would be horribly rude, and even though she was…interesting…she seemed harmless enough. So here’s what I did….I (continue the story)
Do you see how a simple story can be embellished by inserting the Rule of 3? In building drama, the storyteller added two options that may (or may not) have been present at the time of the actual event. And it helps the listener feel they’re in the character’s place.
Another way to use the Rule of 3 is when storyboarding a break, especially in the Dress Up phase of storytelling. Every break must maintain forward momentum to keep the audience’s attention. We do that by dropping breadcrumbs that keep theme interested.
By designing the story with two major breadcrumbs (punchlines) that point toward the third (payoff), the story builds in anticipation.
Some shows specialize in serialized content that stretches across multiple breaks. That’s a great way to drive additional quarter-hours, as long as the story can support 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 often (usually) three. Trying to keep it fresh beyond three breaks can be difficult and becomes redundant. Two breaks often feels like it didn’t establish significance.
Break 1: Set up the story and introduce the characters and main points. For example, a relationship story could start with the problem, and establish one or both of the characters in the story. Once that’s established, the stage is set to develop the topic. In the steps of storytelling, this is the Hook and Set Up.
Break 2: Build details into the story, creating anticipation. In this break, add perspective and exaggerate the issues using the Three E’s of Entertainment. New information comes out that changes the emotion in the story and causes strong emotional connections with the audience. This is the Dress Up phase.
Break 3: Add details and drama, building to the resolution. In the third break, turn up the volume on the emotional parts of the story, focusing on a surprise twist (remember the Third Little Pig). This is the end of the Dress Up phase and the Pay Off.
Ironically, three is a the number of elements best used when presenting information in a feature. When coaching shows, we usually recommend three stories in a newscast or entertainment feature. Three stories in sports. It has a rhythm and flow that’s easy to follow and doesn’t get bogged down.
Try it on your show with everything you do to see how it feels. For example, instruct traffic reporters to touch on three major areas in each report. If you routinely give temperatures in various parts of your coverage area, try it with three each time. It also works well when stacking teases in one break. You can easily tease three upcoming segments, but more than that just gets cluttered.
I could go on and on with examples of how the Rule of 3 works for radio shows. Another example is the ideal number of ()main) personalities on a show. It’s three.
There’s.a powerful dynamic that comes into play when a third voice is introduced. It takes the show into areas that is hard to get to with just two. And when a fourth main personality is added, it’s harder to identify who’s who, and much harder to remember everyone’s names.
This isn’t to suggest that a duo can’t win, or that more than three is a mistake. Not at all. But a show with two main personalities doesn’t have as much to work with as three, and more than three main personalities often becomes chaotic. Again, three is just right.
Personality radio is inexact. There are no absolute rules that must be followed. But if you pay attention to the Rule of 3, you’ll find ways to apply it to your show that make it easier and more compelling. Experiment with it, and let me know how you’re applying the Rule of 3.
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