Veni, Vidi, Vici – improve rhetoric with this trick
New playing field, old rules: How tried-and-true tricks of the rhetoric trade are more relevant than ever
In times of digital and media overkill, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get attention. The promises of the digital revolution have not been fulfilled. Yes, we now all have our own channel to get our messages out to the people. But no one listens anymore. What to do?
The rule of three in rhetoric
Modern click-baiting mainly resorts to very classic narrative forms that are meant to build suspense and arouse curiosity: The cliffhanger (“You won’t believe what she said in response…!”) and foreshadowing (“Number five is particularly interesting!”). These tried-and-true stylistic devices work in the digital world, too.
A less dramatic rhetorical tool to stimulate the reader’s attention is the so-called rule of three (The Rule of Three). This refers to a grouping of three words, phrases or sentences into a unit, also known as a “tricolon” in Greek. Probably the most famous figure of three is Caeser’s saying, after he had defeated Pharnace II’s troops from Pountus in only four hours: “Veni, vidi, vici.” Elegantly, the Emperor of Rome formulates the ease of his victory with three words rising in the drama, which also have the same initial and final letter. The professional also speaks here of an alliterative climax of three asyndetic two-syllables with a homoioteleuton.
The rule of three is found both in stories (The Three Musketeers, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Stooges) and as a stylistic device in major speeches.
The rule of three on the example
Let’s take an example from Martin Luther King, who uses the same phrase at the beginning of the sentence to construct a dramatic enumeration of three elements:
“This is not the time to allow ourselves the luxury of cooling off or to take the sedative of gradualness. Now is the time to realize the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and dreary valley of racial segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to raise our nation from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of community for all people.”
And U.S. President Obama, who borrowed heavily rhetorically from the speeches of Martin Luther King and also John F. Kennedy, also used the rule of threes several times in his inauguration speech:
“I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices born by our ancestors.” – “Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered.” – Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”
Mastering the next speech rhetorically
So if you want to have the reader’s attention in your next speech, presentation or press release, don’t overwhelm them with too many facts. A maximum of three figures, a maximum of the three most important arguments, a maximum of three content units per paragraph. The difficulty of a good story just like a good press release is not completeness. It is the selection of the most important points. Or to use Goethe’s words, “Sorry for the length of the letter, I didn’t have time to be brief.”