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March 6, 2009

The magic of threes: how it works for Gordon Brown, Barack Obama, and Stevie Wonder


Tricolons: how they can work for Obama, Brown, and you

Firstly, let’s make a few things clear: Barack Obama has never asked for my help on his speeches; neither has Gordon Brown; and I’ve drawn heavily on an article on Obama’s use of Roman-oratory technique in this post.

Did you see that? The paragraph above uses three points to add rhythm and emphasis. That’s a tricolon – a trick that orators, speechwriters, and spinners of all stripes use to make their writing flow. There you go, another tricolon.

Charlotte Higgins’ article explains that the tricolon is one of several tricks of Roman oratory that Obama uses in his speeches. These tricks work well on our ear and brain, and they’ve been around for a long time. Long enough for Cicero to have mastered them in the first century BC (he’s the fellow in the photo at the top of the page).

We thought it’d be interesting to compare Mr Obama’s use of the tricolon with Mr Brown’s. We know it’s not fair – one’s a world-renowned orator, the other’s not – but it offers some useful lessons. For business writers, and maybe for political leaders too.

The gaps between tricolons are bigger in
a Gordon Brown speech…

We looked at Brown’s recent speech to the US Congress, and Obama’s inauguration speech. (You can find the text of Gordon Brown’s speech here, and Barack Obama’s inaugural address here.)

Brown uses one tricolon for every 168 words, Obama’s tricolons zing you every 156 words.

The tricolon-count isn’t the be-all and end-all. But if you read the two speeches one after the other you can’t help but notice the difference between them. The Obama speech has more flow and more persuasive power – and the tricolons are one of the things that make the difference.

..and longer sentences make Brown’s speech 17% harder to read

The bad news for Brown’s speech gets worse when we turn to readability scores.

Readability tests show that:

  • Brown’s average sentence is 14% longer than Obama’s.
  • Brown’s speech is 17%% harder to read).
  • You need nearly three more years in school to understand Brown’s speech.


Microsoft Word’s readability tests
You can judge the readability of text by looking at the average number of words per sentence, and the total syllable-count per sentence.

Microsoft Word uses two readability tests developed by Rudolf Flesch, an American readability expert born in 1901, and his colleague JP Kincaid. The tests are based on evidence that hard-to-read text tends to have long, complex sentences and lots of multi-syllable words.

Long sentences and a high syllable-count make readers lose their place. Readers then have to go back and re-read that sentence or paragraph. Or maybe they’ll just leave the text, and go off and do something else.

Barack and Stevie – a tricolon-match made in heaven

Barack Obama gave Stevie Wonder the Library of Congress’ Gershwin Prize for Popular Song on the 25th of February 2009. He said that Stevie had been the soundtrack to his youth, and added this tricolon-form praise:

“Stevie has always drawn on the incredible range of traditions in his music and, from that, he’s created a style that’s at once:

  • uniquely American,
  • uniquely his own,
  • and yet somehow universal”.


We’d like to point out that Stevie minted his own memorable tricolon way back in 1970 in the form of his upbeat floor-filler ‘Signed, sealed, delivered’.

Make your writing clearer and more persuasive

We’re advocates of ‘the magic of threes’ (and tricolons). Our writing training shows professional-services writers how to use threes to get their point across quickly and clearly. And we help writers see how shorter sentences and simpler language make your writing clearer and easier to read.

And rather than dumbing writing down, these techniques make complex information (like legal, investment research, and accounting updates) clearer and more useful to clients.

Here’s our free advice on the magic of threes and clearer writing:

  • Threes work. They’re easy to remember, easy to read, and easy to say. They work well in briefings and reports – don’t save them for your speeches.
  • Shorter sentences are clearer. Try to keep to one thought per sentence, and a maximum of 25 words to a sentence.
  • Avoid the passive voice, and long words. Extra syllables and extra words slow readers down. The passive voice makes you add extra words to your sentences, and big (empty) words bloat your syllable-count (e.g. ‘use’ is always better than ‘utilise’).
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