Matthew McConaughey’s Oscars acceptance speech is a great example of how to use the rule of three. It makes his speech memorable.
Matthew McConaughey nailed his Oscars acceptance speech. He wasn’t just charm and good looks. He used a wonderful rhetorical device: the rule of three.
The rule of three works because it makes the message easier to remember. We see it in history’s most memorable speeches; they’re embedded in the stories we grew up with; ad copywriters use it all the time. Just then I used the rule of three.
You could probably recall a dozen or so examples without hesitation. Here’s a few:
- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly;
- The Three Little Pigs;
- “Thinner, lighter, and faster” — Steve Jobs’ iPad 2 presentation;
- “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow…” and “…government of the people, by the people, for the people…” — Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address;
- Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll;
- I came, I saw, I conquered.
Matthew McConaughey’s Oscars speech
In three minutes Matthew McConaughey uses the rule of three in many ways. Firstly, he uses tricolon. Tricolon is “three parallel elements of the same length occurring together in a series”.
There’s a few things, about three things to my account that I need each day. One of them is something to look up to, another is something to look forward to, and another is someone to chase.
This sets up the structure for his speech which is divided into three parts — another example of the rule of three.
- “Now, first off, I want to thank God. ‘Cause that’s who I look up to.”
- “To my family, that’s who and what I look forward to.”
- “And to my hero. That’s who I chase.”
The words of Charlie Laughton:
- “When you’ve got God
- you got a friend,
- and that friend is you.”
His Dad has three things up in heaven:
- “a big pot of gumbo”;
- “a lemon meringue pie”; and
- “a cold can of Miller Lite”.
In the “hero” third of his speech he mentions three ages:
- at 15 he was asked, “Who’s your hero?”;
- at 25 he was asked, “So, are you a hero?”;
- His response, “not even close. No, no, no … my hero’s me at 35.”
He closes his speech with the tricolon that sets up his speech:
- “whatever it is we look up to,
- whatever it is we look forward to,
- and whoever it is we’re chasing…”
and leaving with:
- “to that I say, ‘Amen.’
- To that I say, ‘Alright, alright, alright.’
- To that I say, ‘just keep living.'”
I think it’s a wonderful speech. I’ll never forget the original tricolon. It’s seared in my brain and the result is I’ll probably remember most of the speech for years to come. That’s not something I can say about many acceptance speeches.
Ann Wylie says
I don’t think “the rule of three” overcomes the substance of this speech, which is me, me, me! Who wants to hear — three times, no less — that a person’s hero is himself? Especially a person who’s just earned an award playing a man dying of AIDS, who says not one word about the disease, the people affected, etc.? I left this speech, not wowed by its rhetoric, but thinking about what was missing. When she broke up with MM, Sandra Bullock reportedly said, “Nobody loves Matthew more than Matthew does.” I found this speech to be a perfect illustration of that. Rhetoric never trumps substance.
Jeremy Porter says
Thanks for your comment. The focus of this blog is to help people improve their communication, and the rule of three is one way to do that. It just so happens that McConaughey’s speech is a good example of why the rule of three works.
I agree that it would have been great if he could have devoted some his speech to the people living with HIV/AIDS. I think Lupita Nyong’o did a remarkable job of this. This was a great line: “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is due to so much pain in someone else’s.”