Mind, body, spirit. Past, present, future. Three bears. Three Muses. Three Stooges.

To Pythagoras (6th century BCE), three was the number of harmony. Confucius (551-479 BCE) named reflection, imitation, and experience as the means through which wisdom comes. About a thousand years later in India, Bhartrihari said, "Giving, consuming, and loss are the three ways by which wealth is diminished," adding that "the man who neither gives nor spends has yet the third way open to him."

What is this power of three? It's partly symbolic. It's mostly cultural.

Professor of Anthropology and Folklore Alan Dundes (1934-2005) examined the ubiquity of the number three in American culture. "Our whole culture is three-determined," he said. "We divide everything into threes including space and time." Three is, he emphasized, "the ritual number of choice throughout the Indo-European and Semitic world."

That world holds the following trio of triads, each offering a way to understand and practice speaking and writing.


For rhetoric to be effective, writers and speakers must successfully address each point of the triangle. They must give thought to their audience, to what the audience knows and in what ways they can engage its members. The text, the message crafted, requires care in both content and structure, a concern that may demand multiple drafts to satisfy. The author sets the tone and style of the communication, always aware of how he, his messages, and his purpose are likely to be perceived and understood by his audience.


Cicero (106-43 BCE) divided rhetoric into three purposes: to teach, to delight, and to persuade.

Teaching demands that information or knowledge be shared in such a way that it is learned, understood, grasped. Information itself is not a message structure; it's more than a collection of detail or data. It must be arranged toward a point or in support of one and woven into a cloth of understanding.

When writers or speakers instill delight, their audience feels satisfied or appreciative, pleased or even happy. Through matters of style such as diction as well as by aiming for synchronicity, authors and orators set the stage for audience delight.

The persuasive purpose requires moving the audience toward the direction the speaker/writer advocates. It entails winning assent or acceptance, hearts and minds, even if just a little.

Cicero encouraged the mixing of these three purposes for greatest effect: "For he is the best orator who by speaking both teaches, and delights, and moves the minds of his hearers. To teach them is his duty, to delight them is creditable to him, to move them is indispensable."


Meeting that standard often depends on the successful use of the Aristotelian strategies ethos, logos, and pathos. In a balance that meets the characteristics and purpose of the audience, author, and text, all can be used in a single text or presentation.

An appeal to ethos uses the author's credibility as a way to persuade. One to logos employs reason and logic. One to pathos rouses and connects with emotion.

By addressing them all, a writer or speaker benefits from the harmony that is three—morning, noon, and night.