Persuasion through Public Speaking: The Five Canons of Rhetoric

This is the first of a three-part series this month that examines persuasive leadership through public speaking. The president representing this trait is Abraham Lincoln, which can be viewed here.

One of my favorite graduate school classes was on rhetorical theory. I found comfort in a basic structure for persuading. 

Though, it’s about more than just the structure. While having a proven formula for presenting creates a solid foundation, it’s the presenter’s creativity, perspective, voice, and personal attributes that makes the presentation come alive and distinguishes the presentation from all others.

The Greeks and Romans were interested in argument and rhetoric. In De Inventione, the Roman philosopher Cicero explains that there are five canons, or tenets, of rhetoric:

1 Invention (Latin, inventio; Greek, heuresis)

Cicero, in his c. 84 B.C. treatise De Inventione, defined invention as the “discovery of valid or seemingly valid arguments to render one’s cause probable.” Basically, invention is finding the ways to persuade.

Interestingly enough, over 2,500 years ago Aristotle demonstrated that for invention to be productive, it must also include an understanding of one’s audience — their background, interests and needs.

If you’ve read my previous book, Unleashing Your Superpower: Why Persuasive Communication Is The Only Force You Will Ever Need, I devoted an entire chapter to how important it is to focus on the needs of your audience. You will never persuade without understanding your audience.

2 Arrangement (Latin, dispositio; Greek, taxis)

As its name suggests, arrangement refers to how the different parts of the speech are put together. Although not everyone agreed on these parts, Cicero and Quintilian identified six:

The Exordium (introduction)

The Narrative

The Partition (division)

The Confirmation

The Refutation

The Peroration (conclusion)

However, current models have reduced the arrangement to the well-recognized three parts: introduction, body, and conclusion (and this is demonstrated in the modern five-paragraph theme).

Arrangement gives the basic format for how these pieces become the whole and together they are the structure for a coherent argument.

3 Style (Latin, elocutio; Greek, lexis)

Like speakers throughout the ages, modern speakers are often identified by their style of presenting. Think of the ever-enthusiastic Gary Vaynerchuk with his boundless, energetic presentation style.

Style embodies elements of how something is spoken, written or performed. It’s the way a speaker presents the argument to stir the emotions. While a narrow understanding of style refers to word choice, sentence structures and figures of speech, an expanded understanding includes the manifestation of the speaker.

Roman rhetorician Quintilian (c. 35 – c. 96 AD) spoke of three levels of style:

Plain style for instructing an audience

Middle style for moving an audience

Grand style for pleasing an audience

4 Memory (Latin, memoria; Greek, mneme)

As its name suggests, memory includes all the methods and tools available to help a presenter commit concepts to memory.

5 Delivery (Latin, pronuntiato; Greek, hypocrisis)

In De Oratore, Cicero said that delivery “has the sole and supreme power in oratory; without it, a speaker of the highest mental capacity can be held in no esteem; while one of moderate abilities, with this qualification, may surpass even those of the highest talent.”

Of the five canons listed above, pay particular attention to Style, as it relates to Abraham Lincoln. His oratory was known to be logical and built upon outstanding premises. Lincoln’s arguments were lauded by various contemporary sources:

The address was one of the clearest, most logical, argumentative and convincing discourses on the Nebraska question to which we have listened.
–Quincy (Illinois) Whig, November 3, 1854

Every point he touched upon was elucidated by the clearness of his logic, and with his keen blade of satire he laid bare the revolting features of policy of the pseudo-Democracy.
–Peoria (Illinois) Weekly Republican, July 25, 1856

His manner is neither fanciful nor rhetorical, but logical. His thoughts are strong thoughts, and are strongly joined together. He is a close reasoner, and has the faculty of making himself clearly understood.
–Galena (Illnois) North-Western Gazette, July 1856

Keep in mind that these five canons represent a basic structure, but it’s the speaker and her learned skills that bring these canons to life and determine the success (or not) of the speaker’s ability to persuade through presentations.



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