Strategy. Innovation. Brand.


Inventing Your Argument

Cicero – Canon Crafter

Aristotle defined rhetoric as the ability to “see the available means of persuasion”. In other words, what will it take to persuade the audience to agree with your proposal? It may be an eloquent speech. It may be a brief video. It may be a nice bouquet of flowers. We aim to understand the dynamics of the situation and select the best available means of gaining agreement. To find the best persuasive approach, Cicero said that we need to consider five principles: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. (Click here for brief definitions of each).

Many books on rhetoric present Cicero’s five canons rather formally. They may seem forbidding and perhaps somewhat outdated. But the canons are actually quite useful in finding the best available means of persuasion. To understand the canons and use them effectively, it helps to think of the questions each canon raises.

Let’s begin with the first canon: invention. We seek to invent the most persuasive argument for a given audience. Here are the questions to consider.

  • What do you want the audience to do? This surprisingly simple question often goes unanswered. We may express our opinions without a specific goal in mind. As the Cheshire cat said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will lead you there.” Your goal may be to convince the audience to vote for a given candidate or buy a certain product. The more specific the goal, the more persuasive the presentation. (Some inexperienced presenters seem to have a goal of showing the audience how smart they are. That’s usually not persuasive.)
  • Are you a credible witness? Why would the audience trust you? If you have relevant experience, make sure the audience knows about it. You can state this yourself or ask someone to introduce you. (They can brag about your accomplishments better than you can). If you don’t have relevant experience, the audience may find you untrustworthy. In this case, you’ll need to enhance your credibility by citing people and sources that your audience respects.
  • What are the benefits? To whom do they accrue? – Benefits may fall in several different categories. What are the benefits to individuals in the audience? What are the benefits to their families? To their companies? Think of the hierarchy of benefits and identify the most important ones. Make sure they’re highlighted throughout the presentation.
  • Who will make the decision? What are their interests? – Emphasize the benefits to those who are making the decision. Early in my career, I sold word processing equipment that provided many benefits to clerical workers. But clerical workers didn’t make the buying decision. Financial managers did. I needed to state benefits for managers rather than for secretaries.
  • How does the audience feel about the competition? – If the audience respects and admires the competition, it’s foolish to launch nasty zingers against them. Doing so simply diminishes your credibility. Clearly state your admiration for the competition, then identify how your solution is different and what benefits that produces.
  • How can you convince the audience that you’re one of them? – You want your audience to think you are like them in some regard. This could be your experience, you manner of speaking, your vocabulary, your age, or even how you’re dressed. Don’t ever give the impression that you’re speaking down to your audience. Tip: you don’t need to dress like the audience; they may sense that you’re inauthentic. You do need to dress like the audience expects you to dress.
  • What are the audience’s commonplaces? How can you frame your argument to fit their commonplaces? – A commonplace, in this sense, is a set of commonly held beliefs. A conservative audience’s commonplace might be: “We should take steps to enhance liberty.” A liberal audience’s commonplace might be “We should take steps to enhance justice.” You should always know your audience’s commonplaces and – to the extent possible – adapt your argument to fit them.
  • What stories can you tell? – Audiences react much better to stories than to abstract concepts. Stories are memorable and touch on emotions. They illustrate ideas simply and clearly. Personal stories are the best but, if you don’t have a personal story to share, feel free to make up a story that illustrates your key points.

Remember that you’re just trying to invent the argument at this point. There are many more questions to ask round out a persuasive argument. If you can answer these questions, however, you can greatly enhance your chances of success.

Preparing Persuasive Presentations

Canons to the left of me. Canons to the right of me.

My clients often ask me what they should think about when they think about preparing a persuasive presentation. Should they write the script first? Create the images? Write an outline? Select a few key phrases and figures of speech? All of these are important elements of a persuasive presentation. But I usually tell them to think back 2,000 years to a Roman orator named Cicero.

Cicero was the best orator in the Roman forum. He could move audiences to tears or — more importantly — to action. He wrote down five rules for creating persuasive presentations in the first century BCE. Over time, these have become known as the five canons of rhetoric. They’re as relevant today as they were in ancient Rome.

For Cicero, the five canons are: 1) Invention; 2) Arrangement; 3) Style; 4) Memory; 5) Delivery. Let’s look briefly at each one.

Invention — Aristotle said that rhetoric is the ability to “see the available means of persuasion” in a given situation. Invention is about seeing all the ways you might persuade an audience and picking the best ones. First, you need to decide what you want the audience to do. You may simply want them to agree with you. Or take some specified action. Or buy your product. If your audience largely agrees with your message, you may select certain persuasive tactics. If your audience is largely hostile to your message, you’ll probably need other tactics. In today’s world, this is often known as creating the message strategy.

Arrangement — You’ve created your strategy, now you need to identify the elements of your argument and arrange them, in the best possible order. Let’s say you have three key points to make: A, B, and C. Your recognize that A is your strongest point, B is the second strongest, and C is the weakest. Knowing what you know about audiences, which order would you put them in? People often put them in descending order. But you’re typically better off putting them in A –> C –> B order. Why? Because audiences remember the beginning and end of your speech (primacy and latency) and forget the middle. You might as well put you weakest point in the middle — they’re going to forget it anyway. You also need to consider ethos, logos, and pathos. How you use these and when you use them depends on what you’re trying to achieve. You can learn more here.

Style — you’ve outlined your thoughts, now how do you want to sound? Do you want to sound like a college professor? A preacher? A business leader? A rabble-rousing politician? What does the audience expect? Which persona will be the most persuasive? This is about positioning yourself — the audience will ask, who is this person and why should I trust her? Once you decide the persona, you need to select the vocabulary. As you know, college professors use different words than rabble-rousing politicians. What words best fit your message strategy?

Memory — you probably have a big storehouse of knowledge. How easily can you access it? In my prepared remarks, I usually memorize certain keywords that trigger a chain of thoughts. Once I’m on the chain, it’s easy to follow. I appear to be in command of my material, which enhances my credibility. Memory is also important in the Q & A session.  If you can answer questions easily, fluidly, and clearly, your credibility will soar. The trick is to know your way around the storehouse. The Greeks invented the memory palace to help orators remember and retrieve relevant information.

Delivery — You’ve now got it all organized. Can you deliver the goods when the time comes? Where style focuses mainly on what is said, delivery focuses more on how you say it. Do you want to speak quickly or slowly? Do you want to stand or sit? Podium or not? How will you dress? How do you want your voice to sound? How will you modulate your voice — or your body language — to emphasize key points? The goal is twofold: 1) to fit in with your audience (good decorum); 2) to appear comfortable and confident as you speak.

Using the five canons is like using a checklist. If you can fulfill each canon, you’re likely to have a very persuasive presentation indeed.

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