Cicero’s Five Canons: If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

Last week’s Mega-Double in Professional Communication and Presentation (that would be 8 hours of class…in one day…at once…) focused on the following topics:

  • What 10 qualities students want to work to embody in their own presentations
  • An introduction to my favorite TED talk, Benjamin Zander’s, “On music and passion”
  • How to manage presentation anxiety
  • The importance of thorough audience analysis
  • Nancy Duarte’s New Slide Ideology
  • Garr Reynold’s Naked Presenter/techniques for delivering engaging presentations

That was a light day, actually. What always falls by the wayside that I just can’t seem to find a new place for are Cicero’s Five Canons of Rhetoric.

Seriously, I sneak this in during persuasion, but it should be part of the first day. It’s time to really have a heart to heart with the part of me that is willing to cut mercilessly like Ira Glass. Until then, I share my two cents on Cicero’s Five Canons with you here. Cicero, whom I refer to as the OG of oration, developed these canons or arts between 55-51 BCE as a means of further standardizing the work Aristotle had first developed in On Rhetoric in the 5th century BCE. Cicero, although a great orator, as a supporter of the Republic, struggled against the power-hungry First Triumvirate, Julius Caesar’s taking of Rome, and the Second Triumvirate’s power plays. He met his end at the hands of Mark Antony.  Though currently not in fashion as a great rhetorician, Cicero’s study of the process of speech remains a staple of public speaking curricula. These are the five keys to any great speech, and they fit in nicely with Nancy Duarte’s presentation ecosystem of message, visual story, and delivery.

Invention

According to rhetoric god, Jay Heinrich’s, Cicero, who was considered the greatest orator of his time, believed that invention was more important than delivery. Heinrich’s quotes Cicero, stating that “eloquence without wisdom has often been a great obstacle and never an advantage” (Source). It is this searching out of wisdom, the seeking of knowledge that is applied via experience that characterizes invention best.



In the invention phase, presenters seek out the means of best appealing to their audience; they determine counter-arguments, complete audience personas, conduct surveys, and conduct deep research into credible sources of information. In this phase of the presentation development process, the best rule of thumb is to resist the urge to cut and delete. This is about getting everything out and finding all connective points.

In class, I introduce them to a few more thoughts on invention, including those of Duarte, Reynolds, and Godin, as well as introducing them to Dan Pink’s concept of “A Whole New Mind.” I use Pink’s concept of thinking with a whole mind because this objective, creative and logical approach to planning a presentation taps into all of our strengths as humans. Great invention takes a whole minded approach.


Arrangement

 While it may seem obvious to us that arranging and organizing our ideas into a digestible, understandable, and concrete structure, for orators in Cicero’s time, organizing one’s ideas around a centralized point was not so obvious. While critics of Cicero’s canons claim the rigidity of his method kills creativity, I find liberation in constraints, and as one of my students’ major concerns is the “flow” of their presentations, I believe some study into arrangement can only help.
For Cicero, arrangement was divided into six parts: “an introduction, a statement of facts, a division between ideas (if there is one), proof or evidence supporting all ideas, refutation of ideas, an optional digression, and conclusion” (Source).  A presenter uses logic, emotion, and credibility to build each of these chunks and considers the tools in his or her rhetorical arsenal when determining what goes where. For instance, in class, we discuss the importance of beginning with strong emotional or intellectual PUNCH, creating a strong initial impression of credibility, and providing a clear big idea and Duarte’s crossing of the threshold in the introduction.
Another strategy we use in class is storyboarding. My students’ prepare a Pecha Kucha presentation in two weeks as part of their major projects in class. With only two weeks, every moment becomes important, especially the moments devoted to arrangement. As a PK is not your typical presentation and presenters are often anxious about connectivity, exact organization, and flow, we use storyboarding to help create a dynamic, visually-driven structure before slide design begins.

Style

Style in terms of language has less to do with overly flowery phrases, fancy jargon, and elaborate metaphors and much more to do with the speaker applying his or her natural strengths and the three rhetorical appeals to how he or she speaks and presents the information. An orator’s style arsenal depends on experience, comfort level, and intellect, but it often includes one staple–storytelling. Telling stories is a universal form of conveying evidence, emotion, and credibility that has been a staple of the human experience, since pre-literate times as Nancy Duarte explains. Stories not only help touch your audience emotionally (at least, well written stories chock full of relatable characters, concrete detail, and significance), but they also provide tangible evidence and proof (assuming you are not lying). Finally, stories also lend speakers credibility, illustrating a personal connection to the topic and similarity with the audience.

Memory

This is probably the canon I devote the least attention to in class, partly because it is each presenter’s responsibility to practice and prepare, but also because as I’ve learned, the best messages are not memorized, but internalized so that they are delivered as if they are from memory. Unlike the Romans, though, we don’t devote attention to the memory and internalization centers of our children’s minds. We increasingly rely on tools to help us remember, going so far as using a slideshow as a teleprompter. For Cicero, “memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.” It is the presenter’s task to internalize a message and know it as well as she knows her childhood home.

Check out my post on rehearsing a PechaKucha for some excellent internalization advice from Felix Jung of Avoision.com.

Delivery

Cicero’s final canon is delivery. Delivery, while it may seem to be all about flashy hand gestures, projection, articulation, and eye contact, is so much more about conveying one’s natural passion for a subject. As Garr Reynold’s puts it in The Naked Presenter, presenting naked “means connecting and engaging with an audience…in a way that is direct, honest, and clear. …The naked approach embraces the ideas of simplicity, integrity, and passion” (Source). In class, we study his approach to delivering an engaging presentation–connect, engage, sustain, and end powerfully.

 

So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Apply Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric to your next presentation and make one of history’s greatest orators (and your audience) proud!

 

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