Tag Archives: practice

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.


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.


 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 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.


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.


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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Embrace constraints and let go: Preparing for a Pecha Kucha

So, I love Pecha Kucha. I loved the word the first time I heard it, and the concept of a global network of communicators who gather to share ideas in a dynamic way spoke to the newly born public speaking nerd in me. I have asked my on campus and online students for the past two years to prepare and present their own Pecha Kuchas. Today, my class worked on developing (even finalizing) their slides, speaking points, and ideas. Presentations are Tuesday, and I am stoked.

I gave myself the challenge of preparing and presenting my own PK, which I presented at PechaKucha Orlando Vol. 2. I was scared to death. But, I also realized after it was over that I love speaking in front of others, and I couldn’t wait to do it again! I am working on my second PK, tentatively titled The Universe is Half Full: A Trekkie’s Guide to Life, which will be all about what I believe Star Trek can teach us about living and being.

Because PK is fast-paced and dynamic by design (presenters develop and present with 20 slides which automatically advance after 20 seconds–no exceptions), one must approach preparing and practicing a bit differently from other types of presentations. I give my students the following advice as they gear up for presentation day; thanks to Felix Jung for developing such an awesome guide to preparing, developing, and rehearsing a PK over at avoision.com.

#1: Be you, but kick it up a notch!

Presenting is performing to an extent. Dress like yourself, but show your audience you care by leaving the tattered jeans and booty shorts at home. While you don’t have to wear a suit to present at your best, there’s nothing like a little polish to give you that much needed boost of confidence.

#2: Focus most of your tweaking energy on the opening and closing.

At a typical PK night, presenters have to combat a noisy atmosphere, inebriated patrons, and our ever shortening attention spans. After watching thousands of student presentations over the past three years, I can sincerely say that my students have a tough job–presenting to their disinterested, nervous peers cannot be easy. In either context, it’s likely that the audience will quickly forget all but the opening and closing of the presentation, as these are the moments that, when successfully executed, strike an emotional chord with the audience. That emotion lingers far longer than a chart or statistic.

#3: Forget about the slides.

No, you don't have a clicker. No, you can't stare at your slides. The first means you have to practice. The second demands that you focus on your audience.

One of the biggest anxieties of this medium is the perceived lack of control over our pace and content that comes with the pre-timed slide. That anxiety is misdirected; if anything, a PK demands complete control over your pace and content. It is this control that enables you to narrow you subject down to what can be accomplished in the short time given. Control also allows you to adapt the message to the PK pace. Where you go, how long you stay there, and how you get there are entirely in your control.

#4: Write a speaking outline, not a speech.

Common sense indicates that if you write something out and practice only from that prewritten essay-turned-speech, when presentation day comes, you will sound robotic, even monotone, you will likely freak if you make a mistake, and you will lose that very important tool of engagement–eye contact.

These strategies helped me in shaping my presentation. When it came time to rehearse, I turned to Felix Jung’s excellent guide:

#5: Practice against a timed version.

You have no clicker on presentation day, so get your mind and body conditioned to this loss of manual control. Familiarize yourself with what 20 seconds sounds and feels like.

#6: Practice standing up and looking around the room.

Many of us have the tendency to rehearse sitting down in front of our visuals, but that’s not the way anyone should or hopefully would present the information, so why practice this way? Instead, find an audience of peers you trust to give you constructive feedback and practice making eye contact and building rapport with a live audience.

#7: Let the slides do some of the work.

I’ll let Felix handle this one…

One of the most important things I learned when practicing was that I didn’t need to fill in all the details. I didn’t need to give all the backstory – just enough to establish context, and enough to be able to make my point.

Remember that your slides can do a lot of your talking for you. As an example, let’s say you wanted to talk about your younger self, and your slide is a photo of you as a kid.

Instead of saying “This is a photograph of me when I was a child,” jump immediately to the point you want to make. When the image appears, assume that people will pick up much of what’s already in the photograph.

#8: Break your talk into sets.

Splitting your presentation up into manageable chunks (Intro. Body 1. Body 2. Body 3. Conclusion, for instance) is a good practice for any type of presentation, but it especially works when rehearsing for a PK. I practiced each of the chunks of my presentation separately, slowly ironing out my actual points. I then put them all together. Having a clear sense of how each section worked on its own helped me better connect each piece by looking for actual connections. The Romans used the concept of architectural structure to help break their speeches up into manageable chunks. They visualized their speech as a building or structure, and each part of the speech as a room in that structure. Creating a mental structure (in my case, I saw my presentation as a funnel, through which information trickled more narrowly as the speech went along until I arrived at the core of my speech, Sylvia Plath’s “Metaphors.”

#9: Practice cold.

If you can present well when you are at your worst (for me, that’s late at night–I am a daywalker), imagine what you can do when you have prepared, conditions are ideal, and you can turn those nerves into positive energy!

#10: Listen to yourself speak.

I know that the process of listening to or watching oneself can be torturous (I am painfully aware that I sound like Kelly from The Office), but there was no better tool to me when practicing this speech than recording my speech and then repeatedly listening to myself. By the time I presented (about a week after I began practicing), I had the pattern and cadence of my speech down. I knew what I wanted to say without worrying about the slides going faster or slower. I caught parts that were weak in my speech and bolstered them with better support, and when it came time for me to present, I was able to focus on maintaining engagement with my audience, as opposed to glancing at notes or the screen to keep my place.

I strongly encourage you to seek out a Pecha Kucha night in your city. Breaking through your death by Power Point comfort zone and into a place where engaging and dynamic presenting IS your comfort zone takes practice and consistent work. You are given a chance to talk about what drives you, what you care about, what you want others to join you in supporting. PK’s have even become vehicles for humanitarian aid and social change. Besides all that, Pecha Kucha nights are excellent opportunities to learn and know. PK Orlando Vol. 4 is December 2nd. See you there!

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