Five Cannons of Rhetoric – Five Principles of Effective Communication

Effective communication is essential to be able to inspire, influence and persuade your audience either one-on-one or more significant audience. There are tools identified, developed and used to develop those skills.

The word “canon” is most commonly used in music to describe a piece in which a melody is introduced in different parts successively, or in an expression like “the canon of literature”: a collection of books which comprise a set such as Scripture or the Great Books.

Canon means “a general rule”, “law”, or “principle.”

Rhetoric is the third liberal art, the top of the trivium, the noble art of persuasion, a skill in the tradition of Plato and Paul, Cicero and Augustine, which since ancient times has been practised and applied for noble (as well as ignoble) purposes. From ancient times up through the early 20th century, most believed learning the art of rhetoric was a noble pursuit and considered it an essential element of a well-rounded education. While some saw rhetoric as a vital tool to teach truth more effectively and as a weapon to protect themselves from those who argued unfairly and for nefarious purposes, others see rhetoric as the manipulation of truth or associate it with an overly fastidious concern with how things are said over what is said.

Rhetoric is simply the art of persuasion through effective speaking and writing.

There are two different views on the teaching of the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric).

The first group argues that;

  • When children are young, they can memorise quickly (“poll-parrot”), so give them lots of memorisation to develop their grammar;
  • When children are a bit older and inevitably begin to argue (“pert”), teach them logic so they can argue well;
  • When teenage students have enough knowledge and skill, they will wax creative (“poetic”), so we should cultivate eloquence—how to recognise and understand beautiful language as well as how to write and speak skillfully.

The other group argues that we cannot follow this “stages of development” approach, lest analytical grammar becomes a bane to the elementary school student, logic without meaningful application become a tedious exercise to the middle school student, rhetoric becomes the exclusive domain of the high school student. Therefore, the skills of the trivium should be learned and refined throughout one’s life and in parallel.

The Five Canons of Rhetoric give us five general principles, or divisions, which, when we come to understand and apply them, will make our communication more effective. Therefore, you can use “five principles of persuasion” or “five principles of effective communication.” These principles are commonly known as;

  1. Invention,
  2. Arrangement,
  3. Elocution,
  4. Memory,
  5. Delivery.

#1. Invention (Inventio):

The process of developing and refining your arguments.

The invention, according to Aristotle, involves “discovering the best available means of persuasion.” It may sound simple, but Invention is possibly the most challenging phase in crafting a speech or piece of writing as it lays the groundwork for all the other phases; you must start from nothing to build the framework of your piece. During the Invention phase, the goal is to brainstorm ideas on what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it in order to maximise persuasion. Any good orator or writer will tell you they probably spend more time in the Invention step than they do any of the others.

So, what sorts of things should you be thinking about during the Invention phase? Without some direction and guidance, brainstorming can often be fruitless and frustrating. There are four key things to consider during this stage:

  1. Audience: One of the key factors in crafting a persuasive piece of rhetoric is tailoring your message to your specific audience. If you identify the needs and desires of your audience, it will help you to determine which means of persuasion would be the most effective to employ.
  2. Evidence: Evidence could be facts, statistics, laws, and individual testimonies. It’s always good to have a nice blend, as you can persuade different audiences by different types of evidence. Therefore, getting to know your audience is figuring out what kinds of evidence they will find most credible and compelling is essential.
  3. The means of persuasion: You probably heard three means of persuasion from Aristoteles; pathos (emotion), logos (logic) and ethos (credibility). Again, it would help if you determined, which means of persuasion fits best for your audience. Ideally, you’d have a nice mixture of all three, but again, different audiences will be better persuaded by different appeals.
  4. Timing: Duration of your speech is essential; in some cases, a long, well-developed, and nuanced speech is appropriate; other times, a shorter, and more dynamic presentation will be more effective. It depends on your audience and the context of your speech.

It takes time to develop an idea, or subject for your speech, do not force yourself to speed up this stage. Once you have a clear idea of your speech, then you need to develop this raw idea and organising it into a solid storyline of building your argument. Ancient rhetoricians develop and a natural structure to create a compelling case which called Statis.  

Stasis is a procedure designed to help a rhetorician develop and clarify the main points of his case. Stasis consists of four types of questions a speaker asks himself. They are:

  1. Questions of fact: What is it exactly that I’m talking about? Is it a person? An idea? A problem? Does it really exist? What’s the source of the problem? Are there facts to support the truth of this opinion?
  2. Questions of definition: What’s the best way to define this idea/object/action? What are the different parts? Can it be grouped with similar ideas/objects/actions?
  3. Questions of quality: Is it good or bad? Is it right or wrong? Is it frivolous or important?
  4. Questions of procedure/jurisdiction: Is this the right venue to discuss this topic? What actions do I want my reader/listener to take?

These questions may sound completely elementary, but trust me, when you’re struggling to get your mind around an idea for a speech or writing theme, stasis has an almost magical way of focusing your thinking and helping you develop your argument.

#2. Arrangement (Dispositio):

The process of arranging and organising your arguments for maximum impact.

The arrangement is simply the organisation of a speech or text to ensure maximum persuasion. Classical rhetoricians divided a speech into six different parts. They are:

  1. Introduction (exordium)
  2. Statement of Facts (narratio)
  3. Division (partitio)
  4. Proof (confirmatio)
  5. Refutation (refutatio)
  6. Conclusion (peroratio)

If you’ve taken debate or philosophy classes, you’ve probably seen this format for organising a speech or paper.

a) Introduction: There are two aspects of an effective introduction: 1) introducing your topic and 2) establishing credibility.

Your introduction is crucial for the success of your speech; your audience will determine whether your speech is worth listening to in the first few seconds. Therefore, I would suggest starting your speech by telling a captivating story that draws your audience in and engages them emotionally.

You have to establish your credibility by using ethos rules to appeal to your character or reputation to persuade your audience. Remember, it doesn’t matter how logical your argument is if people don’t think you’re trustworthy or a credible source, you’ll have no chance to influence them.

b) Statement of Facts: The statement of facts is the background information needed to get your audience up to speed on the history of your issue. The goal is to provide enough information for your audience to understand the context of your argument. If your rhetoric is seeking to persuade people to adopt a specific course of action, you must first convince the audience that there really is a problem that needs to be addressed. Things to remember, do not just give some facts and numbers, make your audience to listen by creating a compelling story.

c) Division: After stating your facts, the most effective way to transition into your argument is with a partition: a summary of the cases you’re about to make. The division is your audience’s roadmap; you will take them on a journey of logic and emotion, so give them an idea of where they are going, so it’s easier to follow you. As an example, “I have three points to make tonight.”

d) Proof:  The proof is the body of your speech; you need to construct logical arguments that your audience can understand and follow. Your evidence should relate back to the facts you mentioned in your statement of facts to back up what you say. If you’re suggesting a course of action, you want to convince people that your solution is the best one for resolving the problem you just described.

e) Refutation: It might be surprising, but when you crafted a strong and convincing argument of your case, you need to highlight the weaknesses in your argument to your audience. This tactic would seem to be counterproductive, sharing the gaps of your arguments will actually make you more persuasive in two ways.

First, it gives you a chance to pre-emptively answer any counterarguments an opposing side may bring up and resolve any doubts your audience might be harbouring. Bringing up weaknesses before your opponent or audience takes the bite out of a coming counterargument.

Second, highlighting the weaknesses in your argument is an effective use of ethos. No one likes a know-it-all. Recognising that your case isn’t iron-clad is an easy way to gain the sympathy and trust of your audience.

f) Conclusion: The goal of your conclusion is, to sum up, your argument as forcefully and as memorable as possible. If you want people to remember what you said, you have to inject some emotion into your conclusion.

#3. Style (Elocutio):

The process of determining how you present your arguments using figures of speech and other rhetorical techniques.

When we prepare to give persuasive speeches, the focus is usually on what we are going to say. While it’s essential that you have something substantive to say, it’s also important how you present your ideas. The canon of style will help you present your ideas and arguments so people will want to listen to you.

Five virtues of style developed by Aristoteles followers would help you to deliver your message in style:

a) Correctness: An effective speaker uses words correctly and follows the rules of grammar and syntax for clear and precise communication. Most importantly, correctly using language establishes credibility (ethos) with an audience because it indicates the speaker or writer is well-educated, understands the nuances of language, and pays attention to details.

b) Clarity: Many people think to be persuasive they need to “look smart” by using big words and complex sentence structures. The reality is that the simpler you write, the more intelligent you seem to others. It’s hard to be persuasive when people can’t even understand what you’re trying to say. A couple of quick tips:

  • Use strong verbs. Avoid is, are, was, were, be, being, been. So instead of saying “Diane was killed by Jim,” say, “Jim killed Diane.” Shorter, clearer, and punchier.
  • Keep average sentence length to about 20 words. Ideas can get lost in super-long sentences.
  • Keep paragraphs short. Shoot for an average of five to six sentences a paragraph. Ideally, each paragraph should contain just one idea.

c) Evidence: Most people are persuaded more by emotion (pathos) than by logic (logos). One of the best ways to elicit an emotional response from people is to appeal to their physical senses by using vivid descriptions.

For example, let’s say you’re making the case to your state legislator that your state needs to devote more funds towards fighting childhood hunger. Instead of starting your speech or letter by spouting off a bunch of dry facts, it would be more persuasive to tell a story of a specific child who’s a victim of hunger. In your story, describe the conditions this child is living in–the smells, the sights, the sounds. Describe the pangs of hunger that gnaw on his stomach every night while he lies crying softly, curled in ball on a urine-soaked mattress.

Who wouldn’t want to help this kid? That’s the quality of evidence in action.

d) Propriety: Propriety means saying the right thing, at the right place, at the right time. It is the quality of style that determines which words could be fit for purpose and appropriate for the specific audience or occasion.

e) Ornateness: It involves making your speech enjoyable to listen by using figures of speech and manipulating the sound and rhythm of words. Classical rhetoricians focused on incorporating different figures of speech to decorate their statements. Here is an example of using Alliteration by Bill Clinton;

“Somewhere at this very moment, a child is being born in America. Let it be our cause to give that child a Happy Home, a Healthy family, and a Hopeful future.” — Bill Clinton, 1992 Democratic National Convention Acceptance Address

#4. Memory (Memoria):

The process of learning and memorising your speech so you can deliver it without the use of notes. Memory-work not only consisted of memorising the words of a specific speech, but also storing up famous quotes, literary references, and other facts that could be used in impromptu speeches.

When people know that a speaker constantly needs his notes for his speech, it weakens their credibility and the confidence the audience has in the speaker’s authenticity. Also, notes put distance between the speaker and the audience. The ancients called memory “the furnishing of the mind”; one may have a million-dollar mansion, but without beautiful and useful furniture, it is somewhat useless.

Which one you would prefer; a man with his nose buried in his notes, reading them behind a lectern or the one who seemed like he was giving his speech from the heart and who engaged the audience visually with eye contact and natural body language? It pays to memorise your speech.

Memory, as St. Basil said, is “the cabinet of the imagination, the treasury of reason, the registry of conscience, and the council chamber of thought.”

For our communication to be truly persuasive and effective, we need to ensure that our audience remembers what we’ve communicated to them. The first step in getting people to remember what you’ve said is to have something interesting to say.

Once you’ve formulated a compelling message, follow the basic pattern discussed in the canon of arrangement to make your speech easy to follow. Give a solid introduction where you set out clearly what you plan on sharing with your audience. As an example, “I have three points to make tonight; inspiration, persuasion and leadership.”

Throughout your speech, stop and give your audience a roadmap of where you’re at in your speech. If you’ve just finished the first part of your speech, say something like, “We’ve just covered inspiration. We’ll now move on to my second point, persuasion.” This constant reviewing of where you’ve been and where you have left to go will help burn the main points of your speech into the minds of your audience. Use compelling stories, anecdotes and quotes to add credibility and connect your audience with your message.

#5. Delivery (Actio):

The process of practising how you deliver your speech using gestures, pronunciation, and tone of voice.

Similar to the canon of style, the canon of delivery is concerned with how something is said. While the canon of style focuses primarily on what sort of language you use, delivery focuses on the mechanics of how you impart your message such as body language, eye contact, hand gestures and how you use your tone of voice during the speech.

Here are a few key tips for increasing the effectiveness of your oratorical delivery:

Master the pause. The key with a pause is timing; use it only in spots where it will be effective places where you really want to highlight what comes after the pause.

Watch your body language. When you’re speaking, your voice isn’t the only thing talking. Your body is also communicating. Your posture, head tilt, and the way you walk on stage all convey a message. Some occasions may require a formal while other occasions will require a more laid back approach.

Vary your tone. Nothing will put your audience to sleep faster than a flat and monotonous voice regardless of the content of the speech. Use inflexions to reveal that you’re asking a question, being sarcastic, or conveying excitement.

Let gestures flow naturally. Let your hands flow naturally inline with your speech and message. If you use it effectively, hand gestures can give added emphasis to your words. Otherwise, you might lose credibility.

Match your speed with your emotion. How fast or slow you speak can affect the emotion you’re trying to convey. There are six different speech speeds and the corresponding emotions they’re meant to elicit;

  • Rapid: haste, alarm, confusion, anger, vexation, fear, revenge, and extreme terror.
  • Quick or brisk: joy, hope, playfulness, and humour.
  • Moderate: useful for narration, descriptions, and teaching.
  • Slow: gloom, sorrow, melancholy, grief, pity, admiration, reverence, dignity, authority, awe, power, and majesty.
  • Very slow: use to express the strongest and deepest emotions.

Vary the force of your voice. Playing with the strength and weakness of your voice will allow you to express different emotions. You can express anger, ferocity and seriousness with a strong and loud voice or a softer voice can convey reverence and humility. Varying the force of your voice can also help draw listeners into your speech.

Enunciate. It’s easy to trip over your tongue and slur words together when you’re speaking in public. But really focus on enunciating your words as this will make you easier to understand. You can use articulation practices by using tongue twisters.

As an example, if you want to target “s” and “sh” sounds, say the following tongue twister three times; start slowly and slightly increase your speed each time.

“The sun was shining on Sharon Street, where I saw Shane and Sarah sitting near the shoe shop.”

Look your audience in the eye. When you look people in the eye, you make a connection. You cannot possibly look an entire audience in a big meeting room, in this case, adapting “W” or “M” method could be very useful; While you are delivering your speech, scan the entire audience naturally while you are drawing invisible “M” or “W” word. Maintain contact for a few seconds. If it’s too short, you’ll seem nervous and shifty. If you look too long, you’ll start creeping people out.

I hope you find this article useful, by understanding the Five Canons, you can see how each of these fundamental components can help you to develop a lifelong aptitude for effective writing and speaking—hopefully communicating the truth winsomely and persuasively in a world that so desperately needs it.

Harun Dagli – Club President

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