The Five Canons of Rhetoric
Preparing Trustworthy, Persuasive Communications
What comes to mind when you hear the word "rhetoric"? For many people, it conjures up attempts to distort facts, to exaggerate situations, or to bend the truth.
We often read about "empty rhetoric," "fake news" and "spin." And we regularly hear inflated claims about a product or service that fall short in reality.
But there's another side to rhetoric. It's also a way to communicate honestly, with integrity, and in a manner that's easy to grasp. Rhetoric can help you to build trust and rapport with your audience, and it can make your messages, whether written or spoken, memorable for all the right reasons.
In this article, we look at the five building blocks, or "canons," of rhetoric, and explain how you can apply them to your business communication.
What Is Rhetoric?
Rhetoric is the use of "figures of speech," imagery, or evocative language. It's often used to persuade people to come around to your way of thinking by appealing to their emotions.
It's important to understand the basics of rhetoric because it will help you to:
- State your opinion with passion, conviction and clarity.
- Make the best of people's short attention spans – you might only have eight seconds to make your point!
- Recognize the techniques that others might use to win you around to their point of view.
Using the Five Canons of Rhetoric
Rhetoric can be divided into five areas, or "canons." Their origins are unknown, but they are widely attributed to the philosophers of ancient Rome.
The five canons are: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. They create a framework that you can adopt to organize your arguments and ideas, and to express them clearly.
Here's how you can use them to become a more effective communicator.
Canon 1: Invention
This doesn't mean making things up or embroidering facts! Instead, use reliable sources to research and define the topic that you want to discuss, and identify the best arguments and approaches to persuade your audience. This is an essential step in Communications Planning.
So consider these types of question to help you to think carefully about your topic:
- Questions of fact. These encourage you to look at the topic itself. What is the subject matter? What facts or research support or undermine your opinion?
- Questions of definition. Define the topic, and analyze its various elements. Ask yourself if any terms are ambiguous or open to misinterpretation. Avoid unnecessary jargon.
- Questions of quality. Consider the ethics or quality of your views. What values influence your argument? Are they aligned with your personal values, and those of your organization? And how reliable are your conclusions?
- Questions of jurisdiction. This refers to the channel of communication. Have you chosen the best one for your message, for example, email, speech or social media?
Don't be tempted to embellish facts or massage statistics in order to advance your agenda. These are surefire ways to destroy your credibility.
Next, consider your audience. What is its level of understanding of your topic? What questions does it want you to answer? What is its cultural makeup?
If you are communicating with a diverse audience, use segmentation to understand the needs of each group. You need to know both your subject and your audience for your message to be convincing.
Canon 2: Arrangement
Arrangement is the process of organizing your information into the most persuasive and logical order. You can do this in a variety of ways. A common format is as follows:
- Statement of facts (background information).
- Division (a summary of your arguments).
- Proof (your logical argument/the main body of your speech or writing).
- Refutation (highlighting the objections to your argument and then dealing with them).
How you arrange your argument will also depend on the channel or platform that you've chosen. Our articles, Writing Effective Emails, Delivering Great Presentations, Writing a Blog, and Running Effective Meetings all have specific strategies that you can use to organize and structure your message.
Once you've crafted your message, use the 7 Cs of Communication to ensure that it's clear, concise and complete.
The Five Canons of Rhetoric is a useful framework for organizing and preparing your communications. You can also use the Rhetorical Triangle to formulate your thoughts and present your position clearly.
Take care to avoid fallacies. In other words, statements that seem to be true, but that are based on false reasoning. They are sometimes used to present flawed arguments as fact. So, if you use one by mistake, it may make you seem dishonest. Find out more in our article, Logical Fallacies.
Canon 3: Style
This is how well you express your ideas. Imagine that two of your team members, Paolo and Mariah, are delivering presentations to your organization's board.
Paolo uses complicated ideas and jargon, and confuses his audience. Mariah communicates with passion, grace and conviction. She uses simple, powerful sentences and seems to genuinely believe in what she says.
Of these two speakers, it's likely that you'd trust Mariah, because she exudes intelligence, integrity and credibility.
Use short, clear and compelling sentences. Make your speech or writing as elegant as possible, and use positive and inspiring words. Avoid anything that appeals to negative emotions such as fear, anger or shame.
Canon 4: Memory
Rehearse your speech thoroughly, or get familiar enough with your topic so that you feel confident communicating it to others. Use mnemonics, review strategies and checklists to commit your ideas to memory.
Your message should also be memorable for your audience. Look over the ideas, stories and visual aids that you plan to use. How can you ensure that your audience members won't forget your message as soon as they finish reading or listening? And how can you make a deep impact, and reach them on an emotional level?
Canon 5: Delivery
You want your audience to trust you. It needs to believe that you're authentic, credible and knowledgeable about your topic – and the best way to achieve this is to be authentic, credible and knowledgeable!
Rhetoric is the art of persuasion through speaking or writing.
Today, rhetoric is often associated with "spin" or hyperbole. But it is a valuable tool for boosting your communication skills and building trust with your audience, if you use it honestly and with integrity.
A knowledge of rhetoric can also enable you to "decode" other people's attempts to persuade you.
Rhetoric is divided into five categories, or "canons:"
Studying and practicing each element will allow you to communicate persuasively with greater clarity, eloquence and self-confidence.