In addition to being a lawyer, politician and philosopher, Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero) was also a preeminent Roman orator. Drawing on the teaching of Greek rhetoric and the craft of oration in Roman times, he composed De Oratore to highlight the principles he believed were at play whenever someone planned to speak on an important topic.
While political speeches and legal proceedings were at the forefront of public speaking during this time, the concepts presented here are valuable in the drafting of any nonfiction narrative. Written in 55 BC, and comprised of three books, De Oratore is a dialogue that is set in 91 BC.
Cicero shares a dialogue, reported to him by Cotta, among a group of excellent political men and orators, who came together to discuss the crisis and general decline of politics. They met in the garden of Lucius Licinius Crassus’ villa in Tusculum.
Marcus Antonius explains to Catulus:
But to determine how we should arrange the particulars that are to be advanced in order to prove, to inform, to persuade, more peculiarly belongs to the orator’s discretion.
Determining the order in which to present all your story blocks is one of the most powerful aspects of narrative structure, and one of the most difficult to master. You’ve identified the various elements that can tell your story, then you’ve selected those which best support your argument, idea or experience. Now the challenge is arrangement – which block goes where.
How to open, how to lead the audience on the journey, and finally, how to conclude your talk so that the listener understands what you have shared. Your story resonates emotionally and intellectually. While there are no rules for this structure, keep in mind the need to grab their attention early on, keep them engaged throughout the entire talk, and have it all make sense.
Antonius then offers:
…to listen to him from whom you receive any information or to him to whom you have to reply with such power of retention that they seem not to have poured their discourse into your ears but to have engraven it on your mental tablet?
If your story is compelling, and presented with the same energy and passion that mirrors your thoughts and feelings, and if it impacts the audience and inspires them to see the world with a fresh perspective, then Antonius believes that your message will not only resonate, but has the power to alter their memory, and thus, remain with them.
Keep these ideas in mind as you work on the sequence of your story blocks. If the audience believes what you’re saying (ethos), then finds their heart touched by your words (pathos), and the logic holds up (logos), you will maximize the impact of your story.
[De Oratore excerpts from Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, Translated by J. S. Watson]
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