De Oratore by Cicero – Book 1 – Writing to Learn Oratory

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.

Lucius Licinius CrassusQuintus Mucius Scaevola
Marcus Antonius OratorGaius Aurelius CottaPublius Sulpicius Rufus

replied Crassus when Sulpicious wants to here more,

Writing is said to be the best and most excellent modeller and teacher of oratory; and not without reason; for if what is meditated and considered easily surpasses sudden and extemporary speech, a constant and diligent habit of writing will surely be of more effect than meditation and consideration itself

The point being that speaking extemporaneously lacks the depth that can be achieved when a narrative is given proper diligence and consideration through the process of writing. I’ve seen this happen with everyone I’ve coached, as the interplay of writing and editing uncovers new layers to the story, adding meaning and strength to the message that you’re delivering.

Such are the qualities which bring applause and admiration to good orators; nor will any man ever attain them, unless after long and great practice in writing, however resolutely he may have exercised himself in extemporary speeches; and he who comes to speak after practice in writing brings this advantage with him, that though he speak at the call of the moment, yet what he says will bear a resemblance to something written; and if ever, when he comes to speak, he brings anything with him in writing, the rest of his speech, when he departs from what is written, will flow on in a similar strain.

As an extension to the initial benefits of putting your words to paper (or keyboard) is that the story blocks you create in the process are better remembered and they can be used for those times when called upon to speak without time for preparation. You will better embody your message(s) and improve your ability to diverge from a written speech in an authoritative way.

On occasion I encounter clients who prefer to outline their talk to identify the major points and order of delivery, but resist the call to write out every word of their talk. In such cases I let them know that they are under no obligation to recite a written speech word for word. Lots of folks have difficulty memorizing a speech.

But once the writing process is complete the text can be turned back into an outline for the rehearsal phase, providing speakers with the freedom to select specific words on the fly. The difference is that the writing process significantly changes their narrative, which means the outline produced after writing is often quite different (better) than the outline initially drafted.

[De Oratore excerpts from Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, Translated by J. S. Watson]

De Oratore by Cicero – Book 1 – Conversation on Oratory

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 writes about 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.

Lucius Licinius CrassusQuintus Mucius Scaevola
Marcus Antonius OratorGaius Aurelius CottaPublius Sulpicius Rufus

Lucius Licinius Crassus offers the following insights:

One thing there will certainly be, which those who speak well will exhibit as their own; a graceful and elegant style, distinguished by a peculiar artifice and polish. But this kind of diction, if there be not matter beneath it clear and intelligible to the speaker, must either amount to nothing, or be received with ridicule by all who hear it.

For who is ignorant that the highest power of an orator consists in exciting the minds of men to anger, or to hatred, or to grief, or in recalling them from these more violent emotions to gentleness and compassion? which power will never be able to effect its object by eloquence, unless in him who has obtained a thorough insight into the nature of mankind, and all the passions of humanity, and those causes by which our minds are either impelled or restrained.

Despite the benefit of delivering a speech with elegance and polish, Crassus notes that a speaker’s words will fall on deaf ears should their narrative not be viewed as authentic and of substance. He also speaks to the power of an orator to stir the emotions of an audience, either in the direction of assuming a negative mindset, or in soothing pre-existing negativity. But this movement cannot be caused by eloquence along, as the speaker must also have an understanding of humankind’s very nature, and how any of us can indeed be swayed.

While this approach is common in politics, as well as many marketing campaigns, whereby the intent is to play off of one’s emotions instead of intellect, it is nonetheless important to think about what is important to the audience, and why they will care about the story that you’re telling them. That said, the objective should be for them to understand your viewpoint. Their emotions may follow – positively or negatively – but manipulating their emotions should never be the objective when telling a personal story.

Antonius soon after said,

But in an orator, the acuteness of the logicians, the wisdom of the philosophers, the language almost of poetry, the memory of lawyers, the voice of tragedians, the gesture almost of the best actors, is required. Nothing therefore is more rarely found among mankind than a consummate orator; for qualifications which professors of other arts are commended for acquiring in a moderate degree, each in his respective pursuit, will not be praised in the orator, unless they are all combined in him in the highest possible excellence.”

Crafting a narrative that is logical, which offers wisdom and insight, that demonstrates the importance of proper word choice, and is delivered from memory, using vocal variation and appropriate body movement is the essence of oratory according to Antonius. That unique skill set separates those who merely know their subject well, even if they are subject matter experts, from those who know how to properly deliver a speech.

I would agree that the combination of these skills will maximize a story’s impact, and that acquiring such a diverse set of talents is rather difficult for most of us, but as with any profession, it’s a matter of recognizing the challenge and then applying the requisite time and energy to achieving that level of proficiency. Most talented speakers will tell you how bad they were at the beginning of their careers, and how long it took them to learn the craft of writing and presenting a memorable talk.

and Crassus responded,

That since all the business and art of an orator is divided into five parts, he ought first to find out what he should say; next, to dispose and arrange his matter, not only in a certain order, but with a sort of power and judgment; then to clothe and deck his thoughts with language; then to secure them in his memory; and lastly, to deliver them with dignity and grace.

Crassus offers an initial insight into the Five Canons of Rhetoric;

  • Invention (clearing defining the main idea, perspective or position)
  • Arrangement (how the story is organized to provide maximum impact)
  • Style (the language used to present each of the narrative components)
  • Memory (speaker’s ability to memorized / embody the essence of the message)
  • Delivery (which includes vocal variation, facial expression and body movements)

[De Oratore excerpts from Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, Translated by J. S. Watson]

De Oratore by Cicero – Book 1 – The Essence of Oratory

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 wrote De Oratore to describe the ideal orator and imagine him as a moral guide of the state. He did not intend the dialogue as merely a treatise on rhetoric, but went beyond mere technique, to make several references to philosophical principles.

For who can suppose that, amid the greatest multitude of students, the utmost abundance of masters, the most eminent geniuses among men, the infinite variety of causes, the most ample rewards offered to eloquence, there is any other reason to be found for the small number of orators than the incredible magnitude and difficulty of the art?

Cicero recognized the challenges inherent in mastering a discipline, especially those of a legal, scientific, or philosophical nature, but he considered the ability to speak of these subjects in public, and to do so in a way that brought an audience toward the speaker’s way of thinking, to be the most difficult of all.

I would offer that little has changed in the two plus millennium that’s passed since, with few individuals in modern times considered to be great orators. In my view, however, that notion misses the point of storytelling which comes from the heart and need not reach the pinnacle of public speaking expertise. And in my experience, the vast majority of people, with effort, strategy, and practice, can become impactful public speakers.

A knowledge of a vast number of things is necessary, without, which volubility of words is empty and ridiculous; speech itself is to be formed, not merely by choice, but by careful construction of words; and all the emotions of the mind, which nature has given to man, must be intimately known; for all the force and art of speaking must be employed in allaying or exciting the feelings of those who listen.

I couldn’t agree more with respect to the careful construction of words, as word choice has a dramatic effect on the impact that a story will have on an audience. Too often our first draft will rely on the easy words and expressions that are familiar to us, but may not accurately tell the intended story. This is where rewriting becomes the most important phase of writing.

The second part of the equation, Cicero’s reference to understanding the emotional side of storytelling, is another vital component of narrative construction. The story is, to some extent, about how you feel, but equally as important is how the listener will react to what you’re saying. Ideally they will hear your words and feel your emotions.

In my opinion, indeed, no man can be an orator possessed of every praiseworthy accomplishment, unless he has attained the knowledge of everything important, and of all liberal arts, for his language must be ornate and copious from knowledge, since, unless there be beneath the surface matter understood and felt by the speaker, oratory becomes an empty and almost puerile flow of words.

In addition to grammar and emotions, Cicero offers his view that oratory requires knowledge of everything important, including all liberal arts. For those in the political field I would agree that a broad base of information and wisdom is required to come off as an intelligent spokesperson who understands the big picture. But for most personal stories, such depth of knowledge need only encompass the topic at hand.

The terms thought leader and subject matter expert are often used when a talk addresses themes of society, history, or science. For an audience to buy into your viewpoint, they must feel that sense of subject mastery. When telling a story based on personal experience, your expertise relates to the sequence of events alongside your inner reflections and decisions.

But his point about delving beneath the surface is spot on in either case, and speaks to the level of honesty and vulnerability that you’re willing to embrace when telling your story.

[De Oratore excerpts from Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, Translated by J. S. Watson]