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 we not view their narrative as authentic and of substance. He also speaks to the power of an orator to stir the emotions of an audience, either toward assuming a negative mindset, or in soothing pre-existing negativity. But eloquence alone can not cause this movement, as the speaker must also understand humankind’s very nature, and how we are influenced.

While this approach is common in politics, and 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 care about the story that you’re telling them. That said, the key objective should be for them to understand your viewpoint. Their emotions may follow – positively or negatively – but manipulating their emotions should never be the aim 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 shows 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]

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