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]