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

Speaking extemporaneously lacks the depth achieved when proper diligence and consideration occurs during the writing process. 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 you’re delivering.

While not mentioned in this passage, the circular interplay of writing, rehearsing, and editing results in superior word choice and sentence structure. Ideally it will replace cliche words and phrases with more accurate and direct prose, but this requires attention to detail.

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 used 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 while maintaining your authority of the topic at hand.

Occasionally I will 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, you can turn the text back into an outline for the rehearsal phase, which gives you the freedom to select specific words on the fly. The difference is that the writing process significantly changes the narrative, which means the outline produced after writing is superior to the outline as initially drafted.

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

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