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 replies to Catulus:
…for who is ignorant that it is the first law in writing history that the historian must not dare to tell any falsehood and the next that he must be bold enough to tell the whole truth?
While there are many genres of storytelling that are wholly or partially fictitious in nature, personal storytelling is not one of them. Once a speaker deviates from the truth, the entire story becomes suspect. When your intent is to share your wisdom, experience and viewpoint, authenticity and accuracy will form the foundation. And if the audience sees cracks in that foundation, they will disregard your message.
Telling the ‘whole truth’ is trickier to address, as there are time constraints for every speech or presentation. It’s not uncommon that a client I’m working with has a story to tell that could easily consume many hours, yet they only have a 15 or 20 minute time slot. Crafting such a talk requires condensing some passages while cutting other scenes altogether, but in the end, the story must represent the truth and not be misleading in any way.
Antonius later offers:
Thus the whole business of speaking rests upon three things for success in persuasion; that we prove what we maintain to be true; that we conciliate those who hear; that we produce in their minds whatever feeling our cause may require.
Once again Antonius touches on the topic of truth, but introduces the notion of proving what you claim to be true. The audience must feel that the point you are proposing is not just your opinion, but rather an idea supported by evidence. This is especially true for any scientific or historical talk which includes material that is beyond the speaker’s direct experience.
Conciliation refers to a listener being satisfied, or won over, by your argument. This is a matter of logic, as your narrative must make sense, by exhibiting a logical flow, for the audience to accept it. The audience must also connect to your story emotionally. They should feel what you feel at each point in the narrative. It’s this resonance which aligns the listener’s experience with yours.
Keep these objectives in mind as you work on your story and decide which elements to include, the order they will be presented, and the manner in which they will be delivered.
[De Oratore excerpts from Delphi Complete Works of Cicero, Translated by J. S. Watson]
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