Classical Rhetoric 101: The Five Canons of Rhetoric-Style


Welcome back to our series on Classical Rhetoric. Today we’re continuing our five-part segment on the Five Canons of Rhetoric. So far we’ve covered the canons of invention and arrangement. As a quick review, the canon of invention is about brainstorming ideas for your speech or writing, and arrangement is about organizing your speech or text to ensure maximum persuasion.

Today we’re discussing the canon of style. Let’s begin.

What Is Style?

When people write memos or give persuasive speeches, the focus is usually on what they’re going to write or say. While it’s important that you have something substantive to say, it’s also important how you present your ideas. The canon of style will help you present your ideas and arguments so people will want to listen to you.

A mentor of mine gave me a great object lesson on the importance of style when crafting a message. He placed two boxes on a table. One was small and sort of crushed and wrapped haphazardly with newspaper and duct tape. My name was scrawled with black Sharpie marker on the newspaper.

The other was a medium-sized box, wrapped with handsome looking wrapping paper and topped with a giant green bow. A present tag hung from the bow and had my name written on it in beautifully done calligraphy.

“Pick which present you’d like.”

I picked the nicely wrapped present partly because I had an idea of what he was trying to teach me and wanted to play along, and partly because I just liked how it looked.

I slowly unwrapped the present, being careful not to rip the paper. I took off the top of the box and found a bunch of red tissue paper. I rummaged through the paper until I found a silver ballpoint Fisher pen.

He asked me to open the other box. I tore off the newspaper and lifted the top of the box to reveal the exact same present: a silver ballpoint Fisher pen.

The lesson was obvious. It doesn’t matter how great your message is, if you don’t wrap it up with style, people will probably ignore it in favor of a message that’s packaged nicely.

The Five Virtues of Style

The five virtues of style were first developed by two pupils of Aristotle: Theophrastus and Demetrius. The ancient Roman rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian taught the virtues to their students and added their own spin.

1. Correctness. Correctness means speaking or writing in accordance with the rules and norms of one’s language. An effective communicator uses words correctly and follows the rules of grammar and syntax. Why? First, correct usage ensures clear and precise communication.

And second (and perhaps more importantly), correctly using language establishes credibility (or ethos, remember that persuasive tool?) with an audience because it indicates the speaker or writer is well-educated, understands the nuances of language, and pays attention to details. When someone catches language mistakes in a speech or piece of text, the thought often arises, “If the author can’t even follow the basic rules of grammar or even take the time and effort to review them, why should I trust what he has to say?”

When you’re attempting to persuade others, try to avoid anything that would distract your audience from your argument. Don’t give them a reason to discredit you by being lazy with correct grammar and usage.

Note: I know full well that many of AoM’s articles contain grammatical mistakes (perhaps even this one does!), and that this section offers the perfect opportunity to snarkily comment on this seeming irony. In truth, Kate and I read every single article several times before publishing, sometimes even out loud. But it is nearly impossible to catch every mistake; the brain has been proven to see things that should be there, but are not. While we lack a professional editor, we do our very best. And that is what you should strive for with your rhetoric–not perfection, but your very best effort. And as a listener or reader, is it always wise to give the rhetorician a bit of the benefit of the doubt before completely writing them off.

2. Clarity. It’s hard to be persuasive when people can’t even understand what you’re trying to say. Clear and simple writing ensures that your message never gets lost between you and your audience.

Unfortunately, many people think to be persuasive they need to “look smart” by using big words and complex sentence structures. The reality is that the simpler you write, the more intelligent you seem to others. A study done at Princeton University manipulated the complexity of the vocabulary and writing style of documents and gave them to students. Over and over again, the simpler versions were rated as coming from a more intelligent writer than the more complex drafts.

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