Cicero’s not-so-secret formula for persuasive talks

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Cicero’s formula for a persuasive speech

“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.”
-Cicero

There a science to giving a persuasive talk and it is accessible to everyone.

You might think it’s an impossible formula only figured out by the likes of JFK, Oprah, and Steve Jobs. While there is no doubting their mastery, the technique for creating and delivering a persuasive speech is no mystery.

In fact, the framework is about 2,000 years old and outlined by the Roman philosopher, Cicero.
 

What is Cicero’s formula for a persuasive speech?

In the dialogue “De Oratore” [“On the Orator”] written in 55 BCE, Cicero clearly outlines how speakers can master the art of powerful persuasion.

The technique takes 5 key elements and fits them together in a 6-part process that is crafted to help you maximize your ability to persuade.

Before you can start your talk, you need the right pieces in place.

These are the 5 things you need to get right if you want to your talk to be persuasive.

Narrow down your key message, come up with the main points, and link up the proof or references to your points.

Invent (Inventio)

Narrow down your key message, come up with the main points, and link up the proof or references to your points.

Artfully organize your points for maximum impact.

Arrange (Dispositio)

Artfully organize your points for maximum impact.

This is where you will structure your presentation for the utmost persuasiveness.

Continue reading to see Cicero’s 6-part formula for structuring your presentation.

Decide on how you will present each point.

Stylize (Elocutio)

Decide on how you will present each point.

Will you use storytelling, quotes, multimedia, or statistics?

Chose which rhetorical techniques you will draw on, and how your words and sentences will work together.

Be clear about which transitions, jokes, and stories you will use and how they relate to your points and message.

Learn and memorize your talk so you can deliver it without notes.

Memorize (Memoria)

Learn and memorize your talk so you can deliver it without notes.

Know your talk inside-and-out. Research the answers to questions you might be asked during the Q&A or by audience members in the coffee break.

Make sure you have all quotes, facts, and statistics 100% correct and memorized.

Practice makes perfect.

Deliver (Actio)

Practice makes perfect. Run through how you will deliver your presentation, focusing on which points you will emphasize with gestures, tone, and pacing.

Ensure you are using the correct pronunciation and eliminate unnecessary jargon or fillers, so each sentence is clear and flows effortlessly.

Now that you’ve got the right building blocks, we can move on to the structural formula for a persuasive speech.

Ethos, logos, and pathos

Here are the 3 terms, and how they relate to the main components:

Ethos, logos and pathos
  1. Ethos (think: ethics): appeals to the audience's ethics or morals.

  2. Logos (think: logic): appeals to the audience's emotions.

  3. Pathos (thinks: emotions): appeals to the audience's logic or intellect

A persuasive talk balances and accentuates the ethos, logos, and pathos specifically for the audience.

The Ciceronian technique: 6-part outline

In each talk, there are three main components: the speaker, the speech, and the audience.

Cicero talks about how each of these three components will either encourage or dissuade your audience to being convinced.

An audience needs 3 things in order to be persuaded:

  1. A credible speaker

  2. Arguments that prove the points are effective

  3. Emotional involvement in the topic

A persuasive talk balances and accentuates the ethos, logos, and pathos specifically for the audience.

Here is the 2,000-year-old, 6-part outline from Cicero

6-part outline from Cicero
  1. 1. Introduction

    Focus: Your credibility (ethos).

    Establish your credibility and convince the audience to identify with you and your message.

  2.  
  3. 2. Narration

    Focus: Outline your arguments (logos).

    Outline the facts of your argument clearly and straight away.

  4.  
  5. 3. Division

    Focus: What you are trying to prove (logos).

    Explain what is to be proven on both sides of the argument.

  6.  
  7. 4. Proof

    Focus: Explaining the points of your argument (logos).

    Make your case point-by-point. 

  8.  
  9. 5. Refutation

    Focus: Address oppositions (logos).

    Breakdown your opponent's arguments. 

  10.  
  11. 6. Conclusion

    Focus: Make an appeal to the emotions of your audience (pathos).

    Sum up your strongest points and arouse emotions.

Want to test these elements? See a widely shared speech here, and try to break down each component using the above step-by-step approach.

Further reading:

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See also:

  • Plagiarism
    Crafting a great talk

    How Public Speakers Can Avoid Plagiarism

  • Write an Outline
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    How to Write an Outline Before a Public Speech

  • Persuasive Speech
    Crafting a great talk

    Writing a Persuasive Speech: A Formula to Get Action or Change Belief