Cicero’s Classical Canons of Rhetoric: Their Relevance and Importance to the Corporate Workplace

The five canons of classical rhetoric, first introduced to the world in Cicero’s De Inventione, are important in the organization and mastery of oral or written rhetoric, and critical to the success of modern day speeches, presentations or reports, particularly in the corporate workplace. Although Roman statesman Marcus Cicero was only nineteen when he wrote his original work on the subject, he spent his remaining life re-inventing the ideas about how to master rhetoric through the five canons he identified in this first work. The five canons discussed in this paper are Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory and Delivery. In today’s work environment, many manifestations of the original classical canons can be clearly seen. Some examples of the work that would be subject to the utilization of the canons would be speeches, presentations, company memos, meeting outlines, mission statements, and sales or marketing reports.
In the history of rhetoric, Marcus Cicero’s introduction to the idea of organizing ideas to form a better structure and more common outline to a speech was a foreign idea. That is because writers during Cicero’s lifetime had so far used rhetoric for persuasion, and most rhetors worked without planning for the purpose of tailoring speeches to their audience (Griffin, 2006.) In addition, the classical canons are not always considered vital among rhetorical theorists; in fact, they are sometimes suspected of stifling creativity in writing and taking personalization out of a speech. Style, one of the five canons, determines the writing’s overall feeling and can be changed according to who the audience is or what the intent of the speaker is. Another example would be the canon of memorization, which could cause a rhetor’s own writing come across as robotic or even uninspired.

Cicero’s intention in developing the canons as they are known today was to make discourse easier, not harder. Prior to the idea of organizing speeches, writers and rhetors in Roman society had no common method by which to create their work. A poet had no structure; a speech had no introduction or conclusion; the idea of a speaker knowing his work enough to recite it was most well known through the idea of preaching, an art whose reach did not extend beyond the church it served. Cicero’s canons provided a clear pattern that was both easily followed and recognizable across many different forms of rhetoric.
Cicero had many strong opinions about the use of rhetoric. One of his most famous ideas about rhetoric was that the tongue (which represents speech) and the brain (which represents analyzation and planning) should come together and act as one force, and not be separated into different methods of teaching based on either who could present better or who could acquire more knowledge (Mendelson, 1997.) As a writer, Cicero never intended the canons to result in a stilted delivery; instead, he showed through his work that efforts to arrange, set style and practice delivery actually resulted in rhetorical discourse which was more fluid and spontaneous than it would have been without the careful use and study of each canon. In addition, the canons provided a definition to a genre of rhetoric which before had been lacking a distinct organization or method.
Cicero’s work was published during the golden days of the Roman Empire and prior to its fall and decline into the Middle Ages. Roman scholars were more numerous than Greek scholars because more of their society was able to participate in the education which introduced them to the art of rhetoric (Griffin, 2006.) During this time, Roman scholars sought to bring more weight to the style and arrangement of their work in order to fully engage the audience and control the speeches they were giving. By dividing oral rhetoric into easily manageable sections, rhetors could now view each canon individually and therefore realize its importance on its own and as part of the art of rhetoric as a whole.

The Real World
Today’s corporate workplace is often the first environment in which we are able to put to use our knowledge of rhetoric. Though college students are introduced to the elements such as memory and style when studying topics such as public speaking, it is not easy for professors to judge the learning of such concepts. It is only in the corporate environment or “real world” where students can fully use and understand all five classical canons. The corporate or office workplace is also an easily illustratable setting to show how the canons of rhetoric can be used to enhance our communication efforts at work. One strength of Cicero’s canons is that they transcend time in their importance- we see them at work throughout history in many different types of rhetoric, and we consistently refer to them when heading meetings, devising company memos, conducting interviews, engaging in team brainstorming sessions, and presenting our work to management. We seek methods to make our communication with others easier in the workplace, and the rhetorical canons of rhetoric accomplish that.

The Five Canons of Rhetoric
Cicero’s idea of invention, or arguments for either side of an idea (such as benefits and disadvantages), was divided into either topics or stopping points. The most used method in the corporate workplace is topics, which is most often used to brainstorm or generate multiple ideas on a subject. For example, if asked to present a report on the current status of your sales team, a topical system of invention would allow for multiple contributions about the sales numbers, highest volume clients, number of people on the team, and so on. A stopping point approach, which Cicero describes in his De Inventione, would identify the topic which lies in the middle between two opposing ideas. Using the same idea, sales numbers, a stopping point or stasis would present both negative and positive reasons for the current sales situation. If sales are down, we would seek to describe which accounts have failed to be successful and why. If sales are up, we would want to share the success and contracts won with these accounts. Thomas Sloane (1989) believes that the process of invention is most crucial during the process of coming to agreement at this stopping point- the point at which the pros and cons of the subject must meet in the middle at an agreed-upon basis for argument- before the speech or memo can continue successfully. Without a stasis, there can be no real argument or “sides”, which render the rhetoric almost invalid (or at the very least, uninteresting.)
Invention can be thought of most easily as brainstorming or “playing devil’s advocate” and seeing the negative aspects of a subject, but without invention, a subject is not worth further effort. If the sales reports show upward sales and there is no reason for discussion about issues or customer complaints, the process of invention or the discovery of valid arguments cannot continue. Furthermore, a rhetor during this stage of the five canons can use the idea of the stopping point to determine what ideas may cause disagreement and avoid them- or they may use the impending disagreement to their advantage, to show alternative options (such as additional sales efforts) or to gain audience interest in their speech (such as discussing slow sales to prepare their audience for the delivery of more positive ideas later in the presentation.) Although discovery of possible points of disagreement or contention was first used in the Roman courtroom to argue for or against a crime, its use is equally important in determining major topics of concern at work, and major topics usually evoke major emotions or opinions- something one may want to avoid in a corporate work setting.

The second of Cicero’s canons, arrangement, is a six-part method of putting together compositions (either oral or written.) When discussing invention, I used an example of a sales report. For the canon of arrangement, we can use another corporate workplace staple, the company memo. At its most basic, the canon of arrangement is the structure by which its previous step, the invention of topic or stopping point, is arranged. Without structure, ideas can take any number of routes beyond the immediate discourse. With arrangement of ideas, they can be neatly divided into ways that best fit the rhetor’s audience and situation. A company memo that details the sale of the company might be differently arranged than one about the company picnic. Materials should be composed effectively so as to clarify the rhetor’s ideas, organize them into digestible sections, group them according to topic and constrain the speech to stay on target with the original idea. When a sales report, as one example, is arranged, it may be divided by sales region or by customer, but it should be done in a way that the audience can mentally file the information. Arrangement was the central idea to Cicero’s composition of any speech (Enos, 1985) and was key to begin the processing of ideas from simple realization and creation to concrete actions and thoughts for future research. If the end result of speech is for the audience is to be persuaded to one side or another, arrangement of the composition should be organized to ensure maximum results.
Arrangement must include the following: an introduction, a statement of facts, a division between ideas (if there is one), proof or evidence supporting all ideas, refutation of ideas, an optional digression, and conclusion. During the process of arrangement, a rhetor mostly uses logical arguments to support their information, but can digress into appeals by emotion or authority if necessary. Let us use the example of a presenting an annual sales report to upper management. The topics have been introduced, and the possible negative implications of sharing sales information have been addressed. Workers who are not familiar with the sales department must be introduced to its unique characteristics (for example, goals for the year, relation to the rest of the company, and so forth.) The sales numbers are shared with the group. If there is any difference between sales regions, they should be addressed. For example- does one sales region show higher numbers due to a new client in their geographical region? Does one region have lower numbers because a star salesperson retired recently? All sales regions and their numbers should be given the same importance throughout the presentation. If there is an opportunity for question and answering, perhaps the group should interact at this point. Sharing ideas must not always end with the invention of arguments.

The third canon is known as style or sometimes, expression. This is an extremely influential canon which employs the rhetor’s personal style and allows them to adapt it to their topic or their audience for the most optimal result. Invention and arrangement are concerned more with what is being said, style is concerned with how it is being said. In modern literature, rhetoric is often used to convey frilly or wordy passages, as in “that’s just mere rhetoric.” The reason is that Ciceronian rhetoric is actually very concerned with the style of the ideas that one has generated, though Cicero most likely never meant for the idea of “style” to be confused with overly flowery writing. Overly elaborate or ornamental writing is not always meant to disguise rhetoric, but rather to enhance it. . (Mendelson, 2001).
Style is something that is sometimes encouraged in the workplace. A speaker cannot recite ideas and expect people to listen. Instead, they must accompany their ideas with the proper expression to help convey them. Let us imagine we are in attendance at a very crucial job interview. The interviewer has presented the job outline, shared information on what a “day in the life” of the new job will entail, and you are trying to figure out if this is indeed the job for you. The interviewer can do many things to help gain your interest at this point. She may describe the job using metaphors- “Making a sale of medical equipment is like being a patient in the hospital. We have to learn everything that a patient would go through when seeking treatment.” She may appeal to your sense of professionalism by saying “This job is not for the faint of heart- I can tell you would fit right in.” Both of these are examples of style- metaphor and pathos, respectively- which could sway your decision one way or another, depending on your own style and how they mesh with your interviewer’s. When presenting a sales report, style is just as important as the numbers being presented. With or without style, the sales report will still be communicated, but not as effectively, persuasively, or emotionally as if you employed the use of style to your benefit when presenting.

The fourth canon, memory, has less to do with what we consider memorization (of a speech) and more of innate knowledge of one’s topic. (McKeon, 1975.) A rhetor’s leadership and educational abilities were believed to be part of the training of memorization. In Cicero’s time, also, there was no electronic amplification, and a speaker’s voice had to carry to the end of the room to reach the entire audience. (Griffin, 2006.) This self-amplification was considered an important method of persuasion and excitement during a speech, and was thought to be more effective when a speaker had an inherent knowledge of their material and a keen rhetorical mind to emphasize certain parts of the speech. All of these talents were part of the canon of memorization. Cicero believed that memory was one of the abilities which separated humans from animals (McKeon, 1975.) Memory could be a natural part of learning material on which to present, or it could be the more technical exact memorization of specific portions of speech.
Memory can be utilized in a modern workplace for many outcomes, but it is particularly useful when communicating knowledge of a topic. Many times we are given a project to run, and left with only our existing knowledge and our potential to acquire new knowledge to attain the project goal. We can draw upon our memory to guide us through the project steps. Memory is as much actual recall as it is of-the-moment improvisation. Presenting first quarter sales results to a group of sales, marketing or operations teams can be daunting. Sales wants number results, marketing wants to know their promotions and advertising are working, and operations wants to make sure their inventory is low and everything ships accurately. The canon of memory allows the presenter to react to various types of feedback from their audience, because they are already aware of what the audience groups might ask. At work, especially in project management, questions are encouraged, and a presenter should know how to conduct a speech in an interactive environment such as a conference or focus group meeting. Pure memorization will not always be apropos or comfortable in this type of setting. It is crucial for a speaker to be able to respond to “left-field” questions and continue with a presentation. This is also true in other informal work environments, such as relaxed interviews, sales lunches, small group meetings, and focus groups. In these group settings, a speaker may be interrupted, and must be skilled enough draw the audience back to their main points without losing their interest, while at the same time being able to extemporize their speech and deliver an answer.

The fifth of Cicero’s five canons of rhetoric is that of delivery. Delivery is somewhat similar to the canon of style in that it concerns how something is spoken, but it is different because its focus is more on nonverbal behaviors which accompany speaking such as gesturing, vocal training, and emphasis. This canon is sometimes referred to as “elocution” because that word is derived from the Latin word “elocutio” (Agnew et al, 1997) but elocution is more currently associated with style, and that is not its original function. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered powerfully, emotionally and sincerely. In comparison, many US Presidents speak dryly, unemotionally, and methodically. Each rhetor has their own reasons to using various delivery methods, and each can be effective in affecting change or arousal in their particular audience.
Delivery, unlike arrangement, cannot be specifically taught or learned (Griffin, 2006.) It should also be tailored to fit the audience of the speech. Delivery can be incredibly subjective to an audience- people react differently depending on how much authority the speaker appears to have (this speaks to credibility) and how confidence they seem. Delivery can also be used to draw meetings to a natural close, such as the speaker intoning the voice downward. Many times a persuasive speaker will pause for emphasis between ideas, using silence to intentionally stir discomfort or to generate thoughts within their audience. Delivery can be found in written rhetoric as well as spoken. As Nancy Wood describes, delivery in an oral format should be natural and “fluid”, similar to a rough draft of a written format, and both types of delivery should be careful to “capture the logic of the original outline” or arrangement (Wood, 1979.) A company memo delivered in a non-authoritative tone may be useful in reaching out to employees for a human resources event. In ancient Rome, as discussed earlier in the canon of style, delivery was affected by lack of things such as microphones or monitors. In future research, it will be interesting to note how mass media elements such as radio, television and internet affect the various types of oral delivery (Agnew et al, 1997.)
Because Cicero and the Roman rhetors were most concerned with oral rhetoric, his original idea of delivery did not extend to written delivery, as Mendelson points out (2001) – but it is an important factor in both formats today. Delivery is so reliant on the rhetor’s use of ethos (appeal by using ethical arguments) or pathos (appeal using emotion), which often occur in the invention stage, that a rhetor could review his or her rough drafts for a guideline of how to deliver their work. For example, what is the desired end result of the speech? If the result is to shed a positive light on sales numbers which appear dismal, the speaker may opt to appeal to emotion in both their argument and their delivery. They may add that being in a recession is a difficult time to get distributors to purchase widgets, and their tone might be sympathetic, even and informal. If the end result is that the speaker needs volunteers for a long-term project, they may opt for a delivery which is straightforward, more formal, and appeals to the audience members’ sense of responsibility and authority to take charge of an important assignment which could be vital to their individual success in the company. In either example, the delivery of the speech can be crucial in attaining the end goal, if there is one. It is also the most lasting impression left with the audience.

Cicero wrote his canons of rhetoric based on the idea that a rhetor should seek to be eloquent and wise above all else. Eloquence consisted of delivering powerful and effective language to persuade people or to express oneself. Classical rhetoric has been and will continue to be, a “dominant theory for writing instruction” both in the workplace and beyond (Sloane, 1989.) A writer or rhetor must constantly review his or her work to align the purpose of the work with its original intention. Thus, the style and delivery should somewhat match the original ideas gathered in invention and arrangement. Any successful speech or memo should possess all of the classical rhetorical canons to fully organize and develop each section equally. When using examples in the corporate workplace, it is easy to see how each canon relies on the one before it, and how they can ideally form a united argument and outcome which is effective and makes efficient use of the speaker’s rhetorical proficiency. By using the classical rhetorical canons in the aspects of preparing and planning speeches and written communication in our careers, and by carefully tailoring them to our audiences, we can effectively persuade, influence, and express opinions in a manner that is well-organized and defined. Therefore, learning the major goals of the canons will allow us to represent our ideas confidently at work, and allow our workplace audiences to appreciate and value the efforts we make to do so.


Agnew, L., Barrett, H., Caplan, Corbett, E.J., H., Enos, R., & James, M. (1997.) The Classical Tradition: Rhetoric and Oratory. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol 27, No 2, pp 7-38.
Enos, R.L. (1985.) Ciceronian Disposito as an Architecture for Creativity in Composition: A Note for the Affirmative. Rhetoric Review, Vol 4, No 1, pp 108-110. Griffin, E. (2006.) A First Look at Communication Theory. McGraw Hill, New York. Mendelson, M. (1997.) Everything Must be Argued: Rhetorical Theory and Pedagogical Practice in Cicero’s De Oratore. Journal of Education, Vol. 179, Iss 10, pp 15-48. McKeon, R. (1975.) Arts of Invention and Arts of Memory: Creation and Criticism. Critical Inquiry, Vol 1, No 4, pp 723-739.Sloane, T.O. (1989.) Reinventing ‘Inventio’. College English, Vol 51, No 5, pp 461-473. Wood, N. (1979.) The Classical Canons in Basic Speech and English Classes. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Vol 9, No 4, pp 188-193.


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