What Are The Five Canons of Rhetoric? The Five Canons of Rhetoric In A Nutshell

The five canons of rhetoric were first organized by Roman philosopher Cicero in his treatise De Inventione in around 84 BC. Some 150 years later, Roman rhetorician Quintilian explored each of the five canons in more depth as part of his 12-volume textbook entitled Institutio Oratoria. The work helped the five canons become a major component of rhetorical education well into the medieval period. The five canons of rhetoric comprise a system for understanding powerful and effective communication.

CanonContext and ApplicationHypothetical Examples
InventionWriting a persuasive essay on climate change.Researching and presenting scientific evidence to support claims.
ArrangementStructuring a business presentation on a new product launch.Beginning with an attention-grabbing introduction, followed by product details, benefits, and a compelling conclusion.
StyleCrafting a speech to inspire a team during challenging times.Using motivational language, anecdotes, and metaphors.
MemoryDelivering a speech at a conference without reading from notes.Using memory techniques like mnemonics and practicing extensively.
DeliveryDelivering a commencement address to a graduating class.Varying tone and pacing for emphasis, maintaining eye contact, and using gestures to engage the audience.

Understanding the five canons of rhetoric

A modern interpretation of the concept is perhaps best provided by speech communication professor Gerald M. Phillips:

The classical canons of rhetoric specify the components of the communication act: inventing and arranging ideas, choosing and delivering clusters of words, and maintaining in memory a storehouse of ideas and repertoire of behaviors… This breakdown is not as facile as it looks. The canons have stood the test of time. They represent a legitimate taxonomy of processes. Instructors [in our own time] can situate their pedagogical strategies in each of the canons.

The five canons of rhetoric

Before explaining the five canons in detail, it’s important to first define a canon as simply a tenet of rhetoric.

Although each canon was created in the context of public speaking, most can be applied to the writing and drafting phases of written communication.

The five canons of rhetoric define five general principles, which, when understood and applied, make communication more effective. 

Here is a look at each:

Invention (invention)

This is the process of determining the key messages and points that will help convince the audience of a particular point of view.

Cicero defined this process as the “discovery of valid or seemingly valid arguments to render one’s cause probable.

This requires clarity of purpose and a deep understanding of the subject matter and audience. Equally as important are the presentation style, medium, and length.

Arrangement (disposito)

Or the structure of a speech or text. Ancient models favored an exordium (introduction), narrative, partition (division), confirmation, refutation, and peroration (conclusion).

Modern interpretations are much more simplified, featuring an introduction, body, and conclusion.

Style (elocutio)

Style refers to how something is written or spoken through word choice, sentence structure, and figures of speech.

The goal here is to elicit an emotional response through emotive language and rhetorical strategies including analogy, alliteration, and allusion.

Memory (memorial)

Or any method or device used to improve memory retention.

Roman rhetoricians described two types: the innate ability of natural memory and memory strengthened by particular techniques known as artificial memory.

In ancient times, the fourth canon encouraged orators to memorize a speech in its entirety.

Today, however, this approach is considered too formulaic and may cause a somewhat robotic speaking style.

Memory should instead refer to the orator’s ability to improvise or answer questions on the spot, backed by deep knowledge of the subject matter.

Delivery (pronuntiato)

This encompasses the management of voice and gestures in oral discourse. Delivery may include word emphasis, tone of voice, change of pace, pausing, and use of body language.

Cicero saw delivery as crucial to good oration, defining it as:

the sole and supreme power in oratory; without it, a speaker of the highest mental capacity can be held in no esteem; while one of moderate abilities, with this qualification, may surpass even those of the highest talent.

Case Studies

Sales Pitch

  • Invention (Determining Key Messages and Arguments)
    • Identify Key Benefits: Determine the unique selling points and benefits of the product or service that will be presented to the customer.
    • Craft Persuasive Arguments: Develop arguments that highlight how the product fulfills customer needs and why it’s superior to competitors.
  • Arrangement (Structuring Content)
    • Introduction: Start with a compelling introduction to grab the customer’s attention.
    • Main Body: Present key messages logically, emphasizing benefits and addressing potential objections.
    • Conclusion: Summarize the main points and include a strong call to action (e.g., making a purchase).
  • Style (Using Persuasive Language)
    • Use Emotive Language: Employ words and phrases that evoke emotions and create a connection with the customer.
    • Rhetorical Devices: Utilize rhetorical strategies such as metaphors or storytelling to make the pitch memorable.
  • Memory (Improving Retention)
    • Training and Rehearsal: Ensure that the salesperson is well-prepared and has memorized key product details, benefits, and responses to common objections.
    • Visual Aids: Use visual aids like slides or product demonstrations to aid both the presenter’s memory and the customer’s understanding.
  • Delivery (Effective Communication)
    • Vocal Modulation: Vary tone and volume to emphasize key points and maintain engagement.
    • Gestures: Use appropriate hand gestures and body language to enhance the presentation.
    • Eye Contact: Establish eye contact with the customer to convey confidence and build rapport.

Marketing Campaign

  • Invention (Determining Key Messages and Arguments)
    • Define Value Proposition: Identify the unique value that the product or service offers to customers.
    • Create Persuasive Messaging: Craft messages that highlight benefits, solve problems, or fulfill desires.
  • Arrangement (Structuring Content)
    • Introduction: Begin with a captivating introduction that draws the audience in.
    • Main Content: Present the product’s features, benefits, and how it addresses customer needs.
    • Call to Action: Include a clear call to action, prompting the audience to take the desired next step.
  • Style (Using Persuasive Language)
    • Storytelling: Incorporate storytelling techniques to engage and emotionally connect with the audience.
    • Emotive Language: Use words that trigger emotions and resonate with the target demographic.
  • Memory (Improving Retention)
    • Consistent Branding: Use consistent branding elements to ensure that the campaign is memorable and recognizable.
    • Visual Content: Include visually appealing graphics and videos to enhance recall.
  • Delivery (Effective Communication)
    • Multichannel Approach: Deliver the campaign through various channels, such as social media, email, and website, to reach a broader audience.
    • A/B Testing: Continuously refine the delivery based on data and audience feedback to maximize impact.

Customer Support

  • Invention (Determining Key Messages and Arguments)
    • Identify Customer Concerns: Understand and identify the specific concerns or issues raised by the customer.
    • Provide Solutions: Develop arguments and responses that address the customer’s needs and aim to resolve the issue.
  • Arrangement (Structuring Content)
    • Greeting and Empathy: Begin with a friendly greeting and empathetic acknowledgment of the customer’s concern.
    • Problem Resolution: Present a clear and logical solution or steps to address the issue.
    • Closing: Conclude with gratitude and reassurance that the issue will be resolved.
  • Style (Using Persuasive Language)
    • Empathetic Tone: Use an empathetic and understanding tone to convey that the customer’s concerns are valued.
    • Clear Communication: Ensure that instructions and explanations are communicated clearly and concisely.
  • Memory (Improving Retention)
    • Knowledge Base: Equip customer support agents with a comprehensive knowledge base to quickly access information and solutions.
    • Record Customer History: Maintain records of previous interactions with the customer to provide personalized support.
  • Delivery (Effective Communication)
    • Active Listening: Listen attentively to the customer’s concerns and provide responses that demonstrate active engagement.
    • Resolution Follow-Up: After resolving the issue, follow up with the customer to ensure satisfaction and reinforce a positive experience.

Key takeaways

  • The five canons of rhetoric comprise a system for understanding powerful and effective communication. They were organized and developed by ancient Romans Cicero and Quintilian. 
  • The five canons of rhetoric represent a legitimate taxonomy of processes that have been effective for thousands of years. 
  • The five canons of rhetoric are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Each canon represents a core tenet or principle that can be used in writing and public speaking.

Key Highlights of the Five Canons of Rhetoric:

  • Invention: This canon involves determining the key messages and arguments to persuade the audience of a particular viewpoint. It focuses on discovering valid or seemingly valid arguments to make one’s case probable. Invention requires a deep understanding of the subject matter, audience, and effective presentation style.
  • Arrangement: Arrangement refers to the structure of a speech or text. In ancient times, this canon was often organized into stages like introduction, narrative, division, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion. Modern interpretations simplify it to an introduction, body, and conclusion. The arrangement helps create a logical flow that guides the audience through the content.
  • Style: Style encompasses the way language is used in speaking or writing, including word choice, sentence structure, and rhetorical devices. The goal is to evoke emotional responses and engage the audience through the use of emotive language and strategies like analogy, alliteration, and allusion. Style adds depth and impact to communication.
  • Memory: Memory involves techniques and devices used to improve memory retention. In ancient times, orators memorized speeches in their entirety, but today, it’s more about having a deep knowledge of the subject matter to improvise effectively. Memory also encompasses the ability to answer questions on the spot, backed by comprehensive understanding.
  • Delivery: Delivery focuses on the management of voice and gestures during oral communication. It includes elements like word emphasis, tone of voice, pacing, pausing, and body language. Cicero emphasized the importance of delivery, stating that it holds supreme power in oratory. A skilled delivery enhances the impact of the message.

Read Next: Lasswell Communication Model, Linear Model Of Communication.

Connected Communication Models

Aristotle’s Model of Communication

The Aristotle model of communication is a linear model with a focus on public speaking. The Aristotle model of communication was developed by Greek philosopher and orator Aristotle, who proposed the linear model to demonstrate the importance of the speaker and their audience during communication. 

Communication Cycle

The linear model of communication is a relatively simplistic model envisaging a process in which a sender encodes and transmits a message that is received and decoded by a recipient. The linear model of communication suggests communication moves in one direction only. The sender transmits a message to the receiver, but the receiver does not transmit a response or provide feedback to the sender.

Berlo’s SMCR Model

Berlo’s SMCR model was created by American communication theorist David Berlo in 1960, who expanded the Shannon-Weaver model of communication into clear and distinct parts. Berlo’s SMCR model is a one-way or linear communication framework based on the Shannon-Weaver communication model.

Helical Model of Communication

The helical model of communication is a framework inspired by the three-dimensional spring-like curve of a helix. It argues communication is cyclical, continuous, non-repetitive, accumulative, and influenced by time and experience.

Lasswell Communication Model

The Lasswell communication model is a linear framework for explaining the communication process through segmentation. Lasswell proposed media propaganda performs three social functions: surveillance, correlation, and transmission. Lasswell believed the media could impact what viewers believed about the information presented.

Modus Tollens

Modus tollens is a deductive argument form and a rule of inference used to make conclusions of arguments and sets of arguments.  Modus tollens argues that if P is true then Q is also true. However, P is false. Therefore Q is also false. Modus tollens as an inference rule dates back to late antiquity where it was taught as part of Aristotelian logic. The first person to describe the rule in detail was Theophrastus, successor to Aristotle in the Peripatetic school.

Five Cannons of Rhetoric

The five canons of rhetoric were first organized by Roman philosopher Cicero in his treatise De Inventione in around 84 BC. Some 150 years later, Roman rhetorician Quintilian explored each of the five canons in more depth as part of his 12-volume textbook entitled Institutio Oratoria. The work helped the five canons become a major component of rhetorical education well into the medieval period. The five canons of rhetoric comprise a system for understanding powerful and effective communication.

Communication Strategy

A communication strategy framework clarifies how businesses should communicate with their employees, investors, customers, and suppliers. Some of the key elements of an effective communication strategy move around purpose, background, objectives, target audience, messaging, and approach.

Noise if Communication

Noise is any factor that interferes with or impedes effective communication between a sender and receiver. When noise disrupts the communication process or prevents the transmission of information, it is said to be communication noise.

7 Cs of Communication

The 7Cs of communication is a set of guiding principles on effective communication skills in business, moving around seven principles for effective business communication: clear, concise, concrete, correct, complete, coherent, and courteous.

Transactional Model of Communication

The transactional model of communication describes communication as a two-way, interactive process within social, relational, and cultural contexts. The transactional model of communication is best exemplified by two models. Barnlund’s model describes communication as a complex, multi-layered process where the feedback from the sender becomes the message for the receiver. Dance’s helical model is another example, which suggests communication is continuous, dynamic, evolutionary, and non-linear.

Horizontal Communication

Horizontal communication, often referred to as lateral communication, is communication that occurs between people at the same organizational level. In this context, communication describes any information that is transmitted between individuals, teams, departments, divisions, or units.

Communication Apprehension

Communication apprehension is a measure of the degree of anxiety someone feels in response to real (or anticipated) communication with another person or people.

Closed-Loop Communication

Closed-loop communication is a simple but effective technique used to avoid misunderstandings during the communication process. Here, the person receiving information repeats it back to the sender to ensure they have understood the message correctly. 

Grapevine In Communication

Grapevine communication describes informal, unstructured, workplace dialogue between employees and superiors. It was first described in the early 1800s after someone observed that the appearance of telegraph wires strung between transmission poles resembled a grapevine.

ASE Model

The ASE model posits that human behavior can be predicted if one studies the intention behind the behavior. It was created by health communication expert Hein de Vries in 1988. The ASE model believes intention and behavior are determined by cognitive variables such as attitude, social influence, and self-efficacy. The model also believes that intention predicts behavior such that one’s attitude toward a behavior is influenced by the consequences of that behavior. Three cognitive variables are the primary determinants of whether the intention to perform a new behavior was sustained: attitude, social influence, and self-efficacy. Various external variables also influence these factors.

Integrated Marketing Communication

Integrated marketing communication (IMC) is an approach used by businesses to coordinate and brand their communication strategies. Integrated marketing communication takes separate marketing functions and combines them into one, interconnected approach with a core brand message that is consistent across various channels. These encompass owned, earned, and paid media. Integrated marketing communication has been used to great effect by companies such as Snapchat, Snickers, and Domino’s.

Social Penetration Theory

Social penetration theory was developed by fellow psychologists Dalmas Taylor and Irwin Altman in their 1973 article Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships. Social penetration theory (SPT) posits that as a relationship develops, shallow and non-intimate communication evolves and becomes deeper and more intimate.

Hypodermic Needle

The hypodermic needle theory was first proposed by communication theorist Harold Lasswell in his 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War. The hypodermic needle theory is a communication model suggesting media messages are inserted into the brains of passive audiences.

7-38-55 Rule

The 7-38-55 rule was created by University of California psychology professor Albert Mehrabian and mentioned in his book Silent Messages.  The 7-38-55 rule describes the multi-faceted way in which people communicate emotions, claiming that 7% of communication occurred via spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and the remaining 55% through body language.

Active Listening

Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.

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