It has been a good week for rhetoric. It started with Stephen Fry on BBC Radio 4, with his English Delight series, hosting an entertaining and informative programme under the heading ‘Rhetoric Rehabilitated.’ This reminded us that despite the popular dismissal of rhetoric as political spin, it is in fact alive and well and underpins most persuasive communication, whether we realise it or not.


It has been a good week because several public figures have demonstrated rhetoric at its best, not least of course Martin Luther King in various anniversary programmes. In different ways they have brought to life the art of rhetoric, built around the five canons or parts; invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. All are as relevant to developing  the political address as they are to the professional business pitch.

1. Invention. (inventio. L) This is the fact finding stage to decide what you want to say, the basis of your argument. Typically in many pitches it is more a process of passive analysis rather than one of creative invention. As Sam Leith writes, in his excellent “You Talking to Me,”  Aristotle  told us to “Discover the best available means of persuasion.”


Obama had to dig himself out of the ‘cross the red line’ hole he had created. You have to hand it to him for being inventive in his surprise announcement yesterday on Syria. which appeared to ‘blindside’ his own aides.  He was also pretty smart with the way he arranged, his speech for effect.

2.Arrangement. (dispositio. L). He followed the ‘rule of three’ to structure his potentially complicated message, making it easy to follow if not agree with. First, the decision to attack and why, then the decision to go to Congress and why, and finally the big emotional bit.

3.Style. (elocutio.L). This is all about the way you say it, where tone and body language, the use of humour or metaphors play a vital role in the impact of the communication.

The style adopted, more than the meaning, makes the emotional connection with the audience. John Kerry, up until now a capable spokesman as Secretary of State, brought undeniable gravitas to his ‘moral repugnance’ speech. The style he adopted was also important in paving the way for the President later.

4.Memory. (memoria. L) The Greeks and Romans did not have the benefit of teleprompts, PowerPoint or visual aids so they learnt how to memorise, they had to. They also learnt how to be, or appear to be, spontaneous because they knew how to speak prompted only by memorised triggers or key thoughts. David ‘no-notes’ Cameron is a master of the spontaneous as he demonstrated in his impassioned, though unsuccessful, address before the vote on Syria.

5. Delivery. (pronunatio.L)  It was Demosthenes, quoted in the Institutio Oratoria, who when asked which of the five canons was most important said;”Delivery, delivery, delivery.” No one has delivered better than Dr Martin Luther King Jnr.