How the 5 Rhetorical Canons (Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery) Will Make You More Persuasive


Aristotle famously stated that rhetoric is “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.” In other words, rhetoric is about finding all communicative options in a given situation and carefully choosing which of them will most likely persuade your audience. If we are rhetorically savvy, we have the ability to choose the appropriate words, phrases, images, icons, colors, tone, organizational structure, and so forth that will most likely persuade the person or people listening to us to agree with what we have to say. This is true of simple face-to-face conversations or of large-scale marketing campaigns. In any communication, rhetoric is at play.

So what are your “available means” in any given situation? Obviously, it will change depending on what you are creating and who your audience is. But imagine you own a small insurance company and you need to send out a mailer to your current customers. What might your available means be? Here’s a small list of what you have to play with in order to be more persuasive: diction (word choice), grammatical sentence structure, organization of content, punctuation usage, document format (like a letter or memo), color scheme, consistency with other communications, design layout, images, graphics, data, anecdotes,  paper weight and color, toner, and even the timing and location of the mailer. If you give a presentation, other available means affect your persuasiveness, including the fluctuation of your voice, your confidence, the technology you use to present your message, and even the way you dress. Failures in any of these areas may be the slow demise of your persuasiveness in that situation.

Whether you are a small business owner trying to brand your company, a college student trying to get an ‘A’ on your next paper, a working professional required to email and make presentations, or a volunteer at your church who is often asked to design flyers, you’ll want to be aware of the rhetorical choices you are making that influence others’ perception of you and your communication piece(s). Sure, it can be overwhelming to think about all your options, but it’s the minutia, all the little tiny details added up, that count. Every nuance in a communication piece changes perception.

With that in mind, you’ll want to take note of the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. I consider these canons a huge part of the creative process. Although these canons were created in ancient times as a means to be a better orator, the canons can apply to any type of communication. If you can master these five rhetorical devices, you’ll find yourself to be more creative and, as a result, much more persuasive. Here are the five canons, in order:

Invention is all about coming up with an idea. Usually, the invention process starts with a communication problem. Maybe your customers seem confused or ask the same questions over and over again. Maybe you need to advertise an upcoming concert at the local community center. Maybe you need to present an idea to some investors. Or, maybe you need to simply get a good grade on your final project. Whatever the case may be, you are faced with a problem that needs a solution. Don’t just jump to the first idea that comes to mind, but carefully consider your options. Should you create a physical poster or email a digital flyer? Do you need to create a website or will a pamphlet be more effective? Come up with something brilliant (and brainstorm with others to make sure it is a good idea); this is your starting point!

Arrangement has to do with the way in which you organize your information. Are you going to sandwich an idea between two anecdotes? Should you use a bulleted list with several headings? What is your most important piece of information and should it come first or last? There should always be some logic in the way you communicate an idea; arbitrarily placed information—be it visual, oral, or textual—is either painfully obvious or painfully ambiguous to an audience; neither is good. One of the greatest pitfalls in strong communication design is not thinking through the logical arrangement of information.

Style, as it may be inferred, is about personality. Style is where your creative voice is expressed (or left out entirely, if needed). Some fields and industries (like science or academic publishing) follow communication conventions and your readers and viewers may be expecting you to follow them. Other fields, like commercial business, are always inventing new ways to express style. Know what conventions you should or should not follow. Then, see how you can use colors, tone, diction, and graphics to suggest a very specific personality to your communication piece. Style has a tendency to affect a reader’s emotion, which is a very powerful persuasive tool.

This tends to be the canon that is most misunderstood or forgotten. At first glance, “memory” seems to indicate an ability to recite information. What, really, is at stake here, though, is your credibility. Memory suggests that you know more than what you actually present in a given document. In other words, you may writing an instruction manual for how to put together a table, but do you actually know how the table was constructed? When you present information, you might expect that your audience will ask you more about it. You should be as knowledgeable as you can about the information you present in a communication piece so that you can pull from memory (knowledge) more details to spring back at your audience. You will seem much more adept and capable and, as a result, more persuasive.

Last in order but certainly not least in importance is delivery. Delivery is related to style, since the style is most perceivable during delivery. But you might think of delivery as a first impression and then an impressionable end. Delivery has to do with the way your communication as a whole looks and feels. Is it fun, professional, serious, exciting, dynamic, or just plain boring? Style addresses a lot of what is being communicated; delivery addresses how and when it is being communicated. Think about timing and location. Think about volume and texture. Should you send that mailer in a cheap, see-through white envelope or in a thick and shiny, fluorescent green one?

Remember: know your canons of rhetoric and you’ll be more persuasive. Whenever you approach a communication problem, keep these in mind.

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