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Canons of Rhetoric: The Power of Memory in Presentations

August 22, 2016 / Blog canons of rhetoric, memorable presentations, power of memory, presentation tip, rhetorical canon of memory, Rick Enrico, SlideGenius

A surreal image of a person with "THE TIME IS NOW" repeatedly written across their body in white letters. The person is holding a clockface with “NOW” in place of all the numbers, creating an imaginative backdrop for your next PowerPoint pitch deck. The background is dark with abstract, colorful patterns.

Missing out an important part of a presentation sometimes causes fear. Those speech pauses, stutters, and eye twitches can prove a sudden feeling of emotional tension and mental block.

In this post, we’ll highlight the importance of rhetorical memory in recalling a presentation material for maximum impact. Let’s see how it can save you from sabotaging your pitch’s success.

What about Memory?

The art of rhetoric in the form of oration has become existential in political debates, legal proceedings, and philosophical inquiries in ancient Greece and Roman times.

In Renaissance period, memory or memoria played a significant role in the educational system. According to Paul Gehl, print historian and custodian of the Wing Foundation, texts were learned by repetitive memorization and then reread for meaning.

What is Memory?

The fourth canon of memory is defined as the “firm retention in the mind of the matter, words, and arrangement.” The Latin manuscript Ad Herrenium considers this principle as the “treasury of things invented,” linking to the topics of invention or, rather, the process of refining your arguments.

It’s not only about memorizing a speech but also embodying innate knowledge of one’s topic for better delivery.

Here, we’ve listed the three elements of the rhetoric memory and how they can guide you throughout your presentation:

Memorizing Your Speech

Ancient orators memorize their speeches to speak with confidence. The Classical Age believed that memorization should take place to absorb the material and deliver it naturally. This improves total recall of a presentation idea and flow and establishes maximum speaking credibility.

A good command of memory allows for on-the-spot improvisation of key points, response to questions, and refutation on opposing arguments. To improve memory retention, read the speech out loud and do it repeatedly. A 2010 study by psychologist Dr. Art Markman from the University of Texas found that spoken words were remembered better than those read silently.

Break the speech into parts to have designated feel and purpose. Represent your main points with images to remember it easily.

Making it Memorable

“Thinking memorable thoughts is the primary means of retaining and retrieving carefully articulated thought,” said Walter Ong, a cultural and religious historian and philosopher. This implies that memorizing your pitch alone isn’t enough for your audience to absorb your speech.

Avoid depending too much on your script. It may only distance you from the crowd.

Learn your speech by heart by focusing on your key points. Think of some ways to keep them stuck on you and your topic by associating them with images or events you can easily recall.

Limit your main points to no more than three for easier retention. Arrange your speech in the classic structure—beginning, middle, and end to emphasize points. In effect, tell a story instead of simply verbalizing facts to guarantee attention.

Keeping a Treasury of Rhetorical Fodder

Roman rhetoricians like Cicero and Quintilian encouraged their students to keep a commonplace book, a simple notebook for jotting down anything that catches your interest for future references. These include ideas, quotes, anecdotes, and general information.

In today’s presentation world, keeping a treasury of rhetorical fodder like in the ancient times is also a good practice. After all, there’s always a chance you will have to cite current events or the occasional pop culture reference for your audience to relate more to your speech.

Coming in prepared with useful data in mind and on hand not only cures your stage fright, but also bolsters your presenting image. Store up relevant quotes, facts, observations, and stories to your core message. Incorporate supporting visuals like images, videos, and infographics to add a fun element. Translate numerical figures in the form of graphs, charts, and tables to make hard data easier to understand.

Improve Your Working Memory

The rhetorical canon of memory eases the fear of public speaking.

With combined memorization and full grasp on your topic, you’ll be able to deliver memorable presentations. Memorize a speech to absorb the material and deliver it naturally. Make it memorable to increase your audience retention. Keep a treasury of rhetorical fodder to boost your presenting image. Incorporate the three elements of memory to communicate your message more effectively.


Gehl, Paul. A moral art: grammar, society, and culture in Trecento Florence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.
The Canons of Rhetoric. Pearson: Higher Education.
Holiday, Ryan. “How And Why To Keep A ‘Commonplace Book’.” Thought Catalog. August 28, 2013.
Markman, Art. “Say it loud: I’m creating a distinctive memory.” Psychology Today. May 11, 2010.
McKay, Brett and Kate McKay. “Classical Rhetoric 101: The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Memory.” The Art of Manliness. June 10, 2015.

Featured Image: “Now” by new 1lluminati on