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Canons of Rhetoric: The Power of Memory in Presentations

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.

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Canons of Rhetoric: Applying Arrangement to Presentations

We’ve discussed the canons of rhetoric and examined invention’s importance in public speaking.

This post focuses on the second canon—arrangement.

In Classical Roman oration, arrangement is organizing a speech to maximize persuasiveness. This process of forming a coherent speech structure can be applied to any PowerPoint presentation.

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If you’ve survived the invention phase, then this canon won’t give you trouble. Let’s talk about how to organize your argument the rhetoricians’ way.

Exordium: Introducing Your Speech

All speeches begin with introductions—stating your purpose and establishing your credibility. Tell your audience what your message is about and why it’s important. Your introduction may sometimes require storytelling to make your material more convincing while reinforcing an element of fun.

Narratio: Stating the Facts

Follow up your introduction by stating supporting facts, or further information on your topic. Narrating fact-based examples back up your argument, making it more persuasive. If you hook your audiences with your introduction, this is where you reel them in.

Partitio: Dividing Your Topic

According to the Roman rhetorician Quintilian, this is where you streamline your key points. This is your argument’s outline—the trail that your audience follows. This gives them an idea on how long your speech will take. Listeners always look for clues to find out if you’re worth their time.

Confirmatio: Proving Your Argument

The proof stage is the life of your presentation. Have you ever read a good story and expected a great ending, only to be let down because the ending doesn’t make sense? The elements for a good story were there; they just weren’t properly connected. That’s why you present and construct arguments that stem directly from your earlier stated facts.

Refutatio: Refuting Yourself

There will always be ideas that contradict yours. This is where you refute these counterarguments. Admit your argument’s flaws while assuring that they’re solvable or relatively insignificant. This shows that you’re human and lets you gain your audience’s sympathy and trust.

Peroratio: Concluding Your Speech

End your discussion with a potent conclusion. Don’t simply restate what you’ve already said. Make your ending meaningful by leaving a call to action that encapsulates your narrative, reasons, and explanations. This is your last and most important chance to leave a lasting impact.

The rhetorical canon of arrangement gives your speech good structure. If you’ve arranged your ideas in the right order, your audience will easily follow and understand your message.

Master this canon and the rest of your business presentations will not only make more sense but will also land you more sales and approvals.

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Canons of Rhetoric: Applying Invention to Presentations.” SlideGenius, Inc. May 21, 2015. Accessed June 2, 2015.
McKay, Brett, and Kate McKay. “Five Canons of Rhetoric: Arrangement.” The Art of Manliness. 2011. Accessed June 2, 2015.
Why Storytelling Is an Effective Presentation Technique.” SlideGenius, Inc.. September 8, 2014. Accessed June 2, 2015.