The 5 Canons of Rhetoric

The 5 Canons of Rhetoric (Boom)

Peanut butter and jelly. Gin and tonic. Talking heads and online videos. Some things are just made for each other. Other things…not so much. And unfortunately two things that don’t often correspond are well-constructed arguments and YouTube.

We’ve lost our culture of rhetoric—that is, we’ve lost the ability to reason well and eloquently. YouTube ranters are particularly heinous offenders, taking to the medium in droves with long-winded diatribes, semi-coherent arguments, and a penchant for personal attacks. There’s a lot of #ArgumentJunk. Stuff that mimics an argument but doesn’t really count.

Luckily this guy named Cicero developed a method for constructing arguments in 55 B.C. No one has topped him since, IMHO. So before you make your next YouTube video, consider these five steps (or “canons“) to build your argument:

1. Invention

The first step is deciding what exactly you want to argue. Sounds rudimentary, but watch half a dozen YouTube opinions and you’ll realize most people don’t know what they want to communicate. So start by determining the point you want your audience to accept. Do your research and fact-checking. (This is the point where you’re building one aspect of your argument’s logos.) Decide what evidence you want to present and know why you chose it. Will your argument be pathos-oriented? Ethos-oriented? Primarily logic? I report. You decide.

2. Arrangement

Next determine the order and progress of your argument. Usually the audience remembers what you say first and last, so I suggest starting with your opening and closing evidence. Also decide the progress or flow of your argument. Do some of your points rest on other evidence in your arsenal? If so, make sure your argument builds on itself instead of presenting the points piecemeal.

3. Style

How will you own your argument, and how will you make it distinct and particularly effective for your audience? That’s the crux of the style canon—getting your audience interested and personalizing your text. One stylistic concern is language complexity. For instance, a video for an academic audience will use more complex language than a video for a middle school audience. In general, never talk down to your audience. Making them work a little harder to understand your points gives you better ethos than assuming they’re dumb. Style is a vast topic covering figures of speech, flourishes, repetition, jargon, etc. I’ll cover many topics in style in the coming months. Visit often.

4. Memory

Know your argument. In the days of Cicero, that meant memorizing it. Every word. That’s still not a terrible idea if you’re making a talking head video, but at the very least know it thoroughly. Be able to speak about it extemporaneously. Know your facts. Know the flow. Know what’s effective for your audience. Then…

5. Delivery

Present your argument in a compelling manner. In your YouTube video consider the background, the lighting, how close you’ll be, if you’ll be looking directly into the camera, the speed of your words, your tone, the volume of your voice, background music, etc. An effective argument delivered poorly is an ineffective argument.

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Like many posts, this is an introduction. There is a lot to learn about each canon. But the first step is keeping them in mind. Structure helps! Don’t be a ranter; be a rhetor.

Happy persuading!