Using the Principles of Rhetoric in Speech Writing

Instructor: Lisa Kuchta

Lisa has a master's degree in communication, has taught college communication and writing courses, and has authored a textbook on presentation skills.

This lesson will teach about the study of rhetoric, and how to use rhetorical principles to aid you in your speech writing. In particular, this lesson will cover the first three canons of rhetoric - invention, arrangement, and style as they pertain to writing an effective and persuasive speech.

Have you ever had to write a speech aimed at convincing your audience to believe something new, change their behavior, or buy something you had to sell? The task of formulating arguments that are persuasive and effective can be daunting. You need to get your audience from Point A (their mindset before the speech begins) to Point B (where you want them to be when you are done). But what path should you take to lead them to that Point B?

Turning to Rhetoric

To develop an effective speech, you should turn to the wonderful world of rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of increasing your effectiveness in persuasive writing, and speaking to an audience. A fundamental part of rhetorical study are the Five Canons of Rhetoric. These represent not only five important steps for developing a good speech, but they also provide the order in which you should complete them. The five canons are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. Since the last two steps happen after you write your speech, we will explore only the first three in this lesson.


Invention is the longest and hardest step of the rhetorical process. This is the stage in which you need to devise the arguments you can use in favor of your position. Brainstorm, research, and keep track of any compelling facts, stories, and opinions. The goal of invention is find arguments that are likely to sway your audience. If you were trying to convince people to use reusable shopping bags at the grocery store, relying on the same old argument about how plastic bags harm the environment will likely fall on deaf ears. Regardless of how true and relevant those arguments are, your audience has heard and ignored them before. Instead, a better argument might be that reusable bags hold a lot more than plastic bags, so people won't have to take as many trips to get the groceries from their car to their kitchen.


Once you have a long list of potential arguments, it's time to decide what you will use and how you will organize it. This is the arrangement step. The ideal number of arguments is usually three. Choose your best arguments - the ones that make your audience think in new ways and that you can best support through strong and reliable evidence.

The ancient Roman text Rhetorica ad Herennium identified six steps to formulate an argument:

1. Exordium - Capture the audience's attention by presenting an interesting fact, story, quote, or analogy relevant to your topic.

2. Narratio - Succinctly state your thesis, which is the point of your speech. Example: 'Forget paper or plastic. When grocery shopping, you should always opt for reusable bags.'

3. Divisio - Briefly list the main points you will discuss in depth in your speech. Example: 'There are three clear benefits to using reusable bags over disposable paper or plastic ones: first, reusable bags are more durable; second, reusable bags hold more items per bag; and third, the wide assortment of designs of reusable bags allows you to make a clear fashion and ecological statement each time you shop.'

4. Confirmatio - Confirm the claims you made in the narratio and the divisio by explaining each of your main point clearly and proving each one with solid evidence. The supporting materials you can use include research findings, statistics, personal testimony, stories, and expert opinions.

5. Refutio - Explain potential objections to your case, and then refute them with clear arguments and strong proof. In our reusable bag scenario, a possible refutation might be the following: 'You may be concerned that reusable bags are bulky to carry around or tough to remember to bring. However, many reusable bags are made from a waterproof polyester that can roll up to the size of a pill bottle, which you can easily store in your purse or car's glove compartment.'

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