Five Cannons of Rhetoric



Effective communication is essential to be able to inspire, influence and persuade your audience either one-on-one or more significant audience. There are tools identified, developed and used to develop those skills.


The word “canon” is most commonly used in music to describe a piece in which a melody is introduced in different parts successively, or in an expression like “the canon of literature”: a collection of books which comprise a set such as Scripture or the Great Books.


Canon means “a general rule”, “law”, or “principle.”

Rhetoric is the third liberal art, the top of the trivium, the noble art of persuasion, a skill in the tradition of Plato and Paul, Cicero and Augustine, which since ancient times has been practised and applied for noble (as well as ignoble) purposes. From ancient times up through the early 20th century, most believed learning the art of rhetoric was a noble pursuit and considered it an essential element of a well-rounded education. While some saw rhetoric as a vital tool to teach truth more effectively and as a weapon to protect themselves from those who argued unfairly and for nefarious purposes, others see rhetoric as the manipulation of truth or associate it with an overly fastidious concern with how things are said over what is said.


Rhetoric is simply the art of persuasion through effective speaking and writing.

There are two different views on the teaching of the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric).

The first group argues that;

  • When children are young, they can memorise quickly (“poll-parrot”), so give them lots of memorisation to develop their grammar;

  • When children are a bit older and inevitably begin to argue (“pert”), teach them logic so they can argue well;

  • When teenage students have enough knowledge and skill, they will wax creative (“poetic”), so we should cultivate eloquence—how to recognise and understand beautiful language as well as how to write and speak skillfully.

The other group argues that we cannot follow this “stages of development” approach, lest analytical grammar becomes a bane to the elementary school student, logic without meaningful application become a tedious exercise to the middle school student, rhetoric becomes the exclusive domain of the high school student. Therefore, the skills of the trivium should be learned and refined throughout one’s life and in parallel.

The Five Canons of Rhetoric give us five general principles, or divisions, which, when we come to understand and apply them, will make our communication more effective.


Therefore, you can use “five principles of persuasion” or “five principles of effective communication.” These principles are commonly known as;

  1. Invention,

  2. Arrangement,

  3. Elocution,

  4. Memory,

  5. Delivery.


#1. Invention (Inventio):

The process of developing and refining your arguments.

The invention, according to Aristotle, involves “discovering the best available means of persuasion.” It may sound simple, but Invention is possibly the most challenging phase in crafting a speech or piece of writing as it lays the groundwork for all the other phases; you must start from nothing to build the framework of your piece. During the Invention phase, the goal is to brainstorm ideas on what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it in order to maximise persuasion. Any good orator or writer will tell you they probably spend more time in the Invention step than they do any of the others.


So, what sorts of things should you be thinking about during the Invention phase? Without some direction and guidance, brainstorming can often be fruitless and frustrating. There are four key things to consider during this stage:


a) Audience:

One of the key factors in crafting a persuasive piece of rhetoric is tailoring your message to your specific audience. If you identify the needs and desires of your audience, it will help you to determine which means of persuasion would be the most effective to employ.


b) Evidence:

Evidence could be facts, statistics, laws, and individual testimonies. It’s always good to have a nice blend, as you can persuade different audiences by different types of evidence. Therefore, getting to know your audience is figuring out what kinds of evidence they will find most credible and compelling is essential.


c) The means of persuasion:

You probably heard three means of persuasion from Aristoteles; pathos (emotion), logos (logic) and ethos (credibility). Again, it would help if you determined, which means of persuasion fits best for your audience. Ideally, you’d have a nice mixture of all three, but again, different audiences will be better persuaded by different appeals.


d) Timing:

Duration of your speech is essential; in some cases, a long, well-developed, and nuanced speech is appropriate; other times, a shorter, and more dynamic presentation will be more effective. It depends on your audience and the context of your speech.


It takes time to develop an idea, or subje