Classical Rhetoric 101: The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Memory

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 15, 2011 · 38 comments

in Blog

Welcome back to our series on Classical Rhetoric. Today we’re continuing our five-part segment on the Five Canons of Rhetoric. So far we’ve covered the canons of inventionarrangement, and style. Today we’ll be covering the canon of memory.

The Three Elements of the Canon of Memory

1. Memorizing one’s speech.

Anciently, almost all rhetorical communication was done orally in the public forum. Ancient orators had to memorize their speeches and be able to give them without notes or crib sheets. Note taking as a way to remember things was often looked down upon in many ancient cultures. In his Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates announcing that reliance on writing weakened memory:

If men learn this, [the art of writing] it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves.

So if you were an ancient Greek and busted out some speech notes in the Assembly, you’d probably be laughed at and mocked as weak-minded. The canon of memory then was in many ways a tool to increase an orator’s ethos, or authority with his audience.

In modern times, we still lend more credence to speakers who give their speeches (or at least appear to) from memory. You just need to look at the guff President Obama caught a few years ago when it was revealed that he almost never speaks without the help of a teleprompter. He relies on it whether giving a long speech or a short one, at a campaign event or a rodeo. And when the teleprompter malfunctions, he often flounders. This reliance on an oratorical safety net potentially hurts Obama’s ethos in two ways. First, whether fairly or not, when people know that a speaker needs a “crutch” for their speeches, it weakens their credibility and the confidence the audience has in the speaker’s authenticity. And second, notes put distance between the speaker and the audience. As a television crewman who also covered Clinton and Bush put it in reference to Obama’s use of the teleprompter: “He uses them to death. The problem is, he never looks at you. He’s looking left, right, left, right — not at the camera. It’s almost like he’s not making eye contact with the American people.”

This truth isn’t just limited to the POTUS. Think back to the speakers you’ve heard personally. Which ones seemed more dynamic and engaging? The man with his nose buried in his notes, reading them verbatim from behind the lectern…or the one who seemed like he was giving his speech from the heart and who engaged the audience visually with eye contact and natural body language? I’m pretty sure it was the second type of speaker. It pays to memorize your speech.

2. Making one’s speech memorable.

For ancient orators, the rhetorical canon of memory wasn’t just about the importance of giving speeches extemporaneously. The second element of this canon entailed organizing your oration and using certain figures of speech to help your audience remember what you said. What good is spending hours memorizing a persuasive speech if your listeners forget what you said as soon as they walk out the door?

3. Keeping a treasury of rhetorical fodder.

A third facet of the canon of memory involved storing up quotations, facts, and anecdotes that could be used at any time for future speeches or even an impromptu speech. A master orator always has a treasury of rhetorical fodder in his mind and close at hand. Roman rhetoricians like Cicero and Quintilian didn’t subscribe to the Greek prejudice against note taking and encouraged their students to carry small journals to collect quotes and ideas for future speeches. Renaissance rhetoricians continued and expanded on this tradition with their use of the “commonplace book.”

Below we’ll take a look at some of the methods classical rhetoricians used to implement the three different aspects of the canon of memory in more detail.

Memorizing Long Speeches

Renaissance memory seals to implement the method of loci technique.

Because the orations of ancient rhetoricians could last several hours, they had to develop mnemonic devices (techniques that aid memory) to help them remember all the parts of their speeches. The most famous and popular of these mnemonic devices was the “method of loci” technique.

The method of loci memory technique was first described in written form in a Roman treatise on rhetoric called ad Herennium, but it also made appearances in treatises by Cicero and Quintilian. It’s an extremely effective mnemonic device and is still used by memory champions like Joshua Foer, author of the recent book, Moonwalking With Einstein.

To use the method of loci, the speaker concentrates on the layout of a building or home that he’s familiar with. He then takes a mental walk through each room in the building and commits an engaging visual representation of a part of his speech to each room. So, for example, let’s say the first part of your speech is about the history of the Third Punic War. You can imagine Hannibal and Scipio Africanus duking it out in your living room. You could get more specific and put different parts of the battles of the Third Punic War into different rooms. The method of loci memory technique is powerful because it’s so flexible.

When you deliver your speech, you mentally walk through your “memory house” in order to retrieve the information you’re supposed to deliver. Some wordsmiths believe that the common English phrase “in the first place” came from the method of loci technique. A speaker using the technique might say, “In the first place,” in reference to the fact that the first part of his speech was in the first place or loci in his memory house. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Helping Your Audience Remember Your Speech

For our communication to be truly persuasive and effective, we need to ensure that our audience remembers what we’ve communicated to them. The first step in getting people to remember what you’ve said is to have something interesting to say. If everyone in the audience is zoning out and playing with their iPhones, no amount of organizational tricks will help them remember your speech.

Once you’ve formulated an interesting message, follow the basic pattern set forth in the canon of arrangement to make your speech or text easy to follow and thus easy to remember. Give a solid introduction where you set out clearly what you plan on sharing with your audience. You can say something as simple as, “Today, I’m going to discuss three things. One, blah blah blah. Two, blah blah. Three, bloop bleep blah.”

Throughout your speech, stop and give your audience a roadmap of where you’re at in your speech. If you’ve just finished the first part of your speech, say something like, “We’ve just covered blah blah. We’ll now move on to my second point, blee blop.” This constant reviewing of where you’ve been and where you have left to go will help burn the main points of your speech into the minds of your audience.

As I also discussed in our article on the canon of arrangement, telling a captivating story is one of the best ways to draw your audience in and help them remember your message. You’ve probably seen the power of story in aiding memory in your own life. What’s easier? Reciting back to a friend what you learned in your physics class or reciting the storyline of a movie you just saw? My bet is on recalling the plot of the movie. Harness the power of story by weaving in anecdotes that bolster your point throughout your speech or text.

Another tool to make your rhetoric more memorable are figures of speech. We discussed these a bit in our article on the canon of style. A well-executed figure of speech can assure that your audience remembers what you’ve said. Take Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech. Most people can remember segments of this speech after hearing or reading it just once because Churchill masterfully used the figure of speech of anaphora. Anaphora calls for repeating a key word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. Check out this stirring section from that famous speech:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

See how many times he repeated the phrase “We shall fight?” Seven times. No wonder people remember what Churchill said. If you want people to remember what you say, do likewise.

Storing Up Quotes, Facts, and Stories for Future Speeches

Commonplace book from the 17th century.

Another important part of the canon of memory is storing up information that can be used in future speeches or texts.

The ancient Roman and Renaissance rhetoricians encouraged the use of commonplace books to help facilitate this collection process and so do we. We’ve talked about the benefits of carrying a pocket notebook and the famous men who made pocket notebooks a part of their everyday arsenal before. If you’ve gotten into the habit, keep it up; if you haven’t, get started today.

Personally, my favorite notebooks to use are the thin Moleskine Cahiers that fit in my back pocket. If I have an idea or see or read something that I want to remember, I just whip out my notebook and scribble it down. A pocket notebook can be a storehouse for all the ideas you generate each day and for all the interesting thoughts and bits of advice you hear and read from other people.

Another tool I use to collect and organize all the information I gather is Evernote. Evernote is a free notetaking software that allows you to organize just about anything. At the end of each day, I’ll take the notes that I’ve made in my pocket notebook and type them into Evernote. Also, when I read a book, I’ll type sections or lines that I want to remember into Evernote before I return it to the library. Whenever I’m working on a speech or a post for the Art of Manliness, I’ll run a search through Evernote to see if I have anything in my personal library of quotes, figures, and stories. It makes putting together a speech or an essay much easier than starting from scratch.

Any other advice on improving your memory for rhetorical purposes? Share them with us in the comments!

Classical Rhetoric 101 Series 
An Introduction
A Brief History
The Three Means of Persuasion
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Invention
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Arrangement
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Style
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Memory
The Five Canons of Rhetoric – Delivery
Logical Fallacies
Bonus! 35 Greatest Speeches in History 

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 mpechner April 15, 2011 at 3:21 pm

Along with the notebook, is a writing implement. I always carry a fisher bullet pen with me. Closed, it fits in a pocket. Open, it is a full sized pen. Closed, the tip is covered, so no stabbing or ink leaks.

2 Matthew April 15, 2011 at 3:53 pm

The best tool for memory I’ve learned is the Think on Your Feet method. It is a modification of the loci method. The keys are

- The speech should be organized in threes (3 main ideas, 3 points to support each idea, and so on)
- Ideas or points can be described in terms of time, distance, levels of complexity, and so on

I learned it in a sales training soon after undergrad, and I have been making impromptu speeches with out notes for 10 years since.

3 Ramsey April 15, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Excellent post!

I recently finished Team of Rivals, covering Lincoln’s presidency and his cabinet. Memorizing stories, scripture, jokes, poetry and literature seems to have been crucial to his success as a leader, communicator and lawyer.

I’m becoming something of an Evernote evangelist myself. Terrific tool.

4 Paul de Boer, Jr. April 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Never tell a story without a point, and never tell a point without a story

5 Jeff S. April 15, 2011 at 8:57 pm

I do a lot of speaking and writing persuasive pitches. I’ve noticed that the effective ones follow the formula: promise, pitch, price, and proof. Much like the method of loci, it helps me to remember my scripts by compartmentalizing my pitch into one of the formula sections. To me, it’s easier to remember four short scripts that can be followed in order than one long script that may or may not have flow.

Thanks for the great article. I always knew what I was doing but I never knew there was a term for it… or that it had so much history.

6 CinnamonBear April 15, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Right now I go to school at CSULB and i am currently taking a class where we break down the Bible from a secular point of view. I learned that many of the stories in the Old Testament are in poetic or song form for the very reason that most were told as oral tradition before being written down; this is why some stories appear more than once and often in a very stylistic fashion.
Also the reason that some parts of the Bible are roughly translated from Hebrew is due to the fact that they use to write the Old Testament or Torah without any vowels because they were expected to have it memorized and it cut down on paper costs back in the day. In correlation with this, the name YAHWEH is actually a guess since it is simply written YHWH in Hebrew Torahs. A conversion of this can be easily seen throughout the Bible and is filled in with “LORD,” and is why whenever you see that word, it is written in all caps. It is definitely interesting to see how ancient civilizations were able to retain so much information using tools that have long been forgotten.

7 Josh @ Mnemotechnics April 15, 2011 at 10:37 pm

I’ve been practicing these memory techniques for about a year and a half. They work incredibly well for memorizing everything from speeches to poetry to strings of hundreds of random digits after looking at each digit only once. Everyone should learn them…

8 Chris C. April 15, 2011 at 11:31 pm

This is one of my favorite series on this site. Great information here to make every man a confident and able speaker!

9 The Counselor April 16, 2011 at 2:48 am

Visualising the speech definitely helps. Whenever I’ll prepare a speech, I type it in size 14 font (Times New Roman) and double-space the lines. It’s much easier in my experience to memorize if you’re looking at a physical piece of paper than on a screen. Then I’ll start with the first sentence and try repeating it without looking at the page. Once I can say it properly without any “ums” or “uhs”, I’ll then add the next sentence, and start back at the beginning and say them together (and so on). While time-consuming, the benefit of this approach is that it continuously reinforces the material you’ve previously learned with every addition you include.

While memorized speeches can be incredibly impressive, this falls apart if you happen to lose track of where you are. To this end, once you have memorized the entire speech and can deliver it without error, practice delivering it to different types of music (the more jarring and uneven the music, the better) or with the TV on in the background tuned into the news or some sitcom. By practicing your speech under these conditions, when you have different types and volumes of information swirling around you, you will be less likely to “choke” for real if someone happens to sneeze or if the air conditioning unit clicks on.

10 HCH April 16, 2011 at 8:46 am

I have been an Ancient Craft Mason for over 40 years. Much of our memory work is mouth to ear, and it can not be written down. And, some of our lectures are 26 minutes in length. I have found the loci method to work wonderfully.

11 M. H. Wise April 16, 2011 at 9:08 am

A few months ago I read a book by William Walker Atkinson on memory. He broke memory down into different parts; memory of books, memory of faces, memory of conversations, and so on. He suggested not to get caught up on using memory techniques but instead to practice memorizing by systems (not his exact words).

Instead of trying to memorize an entire story by looking at it once, he recommended what The Counselor was saying: read it line by line and add on to it. For faces, he recommends breaking down the facial features and assigning them numbers (Joe’s face had forehead 1, nose 3, eyes 7, lips 3, and so on…) For everyday occurances, sit down and think about everything you did that day about an hour before you go to bed.

For anyone that’s interested, I recommend the book. “Memory: How to develop,train, and use it”.

12 Bob April 16, 2011 at 9:16 am

Great article, accept for the blatant president bashing at the beginning. The president is known to be one of the best speech givers among those who have held that office. To say
“…It’s almost like he’s not making eye contact with the American people” is untrue to most and in the least disrespectful to the current office holder. I would have thought better about a post from this web site, of all places.

13 Joe April 16, 2011 at 9:53 am

Bob, anyone who needs a teleprompter to talk to school children is a bad orator. The article is not bemoaning his policies – simply his inability to speak from the heart.

14 Josh April 16, 2011 at 10:19 am

The article started off very well. You lost me when you decided to take potshots at a President who has done a remarkable job with what he was handed by Bush Jr. You may take a lesson on staying focus on the subject matter, instead of veering off on political hogwash. You lost my interest in the rest of your article. The last President couldn’t even recite an intelligent speech even when it was written for him. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game”. I did that without a TelePrompter.

15 Brett McKay April 16, 2011 at 10:51 am

Bob, Josh-

This site doesn’t have a political agenda and isn’t partisan. If you read the post again, not once did I criticize President Obama for his policies. You guys are reading that into the post yourselves.

I agree that President Obama is a master orator. One of the best we’ve had in America in a long time. He’s got down all the canons of rhetoric pat. I only pointed out the fact, that in regards to the Canon of Memory, President Obama is weak in that area based on the fact he has to rely on a teleprompter to recite his speeches.

16 JG April 16, 2011 at 12:02 pm

@ Brett:

How can Obama be a master orator if he doesn’t memorize his speeches? Memory is as equal in importance as any other canon of rhetoric. If one is compromised, then the entire structure of rhetoric comes crashing down.

I argue that Obama is a great lecturer (in the classical sense of “lecture” meaning “to read”) but nothing more.

Turn off the teleprompter and almost all of our speakers will stumble, stutter and sometimes contradict themselves.

We rely too much on technology (I also plead guilty). Our minds are weakening because we store facts, figures, telephone numbers, data in computer devices; stuff that our predecessors had to memorize.

If memory is not as strong as any other canon, then the effectiveness is reduced to near zero. Like I said before, if one is compromised, then the weaknesses become ever more apparent. Pay attention to how he shifts his head side to side, from teleprompter to teleprompter. After a while, the consistent turning of his head is what people pay attention to rather than the message he delivers. Why is his head movement bad? Because it is distracting just like saying “you know”, “um” and “like” as fillers during any conversation. The faults, um, are what, you know, we will, uh, pay attention to.

17 Brett McKay April 16, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Yes, perhaps “master orator” was too strong. What I mean is that compared to other politicians, Obama is a great orator. This really says more about the current state of oratory in America than it does about the skill of Obama.

18 MNPilot April 16, 2011 at 3:39 pm

“Rhetorical fodder” – great metaphor, Brett! Deadly effective, concise, and memorable.

Metaphors, in addition to stories, are memorable shortcuts to understanding.

19 Chief April 16, 2011 at 7:35 pm

I remember a story about Einstein being asked his telehone number. He didn’t know it and stated that he did not need to clutter his mind with information he could look up in the phone book. Was this a recommendation against memorization? Some have related to this as it is. I think with modern technology we have lost the desire or need to memorize. Too bad. The mind could use more exercise.

20 Ian Tuck April 16, 2011 at 7:37 pm

Brett, your assertion that he used a teleprompter to talk to 6th graders was false. Did you even read the comments to that piece you linked to? Is Critical Thinking one of the five canons of rhetoric? I have really enjoyed this series thus far, but irrespective of your political leanings, your comment was a untrue potshot based on an incorrect blog post, which is what dismays me.

It’s one thing to laud Lincoln et al for being able to memorize a speech in a much simpler time, when the demands of a presidency were much lighter and a press (while quite partisan even then) and a public did not demand as much from a president.

It’s entirely another to expect a current president to memorize all of his oratory in the current environment of dozens of press conferences, speeches, and announcements. A president required to do that would have no time to govern or attend to the demands of state. Bush and Clinton made great use of teleprompters too, but apparently nobody got their panties in a bunch about that, because, well, they were white and not born in Kenya.

Hell, the Lincoln-Douglas debates are still revered today partly because they seem so anachronistic in today’s global media environment.

At any rate, I love your site (and this series), and I think there are many substantive things for which one can criticize Obama (in my case, I think he’s not progressive enough). Obama is more than a lecturer (there are multiple reports that he writes many of his own speeches), and I think your propagating a meme that was established by those on the right solely to diminish the President cheapens the point of your article. I may remember your piece, but it won’t be for the right reasons.

21 Brett McKay April 16, 2011 at 8:46 pm


Your comment strikes me as a partisan knee-jerk reaction to any kind of criticism of the president.

True, Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter is a popular meme of the right-wing media, but that does not mean it is without merit.

Yes, critical thinking is an important part of rhetoric and is certainly needed here:

Fact: Obama relies on the teleprompter for the majority of his speeches. And he relies on it more than any other previous president.

The information I looked at before writing this article was not right-wing in nature, it was that article linked to on Politco, and this article from the New York Times, a paper with liberal leanings:

To quote the article:

“Presidents have been using teleprompters for more than half a century, but none relied on them as extensively as Mr. Obama has so far. While presidents typically have used them for their most important speeches to the nation — an inauguration, a State of the Union or an Oval Office address — Mr. Obama uses them for everyday routine announcements, and even for the opening statement at his news conference.

He used them during a visit to a Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Ill. He used them to make brief remarks at the opening of his “fiscal responsibility summit.” He used them during a visit to the Interior Department to discuss endangered species, even as he recalled a visit to some national parks as an 11-year-old. “That was an experience I will never forget,” he said, reading from the teleprompter.”

Fact: Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter hurts his ethos. This is the whole and only argument I am making in this article…not that Obama is a bad man or a bad communicator but that his reliance on a teleprompter hurts his authority with his audience-in this case, the American people. I’m not sure how this fact can be argued with. The fact that it has become a source of criticism for those on the right is proof enough–it provides fodder for his critics and those who listen to those critics. That is what ethos is all about…a person’s reputation, whether fair or not. Again this is not simply a matter of partisanship. We can equally say that Bush’s verbal gaffes provided fodder for critics on the left, which hurt his ethos.

With the remark about the sixth grade class, yes, it seems that information is incorrect. I had seen that clip on the Daily Show and remembered the scene of him speaking with a teleprompter in the classroom very clearly, and so just looked for a link to it when I wrote this article. Stewart is typically a straight shooter with these kinds of things, so I did not feel the need to look at the blog post’s comments (which are typically not a good source for fact checking!). So I apologize for that error and it has been amended. However, looking at the comments, the fact remains that he had to bring his teleprompters into a classroom to speak to the media, which simply looks silly and opens himself up for criticism, which comes back to my point of his reliance on teleprompters hurting his ethos.

22 Ian Tuck April 17, 2011 at 3:24 am

Hey Brett, thanks for your response.

You write: “Your comment strikes me as a partisan knee-jerk reaction to any kind of criticism of the president.”

It may strike you as that, but it was not intended as such. As I intimated, I have a great number of criticisms of this president, but his use of a teleprompter vs. prepared notes on paper vs. index cards is not one of them.

You also write: “True, Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter is a popular meme of the right-wing media, but that does not mean it is without merit.”

Nor does it mean that it necessarily has merit.

We could also have a healthy debate about whether the Iraq-war-cheerleading, yellowcake-lie-perpuating, Judith-Miller-formerly-employing NYT is in fact a liberal paper, but I don’t mean to derail discussion of your worthy topic. I did want to address your response in some small measure, however.

From your previous comment: “Fact: Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter hurts his ethos.” That is not fact, but in fact (?), is opinion. It appears to me that the only people that actually seem to care about Obama using a teleprompter are people who are already predisposed to find some fault with him. Often, the argument is used as a way to avoid entirely dealing with the substance of his oratory. Far easier to dismiss the messenger than actually engage with the message.

In a media environment where every word is scrutinized by a (finally!) adversarial press and an opposition waiting to pounce, I can certainly understand why a President would want to make sure he didn’t misspeak. I think the argument you’re making (and please feel free to correct me) is that reading a speech (that you had a hand in writing) off of a teleprompter is somehow less “authentic” than reading it off of index cards, and that this prevents people who might otherwise buy into his message from doing so. Is it the teleprompter itself, or the way he uses it that makes him seem inauthentic to you? Could he use a teleprompter vs. index cards and still be persuasive if he looked into the camera more often? If the content and delivery didn’t change, is there something about the mere existence of a teleprompter that limits your ability to receive and/or appreciate what’s being said? If you didn’t *know* a teleprompter was used, and then found out it was, would it change your opinion of the message after the fact?

If so, I’m left wondering if that has to do with rhetoric, or with the inability of today’s society to focus on the message, instead dwelling on the irrelevant minutiae that the press seems to find so compelling. If Lincoln were to deliver the Gettysburg address today would be received in the same manner as many years ago, or would people focus on his beard, or stovepipe hat, or how poorly his clothes fit his gangly frame?

As I consider your argument of the impact that superior rhetoric can have, I’m reminded of the time that Obama went to speak with the House Republicans in Baltimore:

It appeared that even the Republicans had bought into that “he’s useless without his teleprompter” meme, and invited him to come talk to them, whereupon he expertly fielded questions from them for an hour (televised) and basically took them to the woodshed. From what I can tell from the CSpan video, he didn’t use a teleprompter in his prepared remarks, either.

I believe as Aristotle defined this particular canon, he applied it not only to memorizing speeches, but memorizing facts such that you can bring them to bear, as the President did at that House Republican meeting, answering extemporaneously throughout.

Again, I’m sorry for redirecting the conversation over what was likely a throwaway line in your original article (although perhaps not, given how vehemently you’re defending its inclusion), but if we assume that Presidential communiques are among the more important in today’s society, I think it’s worthwhile to set reasonable expectations for our leaders and be consistent in their application.

I just don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that *any* President should be expected to find time to memorize his or her speeches given the other demands placed on them by the office. This expectation may be modulated as a function of how many speeches are delivered by a head of state. Bush had 12 solo press conferences in his entire first term, while Obama had 11 in his first year. Even still, I would not begrudge President Bush any teleprompter usage as he delivered his message, instead focusing on the coherence of the argument and the power of the words.

When you write “Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter hurts his ethos…We can equally say that Bush’s verbal gaffes provided fodder for critics on the left, which hurt his ethos.”, I’m not sure what your point is. Critics will criticize. People criticized Bush for pretending to be a Texan when he was brought up in Connecticut boarding schools. People criticize Obama for not being born in America. That they find these unimportant things to criticize does not seem to me to be a reflection on the person they are criticizing, but rather on the critic. The teleprompter issue seems to me to be of the same school.

I don’t mean to turn this comment into a defense of Obama as a President, or for that matter as a brilliant orator (or not). I just found your aside as a distraction to your argument, which made me less receptive to your message. I was apparently not alone. And as a rhetorician yourself, you should care about that, no?

Brett, I’ve really enjoyed this series thus far. I promise any future comments will be much less verbose and add more substantially to the discussion. Thanks for your work.

23 Brett McKay April 17, 2011 at 11:36 am


You write: It may strike you as that, but it was not intended as such.

When I said it was a partisan knee-jerk reaction, I did not mean that you could not see the president criticized, but that the use a meme that is popular in the right wing media produced a visceral reaction in you to that specific criticism.

That Obama’s use of the teleprompter hurts his ethos is a fact not an opinion. You seem to be missing what ethos is. It is his authority with an audience, his reputation. I simply do not know how it can be argued that his reliance on the teleprompter has not hurt his reputation as an orator. Articles on it have appeared in both conservative media outlets and liberal, it has been satirized on the Daily Show. As I have said, it does not matter if the criticism is fair or not, it does not matter if it makes logical sense or not, it’s simply a matter of what’s out there and what becomes part of the popular consciousness. I really paid no attention to the whole flap over his teleprompter use at all…except that the Daily Show clip stuck in my memory, and in my memory did make him seem a little silly.

You seem to be setting up a false dichotomy between teleprompter vs. index cards. The other option is to speak extemporaneously. Yes, there are many demands on a president, and many speeches he has to give. But why use a teleprompter to open a news conference instead of simply speaking off the cuff? And why use a teleprompter at almost all campaign speeches? All candidates use the same speeches over and over again on the campaign trail, which allows them to memorize the speech. And yes, there is even a difference between using a teleprompter versus note cards. Again it is a matter of reputation, if people sense you are afraid to go off message, afraid of the criticism it could bring, it makes you seem less confident. People lose confidence in someone who seems afraid of anything. Again, and I cannot stress this enough, it is simply a matter of perception and reputation.

My point with bringing up Bush’s gaffes is that just because a meme is popular on one side of the political spectrum does not mean it is without merit, nor does it mean that it does not seep into the popular consciousness of people on both sides of the aisle. The point is again, that ethos is a matter of a reputation, a reputation within the culture and time you find yourself. These kinds of things provide fodder for criticism. If Obama didn’t use the teleprompter, critics would criticize other things, instead of his rhetoric, but it is rhetoric we are discussing here.

You said: what was likely a throwaway line in your original article (although perhaps not, given how vehemently you’re defending its inclusion.

My vehemence in defending it is not a matter of passion for or against Obama or this particular point, but simply my passion for a well-made argument, and countering when I do not think one is being made.

You write: I just found your aside as a distraction to your argument, which made me less receptive to your message. I was apparently not alone. And as a rhetorician yourself, you should care about that, no?

I think your distraction by that point has more to do with your own particular attitude and approach to media and politics. And that cannot be helped.

24 Leonard S. April 17, 2011 at 12:48 pm

Woo-wee, Brett. Game, set, match. I believe your comments constitute what the ancients called “laying the rhetorical smack down.”

Now let me preface my comments by saying that I am proudly a self-proclaimed socialist. And I agree with Ian that if there’s one criticism that could be laid on Obama is that he’s not progressive enough.

But I also see how how the teleprompter example fits in perfectly with the lesson on the canon of memory. And I do think it weakens his ethos and it is a fact! I saw the same Daily show clip and agree with Brett that it made him look silly. And since I’m his audience, and I thought it made him look silly, then that makes it a fact!

The funny thing is, I think Obama is at his most effective as a communicator when he’s NOT using a teleprompter, and when he’s just doing the give and take and letting it rip. Like this clip I saw this week:

Why doesn’t he speak like this all the time?? It would definitely increase his ethos and his authenticity and the confidence people have in him. When I saw that clip my confidence in him soared many times over!

25 Brett McKay April 17, 2011 at 1:40 pm

I hate to belabor this detour any further, but I just want to add that Leonard makes an excellent point. It is certainly not true that Obama cannot speak intelligently off the cuff. I actually think he’s truly at his best when he’s speaking off the cuff, and doing that give and take. It is at those times that he seems the most confident, the most capable, the most like the man in charge and the man with authority. Instead of seeming a little detached, he seems very forceful, convincing, and direct. It is at those times that he has the most ethos…which only goes back to my original point.

26 Ian Tuck April 17, 2011 at 4:44 pm

“I think your distraction by that point has more to do with your own particular attitude and approach to media and politics. And that cannot be helped.”

And yet, when those in the media and the opposition choose to ignore Obama’s message in favor of focusing on his use of a teleprompter, it is a reflection on his poor rhetoric and loss of ethos, as opposed to their particular attitude toward media and politics.

27 Marcus April 17, 2011 at 8:49 pm

To Ian-

The gentleman doth protest too much.

Don’t know if you’ve been paying attention partner, but this series has been about classical rhetoric. In classical rhetoric, memory plays in important role in ethos. I agree with Brett that it’s still important to us moderns to a certain extent. I know I have a lot more respect for someone who can give a speech without the aid of notes or a teleprompter.

You might not agree that the canon of memory should be applied to modern orators like President Obama, but that’s a discussion for another post. Because Obama relies on an outside source for to assist the recitation of his speeches instead of relying on his memory, Obama fails to live up to the canon of memory. End of story.

I await your counter-argument to the argument I and this post did not make by arguing that that’s not a fair standard to apply to modern rhetoricians.

28 Ian Tuck April 18, 2011 at 1:49 am

“I await your counter-argument to the argument I and this post did not make by arguing that that’s not a fair standard to apply to modern rhetoricians.”

None shall be forthcoming from me, as you are indeed correct, and I am clearly tilting against windmills here. Brett et al, please accept my apologies for having wasted your time.

29 Tsosamotse April 18, 2011 at 2:33 am

On storing up qoutes etc. Because I had a problem with comprehending phrases in written communication I googled searched phrases meaning and discovered “Phrase a week” and subscribed ever since. In order to avoid forgetting the weekly phrases that I receive via email subscription I print and file for storage purposes. What is nice about “Phrase a week” is that the author gives you a detailed history of the phrase and quotes examples were those phrases were used in the past.

On memorizing speeches etc. I have found that if one uses a, if I can call it that, “question and answer technique” as a key that unlocks every paragraph whereby the speaker starts every paraphraph with question that is followed by pre thought statements that addresses the problem e.g. Imagine Martin Luther King Jnr or Malcom X asking theses questions during his speech: Why are we all gathered here? Where do we come from as a black nation? Why are living in these kind of conditions in America? What do we deserve as a black nation? How to solve the problems in our society? etc. For me this technique is effective in making your audience remember your speech because they can almost identify with you and this way you touch their souls as your speech is formatted in a dialogue format more like you are having a conversation with your audience.

Excellent article Brett and Kate. Keep it up and Keep it coming.


Tsosamotse Marvin Hlabi
South Africa, Johannesburg, Vereeniging

30 Tsosamotse Marvin Hlabi April 18, 2011 at 5:20 am

On storing up qoutes etc. Because I had a problem with comprehending phrases used in written communication e.g. Newspapers I googled searched phrases meaning and discovered “Phrase a week” and subscribed to their website ever since. In order to avoid forgetting the weekly phrases that I learned and that I received via weekly email subscription I printed the meanings and filed them at home for storage purposes. What is nice about “Phrase a week” is that the author gives you a detailed history of the phrase and quotes examples were those phrases were used in the past. Every time I have to write speech, I will refer to my phrase file and find phrases I could use for my speeches.

On memorizing speeches etc. I have found that if one uses a, if I can call it that, “question and answer technique” as a key that unlocks every paragraph whereby the speaker starts every paraphraph with question that is followed by pre thought statements/arguments that addresses the problem e.g. Imagine Martin Luther King Jnr or Malcom X asking these questions during his speech: Why are we all gathered here? Where do we come from as a black nation? Why are living in these kind of conditions in America? What do we deserve as a black nation? How to solve the problems in our society? etc. For me this technique is effective in making both the speaker and the audience to remember the speech. When using this technique the audience will identify with you because your speech is formatted in a dialogue format (more like you are having a conversation with your audience) and in this way you also touch their souls.

Excellent article Brett and Kate. Keep it up and Keep it coming.


Tsosamotse Marvin Hlabi
South Africa, Johannesburg, Vereeniging

31 K Smith April 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Our President’s handlers know his use of the teleprompter is an issue. For one of the very first live speeches he made from the White House, instead of using a teleprompter, they put the text of his speech on 2 big screen monitors mounted on the wall at the very back of the room. This allowed them to remove the 2 podium teleprompter screens that are normally seen on camera as he speaks. It made it appear to those watching on live TV that he had memorized the speech.

They know the ability to memorize a speech elevates the authority of a speaker in the mind of the listener.

32 Steve April 18, 2011 at 5:23 pm

The President’s dependence on a teleprompter and his inability to deliver a speech without one was a perfect example. Maybe he should subscribe to AOM and learn something other than how to be a puppet.

33 rolland carpenter April 18, 2011 at 11:26 pm

In administrative trials, witnesses often bring in scripts or canned testimony. Boring to listen to! So we order it to be marked as an exhibit and put it in the pile. What is another source of absolute boredom is hearing NPR guests read their statements or supposed comments. Stuff read has no life! But notes are OK in most situations. The speaker can briefly refer to notes without losing his audience or undermining his argument.

34 Mark G April 19, 2011 at 5:41 am

Love this series of articles. Anyone interested in great orators should check out Christopher Hitchens in debate. Astonishing capacity for memory, pulling quote and passages out of the air seemingly at will.

35 Luke V April 19, 2011 at 12:11 pm

New to the site but have enjoyed reading the articles so far. This one is another very good article and I took a few things out of it and will start to apply it to my every day life.

I’ve been retaining quotes and facts for a while now but I’ve probably forgotten half. A small notebook and pen around at all times is good for remembering this info as well as other useful information like ones name. I’m horrible with names and will see if this helps.

36 Wayne April 22, 2011 at 10:37 am


Just wanted to point out that written Hebrew has no vowel characters, period. They didn’t “leave them out.” Modern Hebrew often includes notation for vowel sound pronunciation (which has also been applied to the Tanakh for ease of use by modern readers and reciters) but they aren’t actual vowel characters, more like adding a comma or a colon to a sentence.

This ambiguity leads to confusion because there are words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently and there is no real way to know the difference. So in many cases it is up to context and the translators best guess (and even then context doesn’t give clues in a few cases.)

37 Matt April 24, 2011 at 3:22 am

hey there AOM team

Just wanted to add my voice of thanks to the chorus for the rhetoric series. Brilliant, often overlooked, fascinating and educational.

Have really enjoyed it, and looking forward to the next installment


38 Marcuni May 6, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Interesting comments on Obama rhetoric skills…

Being an immigrant and not being able to vote, always made me apolitical in the US. Since Bush Sr. administration, I never cared about any president speeches on tv. President Obama changed all that for me. His speeches ignited my desire to become a citizen, participate and vote. I’m still straddling the fence with regards to politics but at least I’m awake now!

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