Inventio: Brainstorming Your Speech

Inventio Brainstorming Your SpeechCicero gave us the five canons of speech:

  1. Inventio (Invention or creation of ideas)
  2. Dispositio (Arrangement of the ideas)
  3. Elocutio (Style to attract your audience)
  4. Memoria (Memorization of the material)
  5. Actio (Delivery – including body language, vocal variety, etc.)


When you have to give a speech, you have a lot of work ahead of the short amount of time that you’ll actually speak.  Like all things, the more time you spend preparing, the better the end product will be.  If you take the time to really think about your speech topic, you’ll have a better speech.

Seven Questions (More or Less)

You want to be persuasive, so you need to understand all sides of your topic right now before the speech begins.  We call this the status quo:  how things are right now.

Your speech is going to ask people to change the status quo.  So you need to ask yourself a few questions so that you understand what you’re asking and what you’re up against.

  1.  What exactly are you talking about?  What’s the current status quo?
  2.  What change do you want to make or ask for?  What are you asking people to do?  Do they have the power to do what you ask?
  3.  Do you know the facts about the status quo?  Is what you’re going to ask going to make a significant impact?
  4.  Are there any unclear ideas or definitions you need to clarify before you start?
  5.  Can you divide this question into smaller parts?
  6.  Is what you’re asking a moral question?
  7.  Is this the right way to ask this question?  Is it the right place?

This type of questioning is called stasis.  You’re looking at the question from many sides to determine your perspective.  These questions aren’t light:  You need to be able to answer these clearly and completely to be persuasive.

(This is often why arguments get silly and end up attacking each other rather than dealing with the topic.  It’s easier to attack a person rather than their argument.  By the way, that’s called ad hominem and it’s a logical fallacy. Don’t do it.)

Deliberative Topics

Because we’re working on a persuasive speech, we’re working with Aristotle’s special topic called deliberative.  That roughly means we’re asking people to think about what we’re asking them to do.  Aristotle broke this down further into two sides:  good/bad and useful/not useful.

  1.  Good/Bad sounds pretty easy to determine, but in fact, good and bad here don’t refer to just morality.  It may go into deeper, looking at complex questions that aren’t clear-cut good or bad.  The society has to be considered:  some societies have directly opposite values.
  2. Useful/Not Useful examines the topic from the practical perspective.  Is the topic a useful one for the current society or audience?  For example, some 100 years ago, large cities had a horrible problem on the streets with manure.  This isn’t as big a problem now (although it could be) so is the topic useful to the audience?

To help you determine the deliberation, you might want to consider these four points:

Definitions:  Will your audience understand all the terms you want to use.  Control of definitions is critical – consider what’s going on right now with fake news.  What’s fake news and who’s putting it out?  That answer depends entirely on your political perspective.

Cause and effect: Will your call to action to the audience have a positive effect?  Are there possible negative effects that overwhelm the positive?  What is causing your current problem?

Comparison: This is a powerful step you shouldn’t ignore.  Compare the positive and negative sides to your proposal.  Are they mutually exclusive (meaning you can’t have both) or can they co-exist?  What is one side like, compared to the other?  This step will help you create metaphors and similes that you’ll want to keep in mind when writing your speech.

Circumstances: It’s hard to believe, but in some cultures, lying isn’t seen as bad.  It’s actually a skill to help a person achieve their goals.  In our culture, lying is seen as morally bad.  What are the circumstances of the people involved with this proposal?  Do they share our moral or philosophical code?  Suppose you’re talking to a farmer who wants to change the use of his land, but the community doesn’t want him to.  Who should win?  Depends on who you ask!

Remember your audience

Can they do what you ask?  Do they have the power, authority, or ability to make this change?

If you want to change your topic, you can do it this week!  But after this, you’re locked in!