10 timeless tips for excellent communication from Cicero

Back in ancient Rome there wasn’t “PR” or “Marketing” or “social media” but there was a “public square” and there was “communication” and there most certainly was “persuasion” and “propaganda” – and it largely depended on rhetoric, and oratory, and the type of oratory most highly prized was eloquence.

Cicero was a bit of an expert on eloquence, and oratory. Not only did he publish a bunch of material on how to speak, and be eloquent, other famous people like Julius Caesar, dedicated their own published works on oratory to him. This makes him an ancient expert, somewhat anachronistically, on public relations, and communication. All you have to do is replace “Oratory” with “communication” and “eloquence” with “being good at communicating”…

cicero statue

Image Credit: Cicero Statue, The First Premise, Cicero

As I read through Cicero’s handbooks and other stuff for a bit of research, and for fun, I’m struck over and over again by how timeless his principles and advice are. His single-minded pursuit of oratory excellence, and thus, excellence in communication led him to study communication, and persuasion, from its earliest days as a science – to his present day, an approach we can probably learn from, even if we want to pretend everything of value has been invented in the last couple of generations (and even if we don’t – it’s worth seeing how timeless truth is).

He acknowledges that this pursuit is pretty difficult, because while there are some objective qualities of good oratory, and an objective essence of good communication – that all communication can be judged on, the actual act of communication is almost purely subjective.

“How then shall we strike out a general rule or model, when there are several manners, and each of them has a certain perfection of its own? But this difficulty has not deterred me from the undertaking; nor have I altered my opinion that in all things there is a something which comprehends the highest excellence of the kind, and which, though not generally discernible, is sufficiently conspicuous to him, who is skilled in the subject.”

Here are 10 things I think modern communicators can learn from Cicero, with some quotes (and if you hit the “read more” link after the list, there’s a bunch of quotes from his Cicero’s Brutus or History of Famous Orators, and The Orator).

It’s a pretty long post including the quotes – sorry if it all makes it into the RSS feed.

  1. Words are powerful. Especially when they’re well used.
    Words persuade people.

    This is the Eloquence that bends and sways the passions!—this the Eloquence that alarms or sooths them at her pleasure! This is the Eloquence that sometimes tears up all before it like a whirlwind; and, at other times, steals imperceptibly upon the senses, and probes to the bottom of the heart!

  2. Know what you’re trying to do when you communicate (move your audience to action or change their thinking).
    Good communication means thinking about who your audience is, and how you want to change them (or stop them changing).

    As, therefore, the two principal qualities required in an Orator, are to be neat and clear in stating the nature of his subject, and warm and forcible in moving the passions; and as he who fires and inflames his audience, will always effect more than he who can barely inform and amuse them” 
  3. Know your audience, and their expectations. Contextualise. Don’t bore people.
    Given these two points, the communicator should choose words that speak to their audience, so communication requires observation, education, thinking, and participating in life.

    “He, therefore, is the man of genuine Eloquence, who can adapt his language to what is most suitable to each. By doing this, he will be sure to say every thing as it ought to be said. He will neither speak drily upon copious subjects, nor without dignity and spirit upon things of importance; but his language will always be proportioned, and equal to his subject.”

  4. Be clear
    Use words and phrases people will understand, phrased as concisely as possible, but pay heed to convention and context, don’t be so clear you’re boring.

    …the simple and easy Speaker is remarkably dexterous and keen, and aiming at nothing but our information, makes every thing he discourses upon, rather clear and open than great and striking, and polishes it with the utmost neatness and accuracy.”

  5. Pay attention to the structure of your argument.
    Think about pace, rhythm, rhyme, and verve, but most importantly – how to structure your argument around your purpose.

    “For every cause can have but one natural introduction and conclusion; and all the other parts of it, like the members of an animal body, will best retain their proper strength and beauty, when they are regularly disposed and connected.”

  6. Be engaging.
    This means cleverly, or inventively, using new and exciting combinations of words designed to stir people, and using humour sometimes (carefully and originally).

    “This kind of Oratory will likewise be frequently enlivened by those turns of wit and pleasantry, which in Speaking have a much greater effect than is imagined. There are two sorts of them; the one consisting in smart sayings and quick repartees, and the other in what is called humour. Our Orator will make use of both;—of the latter in his narratives, to make them lively and entertaining;—and of the other, either in giving or retorting a stroke of ridicule.”

  7. Use familiar structures, concepts and tools, but change the words to paint new, clear, pictures.
    Sticking with what people know, and using it to change what they think, is a good strategy.

    “But in the use of metaphors, he will, perhaps, take greater liberties; because these are frequently introduced in conversation, not only by Gentlemen, but even by rustics, and peasants: for we often hear them say that the vine shoots out it’s buds, that the fields are thirsty, the corn lively, and the grain rich and flourishing. Such expressions, indeed, are rather bold: but the resemblance between the metaphor and the object is either remarkably obvious; or else, when the latter has no proper name to express it, the metaphor is so far from appearing to be laboured, that we seem to use it merely to explain our meaning.”

  8. Character, and personal substance, is important, bad character corrupts communication
    It’s not just the medium that is the message. You are the message too. Partly because in oratory you were the medium – in modern communication who you are is as important, if not more important, than what you say.

    “But (as I have before observed) I have been so much transported, not by the force of my genius, but by the real fervor of my heart, that I was unable to restrain myself: —and, indeed, no language will inflame the mind of the hearer, unless the Speaker himself first catches the ardor, and glows with the importance of his subject.”

  9. Communicating well is hard, successful communication achieves its purpose.
    While there are plenty of communication principles, it should be judged on its fruits – how well does what you’re communicating achieve its purpose?

    “The general merit of an Orator must and will be decided by the effects which his eloquence produces. For (in my opinion at least) there are three things which an Orator should be able to effect; viz. to inform his hearers, to please them, and to move their passions.”

  10. Practice, imitation, reading, and writing makes better, and if at first you don’t succeed, keep pursuing excellence.
    Communicating well is hard work. But it’s better to try to communicate well, and fail, than to simply communicate poorly.

    “It is but reasonable, however, that all those who covet what is excellent, and which cannot be acquired without the greatest application, should exert their utmost. But if any one is deficient in capacity, and destitute of that admirable force of genius which Nature bestows upon her favourites, or has been denied the advantages of a liberal education, let him make the progress he is able. For while we are driving to overtake the foremost, it is no disgrace to be found among the second class, or even the third…” 

If you want to read further, I’ve included the list again, with more supporting quotes from Cicero, below…