What do togas and skype have to do with Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers?What do the Ancient Greeks and Romans have to do with today’s modern communication technology?

At first glance, not much. (I mean, if you despise using webcams now, imagine how goofy togas and Skype would be the next time you’re avoiding your webcam!)

But the Greeks (and later, the Romans) invented and perfected the art of public speaking and verbal communication—both through oratory and rhetoric.

Here’s the breakdown…

Oratory is the “science” of verbally communicating, in other words, how you speak to others in a public setting. The Athenians literally created the study of how to be a great public speaker, and the rules haven’t changed much (although our culture has changed considerably since one stood on the stairs of the marketplace and shouted).

Rhetoric is the creation and dissemination of your content, and although the Greeks originally created the five parts of rhetoric, below I’ve listed exact definitions from the Roman writer Quintillan.

You’ll see that they apply even in a virtual world:

  • Inventio (invention): The process of developing and refining your arguments. Want that project funded or your team to change course and do as you ask? You’d better make a compelling case, even if you’re not directly in the room with your audience.
  • Dispositio (arrangement): The process of arranging and organizing your arguments for maximum impact. Do they fall asleep before you get to the good stuff? Do they spend so much time wondering where you’re going they miss the point when they get there? These are choices we make, and a lot of us choose poorly.
  • Elocutio (style): The process of determining HOW you present your arguments using figures of speech, metaphors, and other techniques. Presenting online is different than being in the room. If you’re simply taking your PowerPoint from your last meeting and delivering it online, you’re probably in a bit of trouble.
  • Memoria (memory): The process of learning and memorizing your speech so you can deliver it without notes and know how to hit the high points. This can also include quotes, facts, and details you can call up at a moment’s notice. Ever notice how great speakers always seem to have a convenient story? That’s no accident.
  • Actio (delivery) The process of practicing your delivery using gestures, pronunciation and tone of voice. This also includes using the technology. (And although Socrates didn’t have laser pointers, PowerPoint or Skype for Business, he sure wouldn’t use them without practicing first.)

It sometimes seems like communicating on the Information Superhighway is so complicated that no one can figure it out. The fact is, though, the rules of the road are 2800 years old.

We just have to remember them.



Co-founder and Product Line Manager

The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Marshall Goldsmith calls him “one of the unique voices to listen to in the virtual workplace”. He works with organizations around the world to help people use technology to lead people and projects and build productive human connections in an increasingly remote and virtual work environment.

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