Styles of Oratory
“The orator should use the plain style to instruct, the grand style to move, the intermediate style to charm”1
Although the quote from Quintilian above gives us three distinct styles, most commentators have rolled them into two: the ‘forensic’ and the ‘grand’ styles. The forensic style gives much of its attention to directness and the particular. Such personalities as Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Schmidt, and Al Gore are modern examples of ‘forensic’ speakers, while Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama represent the more ‘grand’ and engaging style with attention given to the global picture. Both styles can be persuasive according to what the circumstances demand. However, although our personalities may direct us towards one style, we, like Cicero, should master both. We shall look briefly at these two approaches to public discourse, firstly as they emerged in ancient Rome.
These were times turmoil in Rome and public discourse was taken very seriously. It was the age of the Gracchi, Julius Caesar, Cicero, and Hortensius. It was the age of the great senate debates, famous law trials, and mass meetings. It was an age when rhetorical knowledge and oratorical skill were necessary for advancement in public life. It was an age when Roman rhetoric blossomed with the expansion of the Republic. It was also an age when a speaker’s gravitas was of the utmost importance.
Two Distinct Styles
The ‘forensic’ style was traditionally called Atticism (meaning a more controlled style of communicating) while the more ‘grand’ or flamboyant style was known as Asianism. But it was probably William Shakespeare who popularized this distinction best in his play on Julius Caesar. The speech of Brutus represented the concise and controlled form of speaking, while Mark Antony displayed the more flamboyant form.
The ‘Attic’ or ‘Forensic’ Style
Many Romans of the patrician classes were concerned about how others perceived them. This is why they gave so much importance to ‘gravitas’. They saw their culture in masculine terms and they often viewed Greek culture as effeminate. This preference was reflected in their schools of rhetoric. The oratory taught at the rhetorical schools in Rome under Roman rhetors was greatly influenced by their stoicism and favored a direct style of speaking. This was called Attic style or Atticism (derived from the political Athenian tradition). Today it is often referred as the ‘forensic’ style. It is a style associated with the speeches of the great Athenian orators of the 5th and 4th centuries bce, including Lysias, Plato and Demosthenes. It was argumentative, and great importance was given to proof. It emphasized conciseness and brevity over long speeches. It suited those entering the legal profession. In Rome itself at this time, young orators such as Brutus, Gaius Licinius Calvus, and Julius Caesar favored this direct style.
The Asiatic or ‘Grand’ Style
Later Roman writers distinguished the purity and simplicity of these Attic models from the excessive artifice and ornamentation of the ‘Asiatic’ style or ‘grand’ style that had originally developed among the Greeks in Asia Minor and had crept into some of the rhetorical schools in Rome under Greek influence.
Asianism laid great emphasis on elegance and charm, and was hugely attractive to the fashionable youth of Rome when Cicero was young. It was a flamboyant style full of gestures and bodily motions which emphasized an exaggerated delivery. It was applauded by the youth but scorned by the older generations who thought it was unmanly and resembled the theatre too much. It was in direct contrast to the more direct and natural style of Atticism. Historians attribute its popularity to Hegesias of Magnesia.2
Cicero’s balanced Style
In Cicero´s earlier discourses the influence of the Asiatic style is evident. Later he sought to introduce a greater balance in his delivery by introducing some of the practices of Attic style. He did this, I suppose, in the interest of creating a greater perception of his ´gravitas´ with his audiences. ‘Gravitas’ was one of the most important virtues for any young aspiring Roman and it didn’t sit well with the over use of theatrical gesturing and flamboyancy. The odd thing is that when Cicero sought a more balanced approach he then began to criticize his main competitor Hortensius for being over flamboyant in the use of ‘grand’ style.
Two Examples of the use of Style
But which style brought more success? Here is one example from the Roman law courts which could be transferred to any court in the United States. Two lawyers, Lucinius Crassus and Macius Scaevola, were representing their respective clients in a case concerning a will. It was a jury case. Crassus was a master orator and a reasonably good lawyer while his opponent, Scaevola, was a reasonable orator and a master at law. Scaevola addressed the principles of law and argued his case with precision and conciseness based on proofs, while Crassus addressed the jury directly and hardly touched on any of the legal aspects at all. Who won? Eloquence and not legal knowledge won the day.3 It was deliberate oratory winning over the forensic style as with Mark Antony’s victory over Brutus in Shakespeare’s play on Julius Caesar (the opposite occurred with Margaret Thatcher and the leader of the opposition – the different circumstances matter).
Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, tends to give the ‘grand’ style the edge over the more ‘forensic’ approach in deliberate communication. Cicero’s genius was that he could use both styles effectively. He knew when and where to change his style, and as a result he was just as successful in the political arena as he was in the law courts.
An example of this ability is shown in the case of Milo, a young wealthy Roman aristocrat and a leader among the optimates (conservative party) which Cicero supported. Milo had organized a gang of former gladiators and toughs to roam the city at night attacking those who supported the populares. Clodius Pulcher, another aristocrat, retaliated by forming an opposing gang to attack the optimates. The two gangs clashed in several street fights but eventually they met outside the city walls and the result was bloody and violent. Clodius and some of his supporters were killed, and proceedings were brought against Milo. Cicero agreed to defend Milo. Cicero’s case was pretty weak so he decided to forgo the usual forensic approach and to use the ‘grand’ style which he had been well trained in. He began his speech by feigning fear of the armed guards that protected the court proceedings, and thus built up sympathy with the jurors. He used ethos and pathos successfully in winning over the jury which he focused on. Milo, and, indeed, Cicero himself, would have to be seen in a sympathetic way if the case was to have any chance of success.
The case of Margaret Thatcher4
In many ways Mrs. Thatcher was lucky in the person of Neil Kinnock, the leader of the opposition, whom she found easy to defeat in open argument. The British system is a parliamentary one so argumentation is important. Kinnock spoke in ‘grand’ terms with his utopian tone, while she kept to specifics with her forensic tone. For example, relating to Parliamentary Question Time, Mrs. Thatcher gives us a clue to her preparation: “I always briefed myself very carefully for Questions. One private secretary, my political secretary, my parliamentary private secretary and I would go through all the likely issues which might come up without any notice.” 5
Thatcher prepared her arguments well and established her reputation in Parliament in her early years. She knew quite well that Question Time on Tuesdays and Thursdays was important to her in her effort to stamp her authority on the House and maintain its respect. For her it was always a question of winning at Question Time.
As the British system is a parliamentary one, debating skills are held in high regard. Neil Kinnock, as far as Thatcher was concerned, was far too emotional, far too wordy, and far too utopian to be successful in a parliamentary environment. Thatcher, with her forensic style and hard work, didn’t hold Kinnock in high regard for his lack of parliamentary skills, and particularly his inability to keep to specifics even in Question Time. Details were everything for Mrs. Thatcher. Without accurate details, the argument could not be won. Kinnock’s style of speechmaking, the ‘grand’ style was more appropriate to large audiences than to the confines of the House of Parliament. Kinnock was unable to change his style to suit the circumstances.
The case of Ronald Reagan6
Ronald Reagan was in a different political environment from Margaret Thatcher. Reagan’s persuasive skills were first developed as a story teller, then as a sports commentator and finally, as an actor and president of the Screen Actor Guild in the post war years. He then found a job as a Sunday night T.V. host. According to Grauband, this made him more famous than all his years in Hollywood “…his youthful appearance, spontaneous manner, courtly relations, and gentle repartee with his many famous guests made him an appealing personality, familiar to millions of viewers”7. He also began to accept invitations to speak at GE plants all over the country. In his eight years with GE he spoke at 135 such plants.
Reagan’s public speaking career took a big leap forward when he joined the professional speech circuit as a popular conservative speaker. It was a profitable business as he earned $10,000 per speech. During this time until he officially ran for office he is said to have given some 9,000 speeches to groups such as the American Legion, Elks, the Mouse (a family fraternity organized in lodges across the United States) and other such organizations.
In Ronald Reagan’s case, his communication style was the ‘grand’ style. He had learnt to see and feel what he wanted to say. He also learnt at an early age how to be a good story teller and create the right emotional environment while telling it. The combination of these skills along with his open character and baritone voice gave him a trustworthiness image which was the underlying feature of what went to make Ronald Reagan. Stephen Graubard writes,
“More than any other president in the twentieth century, he used stories – narratives he mastered – to bring himself closer to ordinary men and women. He was equally at home on television and radio; the country believed him to be just an ordinary American … ”. 8
Many have called him ‘The Great Communicator’ but perhaps it would be more accurate for posterity to describe him as ‘The Great Persuader’
Note on Bill Clinton and the ‘grand’ style
No matter your political leanings or what part of the world you may be from, there is no denying that former US President Bill Clinton is one of the most gifted communicators on the planet. There are many reasons why Mr. Clinton is so effective at the podium. Some of the aptitudes that make him so effective are his engaging, "naked," human style, his verbal presentation of clear logic and evidence, as well as his solid storytelling skills such as providing clear examples and painting pictures with his words. Whether it is a speech or an interview, he comes across as articulate and extremely intelligent but without being aloof or pedantic. His style is his own. I am not suggesting you copy his approach or his style, but I am suggesting that you speak in your own natural human voice.9
It could be said that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have followed Cicero’s lead in becoming masters of mixing both styles according to what the circumstances demand. Whereas Reagan and Thatcher kept to the one style, and were lucky that the circumstances favored them.
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