Monday, April 04, 2005

Inventing Answers

You are asked a question, basically given a topic upon which to discourse. Except it's not a question that has a ready answer. The "Turn knob B and push the start button" sort of instruction won't cut it. Think in terms of the "tell me about yourself" or "why do you think we should do X" sort of landmine-ridden question.

What do you do?

Instantly there are perhaps dozens of things to talk about and paralysis sets in as you try to connect these into a coherent whole. In short, what will you say?

As it happens, the study of Rhetoric has developed to answer just that question. One of the canons of rhetoric is "inventio" and it concerns finding something to say. Inventio or "invention" provides tools for picking out what to say. A key guide is the topoi (literally "places to find things") also known as topics of invention. The topics are categories of relationships between ideas which help you discover things to say about a topic.

Grab one of the topics (some of which you should have stored away in memory in case of an "extemporaneous emergency"), and use it to quickly guide you in organizing and creating your ideas on a given topic.

One of the topics is "Antecetedent and Consequence": Given a certain situation (the antecedent), what is likely to follow (the consequence)? This often takes the form of an "if...then" structure.

Given the "why do you think we should do X" sort of question, you can grab onto the antecedent easily and work down, layer by layer with this structure. "If we do X, then Y will happen. If Y happens then our world will be good because of Z. Z is what will cause revenue to increase since..." etc.

The topics are questions you can ask of your topic, to dissect it and reconstruct it as a speech.

Right now, this same invention is at work. Given that I wanted to introduce the inventio, what answers does it provide?

Well, if you do not have a ready answer to a question, then you need some ready tools for discovering an answer. As such, you can rely on the ideas of rhetoricians past to help discover it.

Silva Rhetoricae is an excellent source for rhetorical tools, including the Topoi. If you have never researched the value of Rhetoric in your speaking, give this site a view. Take a look at the topoi and see how they will help the invention of your next speech.

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