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As John Cleese famously said, “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Well, they also set down some useful ground rules for what I’ve been doing full-time for about 25 years, which is writing for business.

For a quick history lesson, those ground rules I’m talking about are Quintilian’s Five Canons of Rhetoric. Rhetoric is where a writer or speaker tries to inform, persuade or motivate particular audiences in specific situations. Roman scholar Quintilian’s five parts of the process are Inventio, Disposito, Elocutio, Memoria and Actio. Or Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory and Delivery.

OK, the last two are down to the speaker in today’s world, but the first three are essentially how I pay my mortgage, whether my clients are in finance, pharmaceuticals, farming or fashion.

Invention means developing or refining the argument (ie sales pitch). Arrangement is working out the best structure for getting that message across. And style speaks for itself – whether that means me developing the tone or following the writing guidelines the client’s provided.

I work hard at getting these things right. It takes time, even when you’re experienced. And it takes a great deal of thought. But often I wonder whether many people in business today actually understand this. (Are those violins I can hear in the background?)

I do find it frustrating though. Two thousand years ago, people got this. And before Cicero, Quintilian and the Romans, the Greeks were very hot on it. In fact, over 300 years BC, Aristotle emphasised the power of words and laid the foundations for Quintilian’s later work. Ever since, everyone seems to have understood the power of words. Right up to the ad agencies of the Sixties and Seventies, where the word folk were given time and money to do their thing.

But then what? Where are we now? Where do these two thousand years of sound communications principles stand in today’s marketing industry? “A brief? We haven’t got time for that, I need to publish it tomorrow.” “How much? I can get someone to do it for half that.” “I could do it myself, but I’m in meetings all day, could you just rustle something up?” “What do you mean ‘where’s the information?’ You’re the writer, aren’t you?”

I’m afraid that in marketing today, the writer is often at the bottom of the food chain. The supplier to be put in their place by the junior account exec. The agency freelancer who has to fill their beautiful design with x number of words. The recent graduate in the back office paid peanuts to come up with pages of blather (aka ‘content’) to fill the client’s website. How the hell is any of that going to inform, persuade or motivate?

The Romans gave us those solid writing principles to base our work on. Yet in today’s marketing world I often feel as if I might as well be from the Ministry of Silly Walks.


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