Before there were videos, pictures, audio recordings, or even ‘paper to dirty’ with written words (thank you, Carl Sandburg), there was speech.
Whenever I’m having writing trouble, I try to remind myself of a lesson from Cicero, the grandest speechmaker of them all. Cicero wrote that a speech should inform, entertain, and movere — a term I translate as ‘cause the feeling that makes you want to do something about whatever it is you heard, read, or saw.’ Other people translate movere as “move,” but Cicero wrote much of this concept, indicating movere as also a kind of enlightenment that causes excitement. (See Cicero’s De oratore, book II.)
I heed the great speechmaker’s advice because Cicero was a great writer, too. As testament to the quality of his writing, people labored for centuries to preserve it, even his letters. Around 1345, for example, poet and scholar Petrarch re-discovered a collection of Cicero’s letters to Atticus preserved in Verona’s cathedral. A century before Gutenberg’s press, Petrarch then undertook the enormously expensive task to re-publish — essentially, re-write — and distribute copies of over eight hundred of Cicero’s letters. Today many historians date Petrarch’s re-publication of those letters as the start of the Renaissance.
In applying Cicero’s lesson to my writing, I consider first what my audience already knows or feels, and then I think about what combination of inform, entertain, or movere to employ, if I can.
Inform. Informing is the simplest of these three characteristics to execute, but even if I’m writing a technical manual, I try to do more than just inform. That said, in such settings, entertainment and movere can get in the way. Readers of technical manuals, for example, are not looking for entertainment and already have their own movere, which is the task that prompted them to read that technical manual in the first place. So, I tend to limit my efforts to entertain to the occasional pun, knowing that my editor is my first audience and that a chuckle helps an editor through a technical manual, even if s/he ends up editing it out. In journalism, the informational article is typically the first one written after a story breaks, answering the five Ws and H questions.
Entertain. I believe a good story is entertaining on its own. To make sure the story entertains, I “tell” it out loud, first, only answering the five Ws and H questions as concisely as possible. Then, I re-tell it but “showing, not telling” those five Ws and H answers as best I can with a story. That’s because: 1) I started out in radio and continue to do work with audio and video; 2) the best way I’ve found to sell a print editor on a story in person is by telling it — this is how I approach editors at pitch slams and power-pitch sessions, too. Then, it’s time to figure out what the audience already knows and how much time or space I have for the story. Finally, in writing, I start with the classical oration arrangement — an outline that includes an introduction, narrative of facts, addressing counterarguments or caveats, and kicker — and then modify it depending on the publication.
Movere. The most difficult characteristic to employ, movere either requires intention or a planned accident. If you intend to movere your audience, then you are probably writing advertising copy, textbooks, editorials, or fiction. In journalism, you might want to movere your audience, but the self-imposed standards that make journalism objective may lead to a story that does not movere the audience the way you want it to, including no movere at all. As a journalist, I believe the best one can do is to plan for movere accidents by reporting stories that enter important conversations already going on, such as any concerns about your town’s water quality, for example. It doesn’t have to be a conversation that many people are already talking about, but that many people would talk about if they knew more about it. The task is to highlight these conversations with a good story that both informs and entertains, which may movere your audience to do something about what they have read, seen or heard, even if it is just passing on your story to others.