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The Imitatio Speech


Assignment requirements:


Time: 6 minutes

Purpose: To learn by studying a master rhetor. In the process of filling in the worksheet and doing the essentializing exercise, you will study the style of the person whose speech you memorized. In this speech your aim is to emulate that style, maybe even improve on it if you think you can, and apply the essential theme of the speech to a contemporary situation.

Paperwork: 2 Critique sheets (with your name on them)

You should have completed the Imitatio Worksheet by now.


Imitatio is an ancient exercise designed to help orators cultivate excellence of style by studying and emulating past masters.  By first memorizing, then studying, imitating and bringing to bear on a contemporary situation, a great speech from days of yore, you will develop your rhetorical sensibilities in a time tested fashion.  By the time you get around to your original composition, you will amaze and astound your friends and family with the abiliy you’ve developed to work with words.  What is more, you will think more deeply, and be better equipped to achieve human excellence.  That’s what a liberal arts education is all about!


This speech is weighted double because you are expected to labor over it, reflect on it and, especially, reflect in it your ability to apply what you’ve learned this semester.  To that end, I suggest that, in the process of doing the worksheet, you come up with a working title for your speech, develop a rough idea of how you want to approach this assignment, and then reflect on it for
a day or two.  When you are ready to work on it again, take up your “lump of clay” and start to shape it.  Work out the sections of your speech that will be directly paraphrased from the memorized speech.  Now, shape the original portions of your speech, looking especially for ways that you can utilize figures of speech, etc.  to make your speech sublime [click here for further more on the sublime].  Lay it down.  After having worked on other assignments for awhile :-), return to your composition, take it up and ask yourself, “What am I trying to say here?”  Polish it.  Refine it.  And when you listen to it and exclaim, “That’s as good as I can get it . . . if I add any more it would be overkill,” then you are ready to begin practicing.  Practice until you are familiar enough with the speech to barely need your manuscript.

So, this speech is about capitalizing on the strongest, most relevant features of your memorized speech in the following ways:


  1. Paraphrase those parts of the speech that are most suitable for paraphrasing.
  2. “Pull forward” that aspect of the speech (the most enduring idea) that is most relevant to us today, by applying the idea to a particular situation, societal trend, attitude, etc.
  3. Emulate those aspects of your speaker’s rhetoric most worth emulating.  (This is the essence of learning by imitatio.)
  4. Speak in an eloquent, as opposed to extemporaneous, style.  (I.e., refine your language by using figures of speech, but don’t overuse them!)
  5. Address all the items on the critique sheet.
  6. Come visit your humble servant for some coaching (it’s his forté!).

*When I say “sublime” I don’t mean your entire speech has to be perfect.  What I’m after is a moment
or two of brilliance, where the audience reacts with an “ooooh!” or an “aaaaaaah!”  If your speech has a flash of genius, I’m satisfied.  If it’s ordinary, don’t expect an A.

Don’t forget to have fun!