Topoi are “mental mailboxes”
Someone asked me this week, “Explain ‘topoi’ to me. What exactly are topoi? I’m not sure I understand it. I looked up the word, and that still didn’t help me enough.”
“Topoi” is a difficult concept to get one’s head around in that it refers to an abstract mental process. “Topoi” are where the mind goes in order to think about what you are seeking to accomplish. They are mental “mailboxes.”
Illustrated: Creating A Poster
The best way I have found to describe it is by using a poster analogy. If someone asked you to design a poster which would be used to announce an event, there are certain places your mind ought to go as you design it.
If you are a novice at making up a poster or even making an announcement, you will quickly learn that your mind lacked some of the “places” or “categories of thought” which are ever-present with seasoned “poster-makers.” You’re “novice-ness” will typically reveal itself because you failed to think of the categories which come naturally to those who make “announcements” or create “posters” on a regular basis.
Now I am not speaking of the graphics, the design, or the selected artwork, but the content of the “poster.” There are certain categories of thought which should come to mind when creating a “poster/announcement/flyer.”
- Where: Where will it take place? – At”Faith Farm” located at 777 Peaceful Drive
- Who: Who is “sponsoring” it? – Faith Baptist Church
- When: When is it happening? – November 17th / From 6-9 pm
- What: What is happening? – Harvest Hayride & Petting Zoo
- Whom: Who is it for? — Children – ages 5 to 12
How many times have you read or heard an announcement made which left out one of those details. Someone, in their mind, failed to call up that category of thought which is just part and parcel of what is necessary.
Where – Who – When – What – Whom
are “topoi” – mental constructs which are used in laying out an announcement
Illustrated: Fundamentals of Speech 101
Likewise, there are some places your mind will go when working on a speech or a message. If you are an experienced speaker, that experience will push you down some repetitive mental avenues — i.e. — Introduction / Main Points / Conclusion.
Just about every basic book on public speaking will lay out these three general sections of a speech. Why? Is it not intuitive? No — not to the novice speaker who is taking Fundamentals of Speech 101. However, after taking Speech 101, it should be part of their thinking.
Introduction / Body / Conclusion
are “topoi” – mental constructs which are used in laying out the beginnings of a speech.
Illustrated: Impromptu Speaking
However, there are many more categories or thought, or places which the mind goes, given time and experience. In fact, over time you may feel like a “sermon mill” — you are able to look at a passage of Scripture, or select a topic on which to speak, and lay out your approach fairly quickly!
If you have been a “forensics coach” at the college or university level, as I have, you realize that one of the categories of competition is “impromptu speech.” These speakers are given a topic and have very little time to prepare before they are called upon to present their speech. One year, as a coach, I attended a collegiate forensics competition with my students, and they announced a “coach’s impromptu competition” which I entered — a $75 cash prize and a LARGE wooden gavel for the winner.*
Impromptu speakers have to quickly lay out a structure, develop the flow, create the transitions, make the argument, create content (with little time for research), formulate a way to introduce and conclude it all, and more.
How do impromptu speakers do that in about 15-30 minutes? They have “topoi” in mind which given them direction. They have mental places they go which give them some possible OPTIONS . . .
√ in structure — i.e. Monroe’s Motivated Sequence / Problem-Solution / Three Points/Arguments
√ in the development — i.e., chronological, spatial, historical, logical
√ in their transitions — i.e., therefore, nevertheless, however, since, because, rather
√ in the possible arguments — i.e., strongest ones first / address some counter-arguments causing resistance to your persuasion?
√ in general content — i.e. statistics / stories / examples / visuals / identifying / attention-getting / applicational / related-connected material / insightful ideas
√ in some possible introductions — i.e. Use a “factoid” / a personal story / a quotation / the story of another / a shocking statement
√ in some possible conclusions — i.e., a summary conclusion / a shocking statement / an emotional story / a reference back to the introduction / the other half of the introductory story
I used the word “OPTIONS” because that is what “topoi” give you – OPTIONS. Many experienced speakers run down mental roads which are well-worn. They come first and therefore easy, but they have the real potential of becoming “ruts.”
Those who live in the world of “words” and “speaking” need to push themselves to develop other OPTIONS of thought. This is where . . . .
- rhetorical methodologies
- mind-generating tactics
- generating creative ideas and approaches
- “rhetorical techniques”
. . . . come into play.
The delineation of various topoi pushes speakers to realize that there are other ways . . . .
- to frame a thought
- to structure a message
- to drive an idea
- to restate a principle or truth
- to make a truth memorable
- to develop an application
- to undergird a point
√ You are not left with limited options — “three points and a poem” or “an alliterated outline.”
√ The minds of other speakers run down different avenues which are just as available to you, as to them.
√ The minds of some of the most compelling speakers have come to understand some of the most effective ways to communicate — whether they can explain to others, or not, what they are doing.
Topoi are places where you go with your mind . . . .
to generate content
to brainstorm for ideas
in order to come up with ways to frame ideas
to think about what you are saying from a different vantage
to generate different ways to think about/entertain what you are addressing
to give you OPTIONS
As stated before, Aristotle challenged his students to argue either position on any particular topic when called upon. He taught his students to use “topoi” — mental categories of thought which could be entertained, which could be potentially considered for use in making their argument.
The identification of different “topoi” is valuable in that it gets you off some of the old, and well-worn roads you may have been on for years.
It gives you the ability to grow and develop your speaking ability! All of those who speak regularly well understand that we are not where we began, or where we were but a few years ago. Our speaking abilities can be developed, improved, strengthened, and changed.
We (as does our audience) recognize that there are some very effective speakers and that there are some very ineffective speakers as well! No matter how well we may understand a particular biblical truth or principle, that does not mean we can communicate it effectively or that we cannot do better at communicating it!
We can become more effective if we exert the mental energy it takes to become more effective. That is exactly what it takes, a lot of mental energy and time to work at communication, not just our theology.
May I even suggest that at times the truth of many a passage is very simple and obvious, and the time and energy need not be spent on “exegeting” every word, but on how to effectively communicate the truth which is lying on top of the soil. — Just saying!
*They had us select out of a hat three topics. We had to choose one of the three topics on which to speak. Because we older and coaches, we were given overnight to prepare for the speech. No – I regretfully must report that I did not win, but there is a crazy story that goes with it all!