Working with Speeches
Step 1: Read the Speech
Begin by simply reading through the speech. Make quick notes about things
you observe as a person encountering the speech for the first time. Notice
this is not the last step but the first.
Step 2: Understand the Demands of the Historical Situation on the Speaker
The perspective of this step is grounded in your understanding of the historical situation and how it makes demands on the speaker. Certainly you can look to the speech for clues, but remember that the speech is the speaker's construction of his/her moment, not necessarily an accurate reflection of history's demands. So, even those clues you find in the speech should be taken back to the material from the lectures, the introductions to speeches in the books, and your own research into the historical moment. It is history's demands and not what is in the speech that is ultimately your guide.
What events at the historical moment were calling for leadership?
Research the Speech's Context. Some
information is available in the commentaries in your textbook or in other
material assigned in the syllabus. Sources like Wikipedia can also provide
the shallow, general understanding that will get you started. As you work
more deeply, you will need to deepen this research.
Contemplate the Speaker's Purpose. What did the historical moment dictate that the speaker address? Given that moment, what did the leader decide s/he should accomplish
in the speech? What public response to the historical situation did s/he wish to create?
What elements of the time can the speaker call upon? What
are the relevant material conditions creating the historical demand that the speaker must note? What
are the values active at the time?
What are the resources from rhetorical history the speaker can call upon? How
is the public familiar with responding to such situations in the past? What
rhetoric are they familiar with using in such situations?
- Assess the Speaker's Success. How well did the speaker do in relationship
to his/her purpose? What historical track did the speaker help to bring about?
Step 3: Understand the Speaker's Strategies
in the Speech
This step must interrogate the speech itself. That interrogration is shaped by a logic of instrumentality: the speaker chooses rhetorical strategies to help meet the demands of the situation and his/her purpose in the speech. So read the speech not as words but as the product of choices of strategy by the speaker. In general, you are seeking answers to the following:
How did the speaker connect with the public of the
time? What did s/he find in the public's cultural and rhetorical history
to tie to the current moment? What historical events? What rhetorical
themes? What values active at the time were appealed to in the speech?
This information may come from your previous study of public address, from
the commentaries in the book, or from other readings assigned in the syllabus.
How would the speaker have the public understand his/her world?
What are the new arguments introduced in the speech? Does the speaker frame
events differently? Does the speaker introduce new facts? Is the speech
about facts? about values? about motivating action? all these? Does the
speaker link the event to other "good
- How would the speech have motivated the public to act? How does the speech affect you? If you had lived in that moment, what would have induced you to support the speaker and/or his/her cause?
The rhetorical strategies map many choices the speaker makes in shaping the speech. The following list exemplifies (but is not exhaustive):
- subjects to address. To speak or not is a choice. And, when we
do decide to speak, what do we choose to talk about and what to ignore?
- vocabulary to use. We will see that Franklin Roosevelt will choose a vocabulary drawn from religion and from the military to motivate public response to the depression..
- organizing a discourse We will note that when speakers promote a specific policy there is a characteristic organization they use in laying out their case for change.
- the cultural and linguisitic patterns drawn upon. We will note that Ronald Reagan calls upon the myth of the cowboy to help people understand the power of the American spirit. In doing so, he draws on a well developed narrative pattern in American culture and the mass media.
- figures of speech. Martin Luther King was the master of choices of metaphors and other figures of speech that added beauty to his speeches as well as conditioned response to his message.
- conceptualizing an audience addressed in the message. Yes, audiences are chosen. Franklin Roosevelt creates an audience of people affected by the depression who will become his political supporters.
- choosing a mode of proof. Does the speaker seek to prove their point by turning to history? To examples of his/her point now? To experts on the topic? To values and principles held by the audience in common with the speaker? To great documents of the culture?
- formulating a pattern of argument. As an example, we will see
that patterns of how arguments are constructed to motivate war and ask
about the responsibilities for proof in such arguments. Those seeking
to motivate changes in the health care system support their argument that
we have health care problems with narratives of individuals who are left
vulnerable by the health care system. Why did he choose to provide
proof that way?
- the media to use. How does Roosevelt's choice of radio for fireside chats change the impact of this speech?
- modes of vocal delivery. How does Franklin Roosevelt communicate faith and hope? What in Martin Luther King's rhythm gives his speeches flow?
When you have completed your interrogation make certain you have done the following:
Examined the full range of strategies the speaker has used in the speech.
Do the strategic choices you have found account for the speaker's success/failure? For the
full impact of the speech?
Related the speech to historic characteristics of speaking. As the
course proceeds you will be learning about characteristic strategies in particular
times. Compare and contrast the speech with other times and other places,
as well as other speeches from this time and place.
Step 4: Develop a coherent thesis
on the speech's contribution to the times
- Refine your understanding of historic demands and of the speaker's rhetorical choices into a thesis.
- Develop your arguments to support that thesis.
These constitute the analysis of your abstract. The abstract should do all three of the things specified, but this will guide you in the third step.
A crib sheet to help you organize your study (.rtf)