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“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation."1 Let’s pause and acknowledge the flashbacks to the grueling process of memorizing President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech “The Gettysburg Address” (1863) in elementary or middle school. At the time, it wasn’t easy to understand the point of the assignment, but with age comes wisdom. More exposure to historical speeches shows their impact on society, including literature. Persuasive speeches have taken nations to war and changed moral views. Evaluating famous speeches teaches critical thinking and allows us to recognize the motives behind what our leaders tell us.
In literature, a speech is a public discourse performed by an orator. In other words, a person uses a public forum to inform, persuade, or entertain a group of people. Speeches help create a space for people to discuss policies that affect society, either after the decision or during the decision-making process. When a speech is widely believed to be particularly moving, it becomes classified as a work of literature.
Egyptians were the first known society to formulate guidelines for effective public speaking. They believed speeches should focus on listening as much as speaking and that orators should carefully choose their words, emphasizing concepts with a sense of permanency. Their ideas about rhetoric mirrored their culture, as later eras would as well.
At its most basic, rhetoric is how we communicate. The discussion around a formal definition of rhetoric continues today because the ways we communicate change. Rhetorical analysis concentrated on oral and written communication for much of history, but visual media is now included in rhetorical studies. Applying rhetorical rules effectively in a speech requires language skills, cultural knowledge, and a working understanding of the purpose, context, and audience.
Ancient Greece picked up where the Egyptians left off, and as political participation was highly valued, rhetoric became a serious philosophical study.
The Greeks’ eloquence influenced the Romans, so they began to devise their own rules of rhetoric. Their speeches included humor and diversions to create interest for the audience.
Popular thought during the Medieval era considered rhetoric a way to manipulate and hide the truth. Speeches were mainly religious in nature.
As this period saw an increase in academic study, scholars began looking back at previous forms of speech-making. There was an increased focus on style and logic over rhetoric. Other scholars felt morality and ethics were essential parts of an effective speech.
The Enlightenment took the best of the past and applied it to the present. Philosophers studied persuasiveness and rhetoric through the lens of scientific and moral reasoning. The Enlightenment period combined Rhetoric inspired by the Classical Era with new ideas about how speech delivery influenced audiences.
Classical rhetoric informs modern theories. Thanks to technology, speeches can now be pre-recorded and delivered over the internet in addition to live events. Podcasts, Ted Talks, YouTube, and video conferences are all ways modern speeches are delivered.
There are three broad types of speeches:
Speeches that become known as works of literature are usually persuasive. The best way to persuade an audience has been studied since the Egyptians laid a foundation for rhetoric. However, philosophers throughout history have offered different theories regarding the most effective ways to use rhetoric to persuade an audience. As a result, much of what is taught today is actually thousands of years old.
Marcus Tullius Cicero of Ancient Rome established a five-step process for writing a persuasive speech that is still widely respected and used, called the Five Canons of Rhetoric (50 BC):
Many of these guidelines can also be helpful when writing a paper.
Topics of a persuasive speech usually boil down to one of three types of debatable points:
A speech analysis essay examines how successfully a speech uses rhetorical devices to appeal to its audience.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle established a formula known as the rhetorical triangle that balances three characteristics that work together to create a powerful speech:
Evaluate a speech using the rhetorical triangle and these guidelines:
What is the purpose of the speech?
Who is the target audience, and how does the speech appeal to them?
Does the speech back its claims with reliable proof?
Who is the speaker, and what is their effect on the speech?
How and where was the speech delivered?
Was the speech compelling? Why or why not?
Some speeches transcend their moment in time to become famous examples of the genre that continue to inspire others.
Demosthenes was an Ancient Greek orator whose skills impressed Cicero three hundred years later. “Third Philippic” is the third speech Demosthenes made to his fellow Athenians to persuade them to go to war against Phillip of Macedon, who was creeping into their territory. After the speech, the Athenian Assembly immediately decided it was time to act.
Demosthenes studied for years to become one of the most respected orators in Athens (Ethos).
[I]n fact it is your indifference and carelessness that Phillip has conquered; your city he has not conquered. Nor have you been defeated–no! You have not even made a move.2
Demosthenes calls out the Assembly’s previous inaction, which appealed to their sense of duty (pathos).
If we are going to wait for him to acknowledge a state of war with us, we are indeed the simplest of mortals; for even if he marches straight against Attica and the Piraeus, he will not admit it, if we may judge from his treatment of the other states. 2
Demosthenes provides proof of Phillip’s aggressive and devious behavior against other communities to convince the Assembly (logos).
George Washington commanded the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War and became the United States’ first President. He wrote this speech after the Revolutionary War was over and he had completed the duty bestowed on him.
One of the things Washington is famous for is that he didn’t seek out the offices he held. Instead, people saw his leadership qualities and asked him to serve. And when the job was done, Washington respectfully stepped away to let someone else take over (ethos).
The Successful termination of the War has verified the most sanguine expectations, and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence, and the assistance I have received from my Countrymen, encreases with every review of the momentous contest.3
Washington compliments the men he fought with and thanks God for their success, which is even better than the most optimistic expectations as an appeal to Congress’s peace of mind (pathos).
Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of Action.3
He logically argues that his job is complete because the war is won, so he is ready to stand aside (logos).
Sojourner Truth was a formerly enslaved person who became an activist. She gave the speech “Ain’t I A Woman?” at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, which calls out popular beliefs about race and gender.
Truth’s autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850), brought her national attention, and she began speaking on various topics. She helped enslaved people escape slavery, and when the Civil War started, she encouraged African American men to help fight with the Union (Ethos).
I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! 4
Truth appeals to the audience’s beliefs about motherly love to question why her race sets her apart as deserving the right to vote along with other women (pathos).
Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! . . . I could work as much and eat as much as a man–when I could get it–and bear the lash as well!4
Truth argues that she has done as much work as any man, so if men can vote because they work, she should be allowed to vote also (logos).
Literary speeches meld rhetorical skills with creative writing. They transport the reader to their moment in history and inspire future generations to act. Literary speeches act as a time capsule that allows a glimpse into a famous (or infamous) person's thoughts and emotions and helps readers better understand their influence on society.
In literature, a speech is a public discourse performed by an orator. In other words, a person uses a public forum to inform, persuade, or entertain a group of people. When a speech is widely believed to be particularly moving, it becomes classified as a work of literature.
The three main types of speeches are:
The four types of informative speeches are:
A speech analysis essay examines how successfully a speech uses rhetorical devices to appeal to its audience.
Some examples of famous speeches are:
How does a speech become classified as a work of literature?
A speech becomes classified as a work of literature when it is widely considered to be especially thought-provoking.
Why does the definition of rhetoric keep changing?
The definition of rhetoric keeps changing because the ways we communicate change.
True of false: A society's rhetoric is not influenced by its culture.
False: Studying the history of rhetoric shows that a society's rhetoric mirrors its culture.
What differed between Greek and Roman rhetoric?
Roman rhetoric was influenced by Greek rhetoric, but they added humor and diversions to their speeches.
Which era's speeches were mostly religious?
What are the Five Canons of Rhetoric?
All of the above
What is the rhetorical triangle?
The rhetorical triangle was developed by Aristotle to explain how pathos, ethos, and logos work together to create a powerful speech.
Is it necessary to consider the audience when analyzing a speech?
Yes, it is necessary to consider the audience when analyzing a speech.
True or False: Examining whether a speech uses proof to back its claims is an example of its ethos.
False: Examining whether a speech uses proof to back its claims is an example of its logos.
Most speeches that become works of literature are of which speech type?
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