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Literature Review Pt. 2

I was originally planning to read the speech from the Social Responsibilities section in William Safire’s Lend Me Your Ears. However, earlier this year, I decided to shift my essential question toward how can I help anyone become a better public speaker, which is the original purpose of my study: to share my studies with other. My mentor and I discussed the benefit of having the reference to the digital recording in addition to the speeches themselves when it comes to presenting my work to other students.  I subsequently chose reading speeches directly picked readings of speeches directly from the internet, which served the same purpose as Safire’s speech collection might have done.

My first reading was David Wallace’s speech “This is Water.” The rhetoric itself may be divided and categorized, but the initial reading introduced how the elements of rhetoric work together to produce the best result. The combination of pathos and logos work well together to keep the audience engaged, which allows Wallace to introduce his elevated message – the idea of “worship” in the larger structural picture. Paragraphs 11-20 served as the transition to the more abstract message and strengthen Wallace’s point. It is more effective for a speaker to emphasize a point when the audience is emotionally appealed and connected with the speaker.

I continued my reading by grouping speeches into different thematic categories: ceremonial speeches, eulogies, and “healing” themed speeches.

The first category of ceremonial speeches included Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, Dean Ryan’s “Five Essential Questions” speech delivered at Harvard, and Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement speech. One key thing I learned from this comparison was seeing the difference between the speakers’ backgrounds, while, at the same time, appreciating an overarching theme of life challenges and hopes as a young adult. Other than analyzing the texts, I began to look at how the speakers’ identities guided their approaches. In this case, Steve Jobs’ speech stood out because of his public persona — a leader in the tech industry who faced death, and Dean Ryan spoke as a familiar face in his setting. After completing the first comparative analysis, I found that acknowledging the setting of the speeches and the speakers themselves became the prerequisites to understanding the rhetorical strategies used in each speech.

The next group of speeches came from Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and James Conan’s live monologues on the Vegas Shooting. The three monologues strongly contrasted with the three ceremonial commencement speeches I read previously. These speakers are comedians who appeared on television daily with one purpose in mind — to entertain their audience. Three comedians built their message based on the long-standing relationship that they had established and maintained with the audience: they shared the message with their own respective audience and encourage them to do something regarding the gun violence. It is important to understand the context of the monologue and the speaker’s’ relationship with the audience which can be very different from Steve Jobs’ appearance at the Stanford graduation ceremony. The key takeaway for me is to ask what kind of relationship has been formed between the audience and the speaker and how does the relationship help strengthen speaker’s points. With this relationship previously in place, as well as the added advantage of a speaker’s public identity, one can seek to evaluate whether a speaker’s rhetoric is successful or not in certain circumstances.  

The third set of speeches is “healing” speeches on the national level: Barack Obama’s Sandy Hook Vigil, Ronald Reagan’s Challenger Speech, and Clinton’s Oklahoma City Bombing Speech. The theme of these three speeches is healing, which can fall into the category of a eulogy. These three speeches were delivered by three different presidents in three very different historical climates. They all strategically connect the loss to a more personal level by suggesting an image with a greater meaning. They all seek a God of comfort and righteousness. They also emphasized the fact that people have been supportive of each other within their communities. This message helped communities continue to help each other heal. Three speeches all focused on the next generation or on that community’s children. Talking about children usually evokes a greater sense of shared responsibilities and sympathy, as well, for this is what most Pathos is built upon). Finally, all three speeches had very distinctive closings. One important thing I discussed with my mentor is how the importance of “context” plays in each different speech, considering Clinton’s speech was the transitional moment of Clinton’s presidency — the previous day, Clinton answered a reporter’s question saying, “I’m relevant. The Constitution gives me relevance.” which exposed him as a powerless president.) Reagan’s Challenger speech took on the incident that was witnessed by millions of millions of people, both young and old, live on television with their teachers. (The pathos of the speech was further deepened by the fact that a teacher was among other astronauts who died in the explosion.) Because all three speakers were presidents trying to help heal people on a national scale, the social context of the time was particularly important and influential on their words.

Speak Like Churchill, Stand like Lincoln was an additional reading that I decided to add, considering the author, James Humes, had extensive experience writing speeches for five American presidents. The book thoroughly discussed how the different tricks of rhetoric were used to boost a presentation of the speech. Several devices emerged, such as the “power pause,” which emphasizes the importance of seeking pauses, and power points, which indicate the importance of having only a few ideas that an audience member could easily take away with them.This book was extremely helpful when it comes to helping new speakers to navigate through their first public speaking experiences. I feel that many of my experience has taught me many things that were mentioned in the book. This book led me to want to explore more James Humes’ career as a writer for the presidents and resources that can better help me understand the context of a speech and speaker, especially the successful ones on a national level.


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