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A good speech can be hard to find.  There are many good speeches.  But there are relatively few speeches that make good subjects for rhetorical criticism, especially at the student level.  If you are a beginning rhetorical critic, a single political speech is often the best subject for a short paper or even a term paper. If you are just starting out, you may not already have a political subject that interests you. But by doing rhetorical analysis, you can become interested. In addition to actual interest, there are practical considerations that will make your research and writing go more smoothly.

Qualities to look for in a speechEdit

A good speech may share some or most of the following qualities:

  • Well-known speaker
  • Significant as well as interesting subject.
  • Rhetorically rich language
  • Speech, speaker or subject has already been written on by other rhetoricians.

If you think you have a candidate, especially if you found it through an open browser search, double-check the source of your speech.

  • Is the text of the speech complete, not an excerpt or digest version?
  • Do you have a transcript, not just a video or audio recording?
  • Is the source of the speech the most reliable and authoritative that can be obtained, including print sources?
  • Is the source easy to cite completely by speaker as author?

Sources for good speechesEdit

Reviewing the above qualities of a good speech, it becomes clear that general collections of speeches are not necessarily the best starting point.  It might be better, for instance, to find a well known speaker, or browse the rhetoric journals for a rhetorician's orator--a speaker who has been thoroughly written about. If you have an interest in an area of politics or history, this can also give a context to a speech that will yield references for research.  However, if all else fails, here are a few good general anthologies.

American Rhetoric
Wikisource Portal: Speeches
Gifts of Speech: Women's Speeches from Around the World
Say It Plain, Say It Loud: A Century of Great African American Speeches

Other MediaEdit

Political speech is not the only rhetorical subject. Any artifact can exercise a symbolic function and use symbols to persuade or build identity with an audience. By focusing on its persuasive aspect a critic can bring visual art, music, or narrative into the orbit of rhetoric.

Visual art can be rhetorical, for instance, in so far as it creates a world view or makes a statement about society. Choose works of art using similar criteria as speeches--historical, political or social significance and richness of symbolism.

Vocal music or even instrumental music is often powerfully persuasive. Unless you are very knowledgeable about music you should look for lyrics that make a political point and then consider how the musical setting operates as a level of style, to control pace, emphasis, memory and emotion.

Narrative in film, fiction, music, and visual art functions rhetorically to generate identification with the audience. If you choose to write a rhetorical criticism of a film, remember to maintain the proper relations between the artifact, its "author" and its audience. The film is the speech and the characters are always part of the "speech." Many students are tempted to choose a speech given by a character in a movie. The character is not the author or "speaker." Your job is to read the rhetorical strategy of the author--the director and scriptwriters. Also when considering significance, we are talking about the significance of the film, not necessarily of the incidents depicted in the film even on a historical subject. For instance, when criticizing Oliver Stone's JFK, even though it is a take on a historical event, you must also consider the reception of the film as its context. Obviously it makes a persuasive point and is not simply a transparent "window" on the Kennedy assassination. This is something that is usually obvious when reading a political speech that frames history, but students often treat films as transparent windows on events and characters, and thus miss its rhetorical "thickness."  

When examining rhetorical effects in media other than political speech, look for some of the following:

  • It addresses a particular, actual (not fictional) audience.
  • It makes an evident persuasive appeal
  • It arises from and addresses a rhetorical situation.
  • It forms an episode in an unfolding public controversy.
  • It participates in a public controversy.

Public controversy is a composite text that demands an equally composite critical approach.  One such composite approach would be to:

  • Identify a controversy (use many of the criteria for finding a speech)
  • Locate "anchor texts" that define a beginning and/or a trajectory within a controversy.
  • Identify recurring rhetorical features that shape the discourse, such as recurrent arguments and ideological tropes.

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