DK Smith The Act and its Parts

Smith, Donald K. 1969. The Act and its Parts (Ch.2).
In Man Speaking: A Rhetoric of Public Speech. NY: Dodd, Mead and Company.

Observing public speeches

The English literary critic Matthew Arnold thought that the basis of his art lay in the capacity to see things as they are. This same capacity, Arnold believed, was a requirement for civilized living, since no man could know how to act toward objects and events unless he understood their whole nature.

An analogue of Arnold’s requirement for civilized living would seem worth considering by the student of public speaking. Underlying the speaker’s capacity to choose wisely how to act in any given situation is his picture of the nature of that situation. For this reason the study of public speaking both begins and ends in the effort to see speeches for what they are, to understand as fully as possible the nature of their being and action.

The most serious difficulties, however, attend the search for a genuine understanding of public speeches. These difficulties begin with the fact emphasized in Chapter 1 that a public speech is not an object or artifact which can be contemplated at leisure; rather it is a human action taking place in a particular social situation which brings together a speaker, listeners, and purposes in a relationship which is always, in some respects, unique. As we observe a speaker trying to manage a particular situation, we necessarily confront a complex interplay of forces which affect the speaker’s behavior and the response of his listeners. We must ask such questions as these: Who is the speaker, for whom does he speak, and for what purpose? How does he perceive his listeners, their expectations of him, and the requirements of the occasion? Who are the listeners, and what purposes, perceptions, and expectations do they bring to the occasion? What events have gone before, and what events will come after, which may affect our understanding of the action in process? The answer to each question is important to our effort to know a speech for “what it is,” and yet these answers involve information which is likely to be only partially available to us.

The difficulty in understanding a particular public speech resides also in the fact that we are either a participant in its action, or else cut off from much that is important to the action. If the speech is in process, we are there as speaker or audience member, affecting the event by our presence. However, if we study the speech by reading the text and by examining historical records about the speaker, audience, and occasion, we have at best an incomplete picture of the event.

Clearly the task of understanding a public speech is difficult. Its action is complex and is grounded in particular and varying historical circumstances; its purposes may be obvious or hidden; its consequences may be apparent or obscure, fleeting or enduring. Yet the whole action, the whole event, is the complicated reality that public speakers must work with in choosing the substance and manner of their discourse. This is also the reality that listeners confront as they respond to or form judgments about the event. We can, however, acknowledge this difficulty – confronting the probability that no one is ever likely to understand the totality of any given speech – and still accept the necessity of seeking to perfect our capacity to understand. To get on with this necessary task, we shall first propose a general perspective for observing public speeches, and then turn to a set of terms and concepts useful in uncovering in detail the nature and action of a public speech.

A Contingent Action

The most useful general perspective for viewing a public speech is one which emphasizes the contingency of each aspect of the event and each choice made by the speaker. Each aspect and each choice can be understood and appraised only if one observes its relationship to all other aspects, and to other possible choices by the speaker. Thus it is not the case that a given person is a better speaker than another person for all audiences, for all purposes, and on all occasions. For example, President Franklin Roosevelt was justly famed for his speaking skill, but one may properly wonder if he knew as well how to manage the understanding and aspirations of rural Louisiana voters as did a contemporary of his, Governor Huey Long. However, Roosevelt has taken his place in history as one of the great public speakers of our century, and Long as a skillful demagogue. These disparate classifications warn us of the difficulty of understanding public speeches. When we praise a speaker’s skill, we may mean that we cannot conceive of a situation, an audience, a purpose, or a type of subject matter that he could not handle with superlative effectiveness. If so, we have given very high praise indeed. But it is more likely that our praise carries with it implicit assumptions: that we see this speaker as greatly effective with audiences we believe to be judicious, with subject matter we believe to be important, and for purposes we find worthy.

Similarly, each choice made by a speaker on a particular occasion is good or bad, effective or ineffective, only in relation to the social field for which the choice is made. The contingencies affecting a speaker’s choices will be given much more attention in this book than the considerations which make one speaker better suited than another for a given audience or occasion. Obviously speakers cannot be certain that they will be asked to talk or will wish to talk only on occasions for which they are better suited than any other person. And even if this were the case, each occasion faced by a speaker is in some sense new or unique; his artistry is to be freshly tested as he chooses for a particular case the substance and manner of his utterance.

In a commonsense way most of us understand that a speaker’s choices are contingent. With minimal thought we would know why Abraham Lincoln, as President, did not in his inaugural or ceremonial addresses make use of the homely anecdotes which served him so well as conversationalist, frontier lawyer, or candidate for public office in Illinois. We can understand why it would have been wrong for President Lyndon Johnson to have used the language of President Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural address for his own inauguration, even aside from the impropriety of plagiarism. The disproportion in political philosophy of the two men, and the differences in the expectations of their supporters and of the nation’s circumstances called for different language. We can observe how a speaker might appropriately praise one audience for its generosity and wisdom, and seem either fulsome or ironic if he used the same language with a different audience. We can see that a speaker might need models or pictures to serve as analogies in explaining the structure of the atom to an audience of college freshmen, but be able to talk more efficiently and accurately to an audience of professional physicists by using only mathematical formulations. We might find it appropriate for a speaker to thunder defiance of his nation’s enemies in a time of war, but be struck by the absurdity of the same tone in a discourse on the depredations of the coyote.

Yet despite this commonsense understanding, we are too much given to talking about a speaker’s choices as though they were by definition, or in some immutable way, the right or wrong choices. “Jones is a good speaker,” we aver, “because he gives a humorous twist to all his comments,” but a few days later we may discover that Johnson is a good speaker because of the high seriousness and manifest sincerity of his manner. “Brown is a good speaker,” we assert, “because he makes clear at the very outset of his talks exactly what he wants his audience to know, believe, or do.” But on another occasion we find ourselves full of praise for Swanson’s skill in leading an audience to a conclusion which he has avoided announcing or asserting. If we try hurriedly to convert our own pleasure in a particular speech into statements about “the principles or rules for good speaking,” we may simply be deluding ourselves as to the nature of public speech. To the extent that we seek some immutable rules for successful public speaking, we blind ourselves to the fact that speakers must choose from among alternative ways of encompassing the particular contingencies of a given situation. Each choice takes account of these contingencies in a different way. No choice is inevitably “right” for all situations. If we hope to extend our power to see public speeches for what they are, to choose wisely in our own speaking, and to respond wisely to the speaking of others, then we must lay aside the easy search for rules. We must undertake the more difficult task of exploring imaginatively the alternative choices available to a speaker on a given occasion, seeking to uncover the potentialities and limitations of each alternative.

Speeches and Games

The general perspective for observing a complex social action such as a public speech is similar to the point of view we bring to the observation of games. Psychologist Viktor Frankl calls attention to the importance of contingencies in judging the meaning or value of any human behavior by using the analogy of a chess game. He points to the inherent foolishness of asking a chess champion this question: “Tell me, Master, what is the best move in the world?” Frankl goes on to comment: “There is no such thing as the best or even a good rnove apart from the particular situation in a game and the particular personality of one’s opponent.”

Once we have learned the purpose and rules (constraints on choice) for a particular game, most of us find pleasure in observing the game by examining players’ moves in a particular situation. At a given moment in a chess game, a player may have available several possible moves. At times one of these is so clearly the best choice that we may be appalled if the player fails to make it; another may be so clearly a disastrous choice that we would be equally appalled if the player selected it. But oftentimes the player has several possible moves available, each of which takes account of the contingencies in a different way. One may be a “gambling” move – a thrust for quick success carrying heavy risk. Another move may be cautious – it risks little and seeks more knowledge the response of the opponent before further choices are made.

Neither move is inherently good or bad, but each fits into a set of complex relationships in a different way. The favorite perspective of the informed observer of games – whether of chess, or tennis, or football – is that of asking why one choice was made by a player rather than another. The analogy of the public speech and a competitive game can, of course, be carried too far. The speaker who thinks of his listeners as opponents rather than people likely to be willing to cooperate with him in a search for common understanding has already made a choice potentially destructive to his purpose, although there are, of course, many speeches set within an explicit or implicit context of debate between opposing ideas and opposing lines of argument. Similarly, the speaker who thinks of his action as simply recreational demeans the personal and social importance of the art he practices.

If, however, one abstracts from the theory of games only the idea of a human action taking place within a social field – including purpose, rules or constraints, and a sequence of contingent choices – then the analogy becomes not only plausible but also instructive. The public speaker enters a social field for certain purposes, some of which he may choose and some of which may be given by the occasion. He must observe certain constraints – obligations laid down by the linguistic system available to him and his listeners, and more or less restrictive pressures laid down by the nature of the occasion and the expectations of his audience. He has a variety of choices open to him which take into account, in different ways, the contingencies of the situation. He is relatively successful or unsuccessful in relation to his purpose. His “game” is assuredly more complex, more significant, more subject to reconstruction of purpose and possibility than even the most complicated recreational games invented by man. But the speech, like the game, can be viewed both in prospect and retrospect as a human action seeking to encompass for certain purposes, through a sequence of choices, the contingencies of a particular social situation. This is the general perspective most useful for observing public speeches and for developing wisdom in conducting or responding to such events.

A Set of Terms for Analyzing Speaking Events

Informed understanding of a public speech requires not only a general perspective for viewing such an event, but also a set of terms or concepts useful in uncovering its details. The exploration of terms which follows is preliminary in the sense that each of the items to be discussed will be used further or given further analysis in subsequent chapters. Thus the here is only to define a structure of terms which can serve as a frame of reference for the more detailed and limited subject matter of the chapters which follow.

Four major dimensions of public speeches can be observed directly. These are the speaker, his speech (utterance or discourse), the audience, and the occasion. The second dimension, the speech, can be analyzed in terms of purpose, position, movement, structure, forms of enforcement, and style. Since speeches are purposive actions, a dimension of effect also becomes important, even though observations about effect often take the form of indirect inferences. And since public speeches tend to be associated with the life of public institutions and organizations, a theory of types of speeches also becomes useful. We shall advance the somewhat traditional concepts of expository, persuasive, and ceremonial speeches as a set of types sufficient to our purposes. These fourteen terms are all in common usage in the discussion of public speeches, and most of them would seem to provide few problems of definition. But even such obvious questions as “who is the speaker?” and “who is the audience?” turn up unexpected complications.

The Speaker

The speaker seems clearly enough the person doing the talking on the of a public speech. But certain curiosities attach themselves to the person of the speaker, sufficient to make answer to the question “who is talking?” less than immediately clear. On some occasions speakers talk only for themselves. On other occasions they speak as representatives of some other person or of an institution. For example, the President of the United States in recent decades has employed a press secretary. During the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, his press secretary, Mr. James Hagerty, often explained to the press the “official” position of the administration or the President on matters of public policy. Mr. Hagerty was there. He spoke. But the significance of his utterance rested less in the person of Mr. Hagerty than in the shadow of the President or the administration standing behind the speaker. The point is a simple but important one: the speaker may be viewed simply as a person, or he may be viewed as a person representing some other person or group. If the speaker serves as a representative, his substance has been altered somewhat. As “spokesman” he is limited in the choice of what he may say, indeed in the very attitude he may reflect, by the obligations he has assumed toward the person or institution he represents.

The speaker is a man or woman. He may also be a symbol. Most of have had occasion to observe the King or Queen of England speaking in public and have noted the use of the pronoun “we” in such utterance. “We deem it appropriate,” says the Queen, and by the use of “We” she indicates that she speaks not simply as woman or person, but as representative of a venerable institution. This is not Queen Elizabeth seeking reelection or seeking to express her personal views on some current bit of legislation. The former role would be irrelevant; the latter role, altogether inappropriate for the Queen as Queen. This is an abstract institution speaking. The British monarchy has been made animate and visible in the person of the Queen. It must speak through her, and she must speak as she thinks the monarchy would speak.

The distinction between speaker as person and speaker as representative may seem at first to be of little importance to the student seeking development of his own public speaking skills. But a larger view of the development of every public speaker reveals the sense in which each of us as a person speaks also as a representative. As “person” we all enter into the business of a public speech with certain capabilities and limitations. Some of these capabilities and limitations are scarcely modifiable. We may believe that we would be better public speakers if we were taller, or if our voice carried the resonance of a basso profundo. But we know that elevator shoes can modify one’s stature only within limits (and is it worth it?), while the human voice is modifiable only within certain limits ]aid down by its physical structures. “Person” as a physical being is only the easiest and most obvious aspect of the self we know, and which we take with us into a public speech. But we also take into some speaking situations some concept of ourselves as “representative,” even when we are not really required to act as representative. Each of us as a public person, early in life, begins to act in varying ways as a representative of different groups with which we can identify ourselves–our church, our government, certain social and recreational groups, etc. The final conception we have of ourselves as a public person represents a long period of interaction between certain aspects of person or personality which we believe are uniquely ours, and the roles we take from our membership in a variety of public groups. Similarly, the identity we are given by listeners is in part based on their knowledge of the groups or institutions we represent.

The question “who is speaking?” is not easily answered. It raises such problems as the way in which the speaker’s person limits or makes possible certain choices, and also the way in which his role as representative constrains or permits certain conduct and, ultimately, influences audience response.

The Speech

The language commonly used for talking about public speaking tends to separate the speaker from his utterance. We often talk about a “making a speech” as though the speech had some separate existence and be thought of as one would think of a chair or painting. This tendency to perceive a speaker’s discourse as separate from his person is reinforced by the extraordinary importance of written documents in our culture and also, more subtly, by the technologies of film, audio recordings, and video recordings.

We insisted in Chapter 1 on the necessity of seeing man as inseparable from his talk, and the public speech as a human action lather than a document or artifact. This perspective is necessary if we are to perceive fully the interaction between the speaker’s person and role, and his utterance, and if we are to understand that audience response to a public speech is always to a man talking, and not simply to his language. We should no more think of a “man making a speech” than we think of a “man making a walk,” or a “man making his heart beat.” In a commonsense way, however, the term speech is often used to designate the speaker’s utterance or discourse – the audible and visible symbols he produces in the presence of the audience. For this reason, subsequent chapters will examine in some detail the problems of substance, arrangement, and style faced by speakers in the construction of their discourse. Analysis of these problems requires an additional set of terms useful for looking inside the substance and form of the speaker’s utterance.

The Purpose

Presumably public utterance is purposive action. One of the most serious charges against any public speech is that it seemed aimless. But aimless speeches occur often enough to justify the venerable anecdote of the hard-of-hearing listener who attended an extended public harangue only to find himself unable to hear the speaker. At the end of the evening, he asked a neighbor, “what was the speaker talking about?” His neighbor’s reply was: “I don’t know. He didn’t say.”

Almost equally serious is the charge that the purpose of a speech was unsuited to the audience or occasion; or that the speech embraced several purposes, some of which were contradictory; or that the means selected by the speaker were unsuited to his announced purpose; or that the purpose selected, while achieved, was either unworthy or contradictory to larger purposes the speaker ought to have held. Conversely, it is high praise to say of a speaker that his end was both just and judicious, his sense of purpose was clearly marked, and that he did all those things, and only those things, suitable to the accomplishment of his purpose.

Often one must infer a speaker’s purpose from observation of the ideas he chooses to emphasize, or from the direction of attitude or thought suggested by his statements. Sometimes, to be sure, speakers announce the purpose of their utterance very clearly. Indeed there is some reason to believe that if speakers observed this custom more universally the result might be agreeable both as a means of regulating the speaker’s action and as a means of relieving certain ambiguities between speaker and audience. But obviously such announcements are not always made nor when made are they always to be trusted. The politician who says that his purpose is to make clear the causes of urban riots in the United States may have in mind another purpose – an action which will endear him to a majority of the voters in his district, say, or which will affect the fate of legislation which he favors or dislikes.

We have also referred to purpose as the “intended end” of the speaker. But sadly enough speakers may have intentions of which they are scarcely themselves aware. We have all had experiences with this phenomenon. The speaker says, “The purpose of my speech is to explain the financial crisis now confronting Brazil,” but as we listen we say to ourselves, “His real purpose is to demonstrate that he is a very funny fellow. The man is a confirmed comic showoff, less interested in our learning about Brazil than in our applauding him.” We may have some confidence that we perceived the “real” intention of the speech, and less certainty that the speaker himself was fully aware of this intention. The entire action of a speech may be viewed as “the means selected for the achievement of some end or purpose.” In this sense, the speaker’s purpose does not automatically define or limit narrowly the subject matter of his utterance, although it will make some kinds of subject matter irrelevant or destructive. Clearly, however, four speakers might have the purpose of arousing an audience to a sense of the gravity of world population expansion; each might give a somewhat different speech using somewhat different materials; and yet each speech might move clearly toward the common purpose. We may judge “the means” selected by a speaker in relation to its end, but we should not assume that the selection of a purpose limits sharply the materials a speaker may select. Purpose does define, should define, only the direction of movement in a speech.

We have thus far taken the common point of view that purpose is a choice of the speaker. But properly viewed this category links speaker audience and occasion. Speakers select their purposes, but audiences too their purposes and not infrequently select speakers to fulfill those purposes. A national political convention chooses its keynote speaker to achieve purposes belonging to the party. To be sure, keynote speakers may and do use the same occasion for promoting their personal aspirations. Furthermore, occasions as well as audiences have their purposes. The party convention serves to illustrate this as aptly as it illustrates purpose in the audience. Church services gather both audience and speaker in terms of the purpose of the occasion, as do ceremonial gatherings such as commencements. We look to a speech to uncover the speaker’s purpose, but we must do so with full awareness that the speaker’s purpose must somehow encompass a total situation in which both the audience and the occasion act to direct or limit the choices of the speaker.


If a speaker announces the central idea, or thesis of his utterance, this identifies his central position. Among all of the possible statements he could have made concerning his subject, the speaker chose to organize his utterance to support a particular statement. Thus he has taken a position vis-a-vis the subject matter under discussion.

We observe a speaker taking a position most readily when he asserts a central idea concerning a subject under dispute. The attorney who says “My client is innocent,” is taking a position. The legislator who says, “Federal aid to education will improve the quality of our schools,” is taking a position. The position of the speaker may be less obvious if his utterance seems designed to share information or experience. But even in such cases, the speaker’s utterance proceeds from some assumption or point of view (a position) which can be located. We shall examine the application of the term position to the full range of public speeches in Chapter 3. We shall also have occasion then to observe the complexity of positions taken by speakers, to see how much positions have within them attitudinal inclinations toward the speaker’s audience and the occasion as well as toward his subject matter. Often it is not possible to define a speaker’s position in a single sentence, and often it is not possible to define the speaker’s position without referring to his style or manner of utterance.

If a speaker’s purpose defines the direction of movement his utterance will take, his position defines and limits the materials useful to his utterance. Having taken a position, the speaker should seek only the utterance which defines and supports that position, while avoiding utterance which is irrelevant to, or nonsupportive of it.


The speech is an action in time. That is, it has duration, and it occursas an event immediately and wholly under scrutiny but as a sequence of events unfolding before the listener. It seems to have a beginning and end, and between these points the speaker moves in an intellectual and linguistic sense. In the sense that the speech has movement it resembles more the action of an orchestra playing a symphony than it does the action of an artist painting a picture. The painter presents the result of his action as a single event, capable of being observed at a single moment in time. The orchestra starts, proceeds, and finishes; it is perceived in action. The customary formal language which describes the parts of a musical selection may be more appropriate to a speech than the language about discourse which gives to the divisions of the speech such static terms as “introduction,” “body,” and “conclusion.” Terminology such as “opening movement,” “major movement,” and “concluding movement” would maintain our sense of the speech as an action, moving toward some purpose, and encompassing an audience and occasion.

Public speaking, unlike the fine art of music, is a practical art embedded in the ongoing life of social institutions. While one may think of the movement of a speech as beginning when the speaker rises to address his audience and concluding when he sits down, this view may be too limiting to grasp the full sequence of events important to a speech. The point is easily illustrated. We might not understand the opening movement of a particular discourse in a parliamentary debate without having heard the speech that preceded it, any more Ihan we would understand the second act of a play after missing the first act. Thus, the proper boundaries to be used in examining the movement of a particular utterance may be broader than the moments that mark the beginning and ending of that discourse. The public speaker’s choices often reflect his knowledge of what has gone before and what will come after his utterance. Listeners seeking to understand his action must also see it within these broader dimensions.


An event which occurs in time can also be viewed in retrospect as a structure or form. We may observe that the whole of some discourse has structure. Its parts, or movements, may be perceived as constituents of an overall pattern or form.

We have already used some of the simple and vague terms often employed to describe the structure of a speech. One can observe that it has an “introduction, body, and conclusion”; or a “beginning, middle, and”; or an “opening movement, major movement, and concluding movement.” Such categories tell us little about the variety of structures used by public speakers to give form to their discourse, or about the necessary relationships between structure and purpose, substance and purpose, or substance and audience. We cannot therefore talk in an a priori way about the “good” structure for a public speech. Rut what we can do in Chapter 4 is talk about a variety of structures commonly employed by public speakers, the types of subject matter they are suited to manage, and the problems attending their use.

Forms of Enforcement

Within the structure of a speech, one may observe a relationship between statements making a major assertion or generalization, and statements designed to support, clarify, or amplify the major assertions or generalizations. Speakers use a great variety of verbal constructs for purposes of proof, clarification, or amplification; and to the extent, that we can perceive commonalities of form in many of these statements, we can also identify the forms of enforcement characteristic of public speeches. For example, one of the common forms used by speakers to clarify or amplify a general assertion is the use of an illustration or anecdote; thus, we identify the “illustration or anecdote” as a form or’ enforcement. As another example, speakers often seek to “prove” the. worth of some generalization by showing that important or prestigious people have supported the generalization. Thus, we may identify “testimony” as a form of enforcement.

Because the resources of language are enormous, the concept of forms of enforcement is susceptible to great elaboration. There is ample historical evidence that observers are capable of perceiving more varieties of forms of enforcement within a speech than may be useful either to the tasks of speaking or of understanding a speech. For example, rhetoricians of the medieval world observed and named more than two hundred different “figures of speech,” all of which could be thought of as variant forms for amplifying ideas. We shall set a somewhat more modest goal in Chapter 5 and discuss there only the major forms of proof or amplification characteristic of public discourse.


The final category useful for analysis of the speaker’s utterance is that of style. This is in many ways the most elusive and comprehensive term used in examining discourse: elusive because it has been employed in widely varying ways for more than 2,000 years, comprehensive because it invites an observer to make inferences about a speaker based on all ofmanifest characteristics of his person and utterance.

We shall use the term style as a concept applicable to the total manner of the man speaking – to his physical conduct or delivery, as well as to his selection and ordering of words. All speeches reveal a style. Our description of a speaker’s style is an inference drawn from observation of his appearance, his gesture and movement, the language he selects, and the way he makes his ideas available to others. In this sense, as we characterize a speaker’s style, we are also describing his manifest public character. Thus we may find one speaker to be direct, clear, economical, uncomplicated, and friendly in his manner of address. Close examination of his physical demeanor and his selection of language would lead us to the details of behavior which generate this response to the man. Another speaker may seem to us colorful, complex, verbose, and arrogant. Once more we can uncover the objective sources for our inference through close examination of his utterance.

In applying the term style to the speaker’s manner, we seem to say that it is possible to separate the manner of utterance from its substance. It is more accurate to say that we can look at utterance from the perspective of the speaker’s manner; that this may direct our attention to some characteristics of his discourse which seem to have little to do with substance; but that if we carry the study of manner very far, we inevitably move into consideration of the speaker’s substance – his selection of purposes, positions, structures, and forms of enforcement. In other words, each of the terms useful in the analysis of discourse is but a perspective for approaching the task of analysis, and each perspective ultimately involves all of the others in the unity of an action, a man speaking.

The Audience

The third major dimension of a public speaking situation is the audience. A group of listeners can be viewed as simply the most important part of the speaker’s environment. Presumably the speaker’s purpose is an end to be achieved with or through those who listen. Thus, the audience, more than any other aspect of the environment, influences the choices available to the speaker. The audience also is frequently the reason for being of the speech. Speakers may choose audiences or announce their intention to speak to anyone willing to listen, but audiences as often choose speakers and set for the speaker certain assumptions as to his purpose. We readily observe speakers acting purposefully toward audiences. We should be as ready to observe audiences acting purpose- fully in their selection of a speaker and in the demands they make of. The intimate interrelationship of speaker and audience-each serving as a stimulus to the other, each serving as response to the other, is readily apparent.

The identification of the speaker’s audience involves certain complexities. For example, the audience assembled to hear a speech at a particular time and place may not be the audience of primary concern to the speaker. The President of the United States may use a commencement speech at some university as the occasion for a major address on the foreign policy of his administration. The speaker may be interested in his present audience, but he is keenly aware that his important audience includes Congress, the voting public, and persons abroad concerned with American foreign policy.

While a speaker may seek his purpose in the reactions of his immediate audience he may be equally or more concerned with a remote audience listening or viewing on radio or television. He may at times speak for an audience to be reached by the immediate effect of his speech, and at other times seek an effect mediated through some other communication channel. Thus, a political speaker may want to initiate a newspaper story concerning his attitude on civil disobedience and may use the occasion of an address to any available audience as a means of getting the newspaper story written.

It is characteristic of the public speech, as contrasted with such other possible speech forms as the dialogue or conversation, that the speaker talks not with individuals but with groups. The real audience for the speaker – that is, that audience he can conceptualize and interact with — consists not of the full range of individuals addressed, but rather of a range of group tendencies or group interests presumed by the speaker to be represented in his audience. We shall accordingly treat the audience not in terms of the psychology of individual behavior, but in terms of the group structure of American society, the kinds of analysis speakers make of that group structure, and the kinds of evidence used for such analysis. Public speakers do not for the most part talk to “Tom, Dick, and Harry”; they talk to farmers, businessmen, women, students, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Afro-Americans, the League of Women Voters, Democrats, Republicans, the educated, the ignorant, Americans, Canadians, etc. In short they talk to a concept of the way in which the members of certain groups will respond to certain forms of utterance. They also talk from a concept of group purposes, positions, movements, structures, and styles. That is, the speaker talks not simply as an unique individual, but as the representative of the group of people with whom he finds common substance.

The Occasion

Speakers are limited in their choices, or have those choices determined for them by the occasion for the speech, as well as by the audience. For example, a speaker invited to make a commencement address for Hoffbrau High School could theoretically make this the occasion for a discussion of “the superiority of dry fly fishing as a form of recreation.” The choice would be unusual, however. It would violate so sharply the expectations of the audience as to what the occasion calls for, that the theoretical choice is effectively closed to the speaker. The occasion both inhibits and facilitates certain kinds of choices by the speaker. It also may serve to reinforce or limit the effectiveness of the utterance chosen. In this sense it is useful to divide the concept of occasion into consideration of the “immediate occasion” and of “the historical-cultural setting for the speech.”

The immediate occasion includes not only the data implied by some special title given to the occasion, as in the case of a commencement, after-dinner speech, speech of nomination, or lecture. It also includes the physical environment for the speech and the events immediately pre- ceding the speech. The size of the room, its acoustical characteristics, its ventilation, its decorations, the presence of a band–all of these may be- come important events conditioning the speaker’s choices and the effects of his choice.

The significance of the historical-cultural setting is less obvious but not less important. A public lecture given in 1920 on drug addiction would take place in a historical-cultural setting quite different from our own, and it would be impossible to understand the nature of the speaker’s choice of position, forms of support, or style without understanding the influence of that setting. A public lecture on the same subject in 1968 would occur in a changed cultural-historical setting, and would presumably bring about a different order of choices by the speaker. Consideration of LSD and the amphetamines (unknown in 1920) might be indicated, together with the phenomenon of student interest in marijuana. Of course these presumed differences affect the speaker’s utterance only to the extent that our speakers in 1920 and in 1968 perceive themselves as operating within different historical-cultural settings. Some speakers talk for a context which no longer exists. The fault is a grave one.

The category of occasion is important enough to public speaking to have been used as a point of departure for classifying types of speeches. Thus Aristotle in his Rhetoric defined three types of public speeches: deliberative, forensic, and ceremonial. Each type was associated withkinds of subject matter, certain ultimate purposes, and with events of the future, the past, or the present. The names seem clearly to have been based on the major settings, or occasions, for Athenian public speaking. Deliberative speaking occurred when policies of state were under consideration; forensic, when some accusation of wrongdoing was being judged; ceremonial, when some national celebration, triumph, or disaster was being observed. The occasion and audience for each type of speech was well established by the customs of the Greek city state. The Greek terms are still in use; we have little difficulty identifying legislative, legal, or ceremonial occasions in our own society. We have also added a variety of names for loose classifications of types of speaking. We can readily visualize the usual occasion for a “sermon,” or the variety of occasions which elicit “campaign speaking” in American political life.


A public speech requires a speaker, his speech, an audience, and an. But interpretation of the event requires also that we inquire on the one hand into its purpose, and on the other hand into its consequences. The relationship between the effect intended or hoped for, and the effect achieved becomes an important sign of the speaker’s skill. If we could know all of the effects of any speech, we would have the most powerful evidence for generalizing about the merit of the choices made by the speaker. Such knowledge is not possible, and the evidence available to us about the effect of any given speech is likely to be not only fragmentary but ambiguous. Nevertheless, this evidence is so important to our judgments of the speaker’s selection of purpose, substance, and method that we need zealously to seek it out, and to give it the most careful interpretation.

The most obvious evidences of effect often seem to be such matters as the manifest attentiveness, responsiveness, and applause offered by the audience. Such matters are important to the speaker, although he is likely to know better when he is failing with an audience than when he is succeeding. Manifest inattention is seldom sought by a speaker, but manifest attention and responsiveness may not be a secure evidence of success. For example, the applause of an audience gives little indication of the extent to which the speaker’s information will be remembered, or his ideas appropriated and acted upon. It may not even be an accurate indication of gross audience approval for the speaker. Partisan audiences meeting for occasions they believe important to their purposes are notably generous with applause even in the presence of speaking they regard as indifferent or poor. They may respond not so much to indicate approval as from the hope of stimulating the speaker to a better effort, or from the hope of impressing “outsiders” with the morale and solidarity of their group. The most arduous effort may be needed to get objective evidence of particular effects. Speakers seeking to inform audiences may get this through carefully constructed post-speech examinations. Teachers commonly employ this method, often to the mutual distress of speaker and audience. Speakers seeking to affect audience values and conduct may find evidence of effect in behavior changes on the part of some listeners or of changes of attitude as registered on opinion polls or attitude scales. Such methods for gathering evidence are seldom available to the speaker unless his activity is associated with the purposes of a large organization with financial and technical resources, and with a strong interest in the effects of speeches made by its members. Thus political speakers may operate in the context of carefully conducted opinion polls, designed to test the effects of positions advanced. And thus evangelist Billy Graham keeps careful records of the number of conversions attributable to his sermons, including follow-up studies on the subsequent church affiliations of the converts and on church attendance. Many teachers now seek student evaluations of their instruction, which may tell little about how much students did or didn’t learn, but tell much about their affection for the substance and manner of the teacher’s discourse.

If gathering evidence on the effect of a speech is difficult, this evidence as it relates to the quality of the speech is at least equally troublesome. A naive view of public speaking might hold, for example, that the overt response of a present audience provides an ultimate or absolute criterion for judging the speech’s merit. “A public speech seeks an end in the audience,” it might be argued. “If it does not achieve that end, the speech is a failure and is not worthy of esteem.” The capriciousness of such a judgment and its failure to square with common sense becomes apparent upon reflection. Some speaking situations permit an easy victory for the speaker. His listeners like and respect him; their ideas are substantially harmonious with those of the speaker; they have come to cheer the speaker and to make the event successful. Given such favorable circumstances, the speaker can avoid the appearance of overt success only by a dramatic display of incompetence. Conversely some situations are loaded against the speaker. Unless we assume that it is wrong for speakers to attempt a difficult task of persuasion, we should have to assume that the speaker who achieves partial success against great odds may well have spoken with great skill. Even if the speaker fails with his audience, he still may have done his work well. Abraham. Lincoln’s first inaugural address unquestionably sought to check the movement of American history toward Civil War. In this purpose the speech failed. But could anyone have produced a more artistic effort to achieve an unrealized goal? If the speaker has used artistically the means of persuasion available to him, then we must grant the merit of his speech even in the absence of evidence that the speech succeeded with its present audience. The speaker’s lack of success may cause us to ask about the wisdom of the choices represented by his speech or may cause us to ask if he left certain available resources unused, but lack of success by no means requires that we find the speaker deficient in judgment or conduct.

A further complication in examining the effect of a speech lies in the unstable relationship between immediate and long-term effects. We have already indicated that a speaker may be more interested in the judgment of an audience which is not physically present for his discourse than in the judgment of the present audience. Similarly, the speaker may be less interested in immediate effect than in potential long-term influence. Speakers occupying public positions must live with the products of their speeches, with the written documents or recordings which the speech generates. And it profits such speakers little if the present audience applauds words which will subsequently prove an embarrassment to the man who uttered them. In achieving success with one audience, a speaker may preempt the possibility that he can influence a wider audience. For example, William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention is presumed to have stampeded the convention to nominating Bryan for the Presidency. This is one of the few occasions in history in which a single speech seems to have affected decisively the action of a large political gathering. The same speech so alarmed financial and business interests in the United States as to cause them to work for Bryan’s defeat with rare unanimity, energy, and resourcefulness. Did the speech that won Bryan the nomination make it impossible for him to be elected president? Answer to such a question would be difficult at best, but the question reveals the complexity of judging speeches from evaluation of their effect.

Observations of the effect of a speech will be incomplete and open to varying interpretations. This does not mean that such observations are without value. Speeches do seek effect, and evidence of their success or lack of success may direct our attention to aspects of the speech which we might otherwise have overlooked. If we say of a speech that “it should have succeeded, but didn’t,” we are alerted to the possibility that have overlooked features of the action which were of decisive importance.

Types of Speech

We have thus far emphasized the point of view that each public is in some sense unique. It brings together a collection of human beings unlikely to be precisely repeated, and an interplay of purposes and expectations different in some degree from all others that have occurred or will occur. However, while it is useful to keep in mind the uniqueness of each speech, it is equally useful to look for the similarities of purpose, method, and occasion which permit classification of a large number of speeches as members of a given type or genre of public speeches.

A number of alternative approaches have been used to categorize public speeches. We have already referred to Aristotle’s classification of speeches as deliberative, forensic, and ceremonial–a system which linked the major occasions for public speaking in Athenian society to certain major purposes for speaking. It would also be possible to talk of speeches in terms of their relationship to the organizations which provide their setting and shape their purposes. Thus one can classify speeches as sermons, campaign speeches, scholarly lectures, popular lectures, legislative discourses, ceremonial discourses, and so forth. These classifications are useful in emphasizing the link between public speeches and the life of social organizations and institutions, but the system tends to become unwieldy because of the large number of classes it involves.

For purposes of this book, we shall propose three types of speeches, using labels which direct attention to the major classes of purpose held by public speakers, to the major classes of expectation held by their listeners, and to certain broad lines of difference in the method used by speakers. Thus we shall say that all speeches may be usefully examined in terms of the question of whether or not they are expository, persuasive, or ceremonial.

The adjectives expository, persuasive, and ceremonial are commonly used in discussions of speech types to designate the major purposes of speakers. Thus we observe that speakers engage in utterance in order to share information with their listeners, or in order to lay out the lines of evidence and reasoning that might be used to support some inference. The speaker may say, “My purpose is to inform you about the historical events leading up to the battle of Gettysburg,” or “My purpose is to make known to you the arguments used by Anselm to prove the existence of God.” We can say then that the speaker’s purpose is expository, and that he has no desire for his audience other than that they be better informed after listening to his discourse. On other occasions, we observe speakers soliciting an audience to join the speaker in some belief, or to act in a specified way. The politician may say “vote for me” or “support my program for urban renewal,” and we mark his purpose as persuasive. He is asking for a change in the belief or action of his audience. At other times we see speakers engaged in utterance appropriate to clarifying the values an audience should honor on a given occasion – at a Fourth of July rally, a centennial celebration, a funeral, or a recognition dinner. The speaker is saying that we should honor (or excoriate) certain historical events, the lives of certain men, or the nature of a given institution; and we mark his purpose as ceremonial. Lurking in the shadows of the names “exposition,” “persuasion,” and “ceremony” is the ancient triad of knowing, acting, and feeling, as forms of human consciousness.

Proper use of the terms expository, persuasive, and ceremonial in classifying types of speeches requires, however, that we observe that each term may be used to designate not only a speaker’s purpose, but also the way in which his audience perceives his discourse and the nature of his language and manner. If a speaker’s intention is to inform an audience, if he uses utterance which is appropriate to the presentation of information, and if his audience accepts his subject matter as informative, then classification is a simple matter. The speech is expository in intent, in method, and in audience perception. But such a happy correlation of events may not take place. A politician says, “I am here only to present the facts about the “poverty bill now before Congress.” But his information may be selected and ordered in such a way as to suggest powerfully that only a hardhearted scoundrel would vote against the bill. A sophisticated listener may decide that the speaker has neither been totally candid about his purpose nor totally unaware of the persuasive potential of his method.

The disparity between the speaker’s intent and the audience’s recognition of it may be much more subtle. We can visualize a speaker who generally conceives his purpose to be expository, lecturing on the hypothesis of evolution, and of a listener perceiving the discourse as an unsubtle attack on the Biblical account of creation, and therefore an effort at persuasion. In this case, the same speech might be viewed as clearly expository by one audience and clearly persuasive by another. Moreover, both interpretations give us valid information about the nature of the speech act in all of its potential relationships with different listeners. The difficulties we have observed in classifying expository speeches apply also to ceremonial speeches. In Shakespeare’s version of Mark’s funeral oration over the body of Julius Caesar, for instance, the occasion is ceremonial; and as the speech begins the language and substance of the speech seem appropriate to the occasion. But as the speech goes on, we see that it is one of powerful persuasive intent and effect, artistically developed.

The terms expository, persuasive, and ceremonial seem to merge as one seeks application to particular speeches. Nevertheless they are use ful terms for directing our attention to the differing purposes of speakers, the differing forms their statements take, and the differing interpretations audiences place on the speaker’s utterance. We can apply the terms unequivocally to the classification of a speech which seems clearly univocal in intent, in method, and in audience perception. We can use the terms strategically to uncover the workings of a speech which car be readily classified. Thus the merit of the three terms derives less their power to differentiate mutually exclusive classes of speeches from the set of perspectives they provide for examining any particular speech. They become ways of talking about the nature of a speaker’ purpose, the nature of his speech, and the perception an audience bring to it.

Analysis and Synthesis

The fourteen terms introduced in this chapter provide a useful reference for analyzing the nature and action of any public speech. But it should be clear that these terms do not label events which exist independently in nature. One cannot conceive of a speaker without speech, or of a public speech without an audience and occasion. Neither can one conceive of inquiry into the purpose of an act without concern for its consequences, nor of a study of a speaker’s style which does move toward concern for his purpose and position, for the structuring and methods of enforcement found in his utterance. In the final analysis each of the terms proposed for examining public speeches is but a perspective on speechmaking which, pursued far enough, brings one into the study of the whole action of the speech. One does not understand public speech by thinking of it as a structure built up from a set of discrete parts, each of which may be studied in isolation. Rather, understanding comes from accepting the essential unity of the whole act, while approaching its study from a variety of perspectives. The most important of these perspectives serve as the subject matter for the chapters which follow in Parts II and III of this book.


A public speech is an action designed to take into account the contingent, a particular social situation. In this sense a speaker’s choices must be viewed as good or bad, effective or ineffective, in relation to all of the situation he confronts.

Speakers need to work toward full understanding of the nature and action of public speeches in order to have a proper basis for choosing conduct themselves as speakers. Listeners have equal need for understanding in order to govern their reactions to discourses. This search for understanding starts with an examination of the various aspects of a public speech and the terms used to designate these aspects.

The events objectively necessary to the public speech are a speaker, his speech or utterance, an audience, and an occasion. The speech itself analyzed in terms of purpose, position, movement, structure, enforcement, and style. Since public speeches are purposive acts, study also involves inquiry into effect. And since public speeches constitute almost infinite range of events, each of which is in some sense unique, their study is aided by seeking to perceive commonalities of intent, audience expectation, and method brought to various speeches. The terms proposed to designate types of speeches are expository, persuasive, and ceremonial.

Each of the fourteen terms advanced for the analysis of public reveals some problems of interpretation. For example, speakers need to be viewed both as individuals and as representatives; occasions involving both the immediate setting for a speech and the historical-cultural context; audiences, as individuals related to one by the group structure of American society; and effect, as immediate and long-term consequence of a particular utterance. The fourteen terms designates an event existing independently in nature, and in this sense each is but a perspective for looking into the of a speech.