Smith, Donald K. 1969.
The Position of the Speaker (Ch.3).
In Man Speaking: A Rhetoric of Public Speech. NY: Dodd, Mead and Company.


The central decision of the public speaker is his choice among various possible positions. This choice represents the speaker’s selection of: (a) the central content, or organizing statement of his utterance, and (b) the point of view, or stance from which he will conduct his utterance. To the extent that the speaker assumes a position, he makes a choice that will shape the selection of both the substance and manner of his total discourse. He also asserts some part of his own public identity, for men are known publicly in large measure by the positions they take on public matters.

The student speaker has opportunity to “try on” positions, and to modify or abandon those which prove to be unhappily susceptible to sound criticism, or which seem inconsistent with the student’s emerging image of himself as a public person. This opportunity is one of the major perquisites of the student. It frees him in some measure to explore the consequences of asserting and developing in public various assertions, and of assuming various points of view toward himself, his auditors, and different types of subject matter.

Men or women who have assumed identifiable roles in public life have more difficulty in “trying on,” abandoning, or modifying positions they take. Theodore Sorenson, who served as special assistant to President John Kennedy, observed that any public position taken by an American President must be considered as the President’s commitment to the public. In this sense each position taken becomes a precedent controlling or shaping all subsequent Presidential statements or actions. Through time, of course, people in public life modify their positions. We may properly honor the public man who remains a student to the extent that he studies and changes his positions in the light of new circumstances and new information. But such changes are not to be undertaken lightly by those who take their public responsibilities seriously. We “know” a public man by the positions he takes; our trust in him rests on the assumption that he speaks candidly and with forethought, and that he will honor his commitments.

The significance of taking a public position is such that a speaker with any resources, such as a President, may “try on” positions by having them tested publicly by other members of his administration. The so-called trial balloon technique, beloved by politicians, follows this procedure. A speaker other than the President presents a position on some public policy. Public reaction to this position can then be examined before the President himself makes a final decision on the position he will personally articulate. The technique raises some ethical questions, but we shall not pursue these at the moment. Our point here is that the existence of the technique is testimony to the unusual importance speakers give to the search for public positions.

Position, then, is the central choice of the speaker, controlling the content and form of his utterance, and modifying his subsequent choices. For this reason we should give close attention to the concept of position, the general nature of the choices represented by positions, and the considerations affecting choice.


The speaker’s position is the central content and stance of his action. In this sense, the idea of position includes, but is broader than, the conception that a speech is organized around a central statement or thesis. The speaker takes a position by defining not only the central idea he wishes to communicate, but also by revealing his point of view (or stance) toward his subject matter, his audience, the occasion, and himself. Thus the speaker’s position has both a cognitive dimension and an emotive dimension; it reveals not only what the speaker believes, but also the point of view and attitudes through which he expresses his belief.

We can observe the importance of both content and stance in a speaker’s position by examining two statements. Suppose our first speaker says, “Technology threatens to destroy all that is best and most human in mankind.” He has clearly taken a position. The statement is vague, but it has content. In a cognitive sense, we would understand that this speaker deplores the impact of technology on the character or quality of human life. The statement is also attitudinally charged. The speaker has a stance, or point of view, and we are alerted to the fact that he may be taking the aggressive and alarmist posture of a strong advocate. If he goes on to call for the systematic destruction of large-scale social and economic organization, in order to “save man’s soul,” we will know that his position is uncompromising and highly emotive.

A second speaker talking on the same general subject matter area might tell us that “I want to examine conflicting viewpoints about the effect of technology on the quality of human life. These viewpoints will reveal both the way in which technology has enriched human possibilities, and the way in which it may threaten certain possibilities.” This statement also has content, but the speaker’s stance is quite different from that expressed in the former statement. Speaker number two seems to be assuming the posture of a reporter and interpreter. He promises a balanced point of view toward technology, free from strongly emotive language. To be sure, he may move toward a more aggressive and uncompromising position, but his initial position differs from that of the first speaker not only in content, but also in stance, or point of view.

The speaker who takes a position, then, selects not only the central content of his utterance but also the stance he will take in and through that content toward his audience and the occasion. He reveals himself as a human being acting through language toward the world about him from a particular point of view, and holding particular attitudes toward his subject matter, audience, and the occasion. Thus the speaker’s listeners sense his position not simply in terms of the meaning of a particular statement, but also as a revelation of how the man speaking has placed himself in relation to his environment – including the members of his audience. The audience sees the speaker as taking a position on population control, for example, but it also sees him as taking the position of a reporter or an advocate; as taking an aggressive or conciliatory stance; as attentive to the simplicity of his topic or to its complexity, and so forth. The speaker places himself for his audience by choosing a position, and the audience places the speaker by discovering that position both in terms of the central content of the utterance and in terms of the stance of the man who talks.

The Concept of Position Summarized

In summary, the speaker’s position can be described with two kinds of statements: (a) statements about the central content of his discourse, and (b) statements about his stance, or point of view. We can discover in the speaker’s position whether he appears as persuader, expositor, or ceremonialist; whether he “takes a stand” or chooses to avoid taking a stand; whether he is aggressive and uncompromising or conciliatory. The speaker’s position is his choice of the ground he will stand on and the point of view from which he examines that ground. The choice is a crucial one. It limits the appropriateness of some utterances and sanctions others. It reveals the speaker as he will be known to his audience. It shapes all aspects of his subsequent thought and utterance. Choice of position, therefore, is the speaker’s central task.

What are the considerations that govern choice of position? We turn first to some of the general characteristics of positions and their implications.


The speaker’s choice of position is accompanied by the problems usual to choices made in the complex game of communication. That is, any given choice is likely to have some merit and is likely to produce some difficulties. When we say that the speaker made a good choice of position, we are judging that the merits of the choice outweighed its limitations. We are in effect assuming that any alternative choice made by the speaker would have been less serviceable for his purpose than the choice he made.

That merits and defects accompany all positional choices can be understood by examining some of the general characteristics of positions. For example, we can say of a position that it is “relatively narrow or broad; relatively clear or ambiguous; relatively simple or complex.” Other sets of adjectives could be applied to the general description of positions, but these three will illustrate the implications of choice.

(1) The Narrow vs. Broad Position. The speaker who chooses to undertake a critique of American education might limit himself to the statement that “The teaching of the social sciences in American high schools is woefully inadequate.” His position would be narrower if he confined himself to a critique of the teaching of economic theory in American high schools, and still narrower if he limited himself to the teaching of economic theory in George Washington High School. His position would become progressively broader if he extended his critique to the whole of the curriculum or to the whole of the educational systems. Speakers choose positions of such cosmological breadth as “Mankind is lurching toward the extinction of all values that have made life worth living.” They also choose positions of such particularity as “How Begonias can be grown in northern climates.”

Presumably the narrower the speaker’s position, the greater the probability that he can support it adequately. The narrow position enables the speaker to say “more about less,” to bring to bear more of the total fund of pertinent information and lines of amplification, and to spend more of his time in relating relevant and interesting anecdotes. Presumably also, the narrow position increases the likelihood that the speaker will be clear. A speaker is more likely to produce a clear, concrete, and fully supported analysis of instruction about economic theory in a particular high school than to achieve similar clarity in a critique of the whole of American education. Thus speakers are often well advised to curb the impulse to encompass the whole of some complex topic in asingle speech, and to choose a position on a particularly relevant aspect of that topic. For example, a speaker wishing to take a position on the proper nature of American foreign policy might well confine himself to a position on American foreign policy in Central Africa. Narrow positions carry limitations. Foremost among these is the possibility that a position may become so narrow as to make the speech trivial, or to leave the audience vastly unsatisfied. Unless one is a patron of George Washington High School, learning that economic theory is badly taught at that high school may prompt the reply “So what?” The speaker who seeks full control over his subject matter by narrowing his position is caught by the irony of the definition applied to an expert: “One who knows more and more about less and less, until eventually he knows everything about nothing.”

The merit of a broad position is its potential for bringing useful order out of a vast diversity of particular information, and thus achieving great significance for an audience. The speaker who supports a position which illuminates the whole of some vast area of human concern has achieved much. For example, the psychologist Jerome Bruner is perhaps best known for a position he has taken on the whole vast topic of human learning. His position is a broad one: that knowledge has structure, and that learning the structure of any kind of knowledge facilitates further learning. The position, aptly illustrated, seems to illuminate the whole of the problem of organizing and conducting instruction in the whole of the educational system, and it thus takes on a significance impossible to a narrower position on learning. The speaker who takes a broad position risks much. He risks obscurity, the accusation that he has tried to put camels and lions into one tent, the possibility that he will lay claim to greater insight than he can make credible to his listeners, and the possibility that he has indeed allowed his vision to run beyond his knowledge. The limitations of breadth mirror the merits of the narrow position, and vice versa.

(2) The Clear vs. Ambiguous Position. Clarity seems an obvious merit in public speaking, so much so that any discussion of the limitations of clarity, or the possible merits of ambiguity may seem vaguely scandalous. Yet it should be observed that judicious ambiguity is a common strategy for unifying an audience, and that the speaker who makes his position “too clear” on a given issue may sow discord. For example, the closing words of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (“. .. government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from this earth”) are inherently ambiguous. If one pursues philosophically what is meant by “the people,” as Waiter Lippmann does in his book The Public Philosophy, one soon appreciates the ambiguity. By “the people” do we mean all those living, or only those living who have met some qualification for voting in elections? Do we mean those living, and dead, and yet to be born who share in some national political tradition? One can be grateful that Lincoln did not seek full clarification of his abstraction on the occasion of a ceremonial address. Nor did he pause for clarification of the phrase “all men are created equal,” yet the ambiguities lurking in this statement have been the subject of innumerable speeches and essays. Should we criticize Lincoln because he refrained from using a ceremonial occasion to plunge his audience into philosophic discord?

In the political context, ambiguity is often considered the device by which the politician avoids a commitment other than to virtue, and thus avoids giving offense to any potential voter. But it should be further observed that the politician who takes a clear public position on legislative issues limits his own “freedom of movement” concerning these issues, no matter how circumstances may change after the time of his speech. Thus, the candidate for state governor who announces his clear, unequivocal, and unalterable opposition to any increase in taxation may face embarrassment as he confronts subsequent realities of the balance between state obligations and state income. Shall we always cry “fault” to the speaker who, facing the uncertainties of decision making on matters of vast social complexity, chooses positions at least as ambiguous as his own lack of certainty?

The merit of clarity, like the limitation of ambiguity, is apparent. The clear position removes doubt in the relation between speaker and listener; it minimizes the possibility of misunderstanding or of subsequent disenchantment. But the service of ambiguity to certain purposes, like the limitation of clarity for these purposes, should also be apparent.

(3) The Simple vs. Complex Position. The speaker who says “The United States should use its full military power to destroy the capacity of North Vietnam to wage war” has taken a reasonably simple position on one aspect of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Official American foreign policy in the 1950’s and 1960’s, on the other hand, seemed based on a more complex position which began as a commitment of goods, services, and expert advice to the formation of a stable South Vietnam, and progressed to a commitment of American military power to stop alleged North Vietnamese aggression against South Vietnam. The complex governmental position was also ambiguous, possibly with the intention of preserving the freedom of the government to change the direction of its particular actions. The tendency of simple positions to be unambiguous and clear is not, however, a universal concomitant of simplicity. Simple positions can be both broad and ambiguous, as in the venerable toast, “My country, may she always be right, but right or wrong my country” or in Lord Acton’s epigram, “All power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Simple positions which are unqualified, unhedged by doubts, conditions, or discussion of possible modifications, have obvious rhetorical force. They can be compactly or even memorably worded and thus easily held in mind. Ceremonial discourse and moral discourse are filled with assertions of simple positions. Political discourse associated with aggressive political movements, or with moments of decision may also propose simple positions. One observes such positions in the rhetoric with which any American political party describes its own virtues and the faults of its opponents, as election time nears. Or similar simplicity is found in such diverse utterances as Hitler’s rhetoric (assertions of Aryan supremacy, the absolute evil of the Jew, the absolute malice of the Versailles treaty after World War I, the inevitability of victory for those who have the will for victory) and the Communist Manifesto (history as a matter of class struggle and economic determinism, the inevitable victory of the proletariat, the inevitable movement to a classless society).

The strength of the simple position is balanced by its limitations. The most conspicuous limitation is the possibility of disproportion between the simplicity of the speaker’s position and the complexity of the subject matter he discusses. Simple explanations for complex phenomena may be sheer nonsense. The speaker who asserts a simple explanation for the causes of juvenile delinquency in America may demonstrate for many listeners only the fact that he knows too little about the problem to assume the privilege of speaking in public.

In summary, positions which are narrow, clear, and simple seem generally strong. The speaker who chooses a broad position may find it difficult to provide support adequate to his statement; the speaker who is ambiguous risks misunderstanding and its fruit of disappointment; the speaker who is complex risks the difficulty of making his position clear, and the danger of seeming to be indecisive or lacking in force. Yet it is not a sound general rule that speakers should choose narrow, clear, and simple positions. Each such choice carries with it limitations; narrowness risks triviality; clarity reduces the speaker’s latitude for change; simplicity may be inappropriate to complex phenomena. The particular choice of the speaker needs to be made in the full light of the speaking situation – his purpose, his subject matter, his audience, the occasion. Evaluation of the speaker’s choice of position needs to be made in the light of a similar range of considerations. When we say of a speaker that his position was too narrow or too broad, too clear or too ambiguous, too simple or too complex, we are in effect proposing that he take a different position. We should propose this only if we understand the new limitations, as well as the new potentialities, that the different position will bring.

We next consider the way in which a speaker’s person, his audience and occasion limit his choice of position.


We have already observed that the man in public life who takes a position must take this commitment into account in his subsequent choices. We can further observe that each speaker, by reason of his own person and biography is both limited and aided in his selection of position.

Kenneth Burke has called attention to the embarrassment possible in the relationship between the speaker’s person and his utterance. For example, there is an embarrassment in these positions: the rich man praising wealth; the rich man praising poverty; the poor man praising wealth; and the poor man praising poverty. The embarrassment results from the discomfort an audience may experience at the spectacle of a speaker praising his own station in life; or conversely praising that which he has not experienced and therefore cannot know. We are familiar with the possibility that men often speak not from love of the truth so much as self-love, or not from knowledge so much as from envy or the desire to dissemble.

Examples of embarrassment in the relationship between the speaker’s person and his position are legion. The college student who, from his own wisdom and insight, denounces the feeble rationality of Aristotle, Augustine, John Locke, or Arnold Toynbee may have created a public embarrassment, particularly if he seems totally unaware of a possible disproportion between his own credentials and those of the persons he denounces. The student who, with gay abandon, proposes sweeping reforms of American higher education based on his two years of college experience plus an evening of deep thought risks a similar embarrassment. In public life we are all too familiar with the unmarried speaker who lectures on the proper conduct of marriage; the worker who knows how a business should be managed, or the manager who lectures workers on the virtues of honest and uncomplaining toil; the man who has never written a play but finds all living playwrights deficient in talent; the thrice-divorced sociologist who calls for national analysis of the instability of the American home; the educator who finds that the pattern of his own education is most suitable for the production of wise and virtuous men; the politician who finds remarkable virtue in his own political party; the journalist who gives the Secretary of State sage advice on the conduct of international relations; the man who has never heard a shot fired in anger and yet questions the courage of battlefield heroes; the housewife who has spent only three weeks in Russia yet lectures on the “truth about Communism”; the elderly who denounce the young as a class, and the young who denounce the aged. The list could be extended. That so many public speakers succeed in producing embarrassment is tribute to widespread inattention to the relation between the speaker’s person and his public position.

If the speaker’s person limits some choice of position, it may also enhance other choices. For example, special attention seems always accorded to the positions of persons who can claim that they have been converted to the position chosen: the Democrat turned Republican; the Communist turned Anti-Communist; the atheist turned Christian; the former hoodlum supporting virtuous living; the reformed alcoholic denouncing the evils of drink. Travel abroad seems always to enhance the speaker’s position on international relations, and positions which seem in some way contrary to the manifest self-interest of the speaker are also strengthened. Thus the wealthy man who calls for an increase in a progressive income tax speaks from a strong personal position.

Any position carries the possibility of embarrassment. We should not expect teachers to stop arguing the merits of education simply because they are well educated, nor students to stop claiming some special insight into educational problems if for no other reason than their experience tells them that they are part of the problem. Public speakers can and do move in ways to accomplish their purposes and hold to their desired positions while relieving potential embarrassment. The student who wishes to denounce Professor Arnold Toynbee is not required to do so on his own authority; he can present the analysis of Toynbee provided by Professor Kaufmann. The student who wishes to advance proposals for the reform of higher education will have little trouble finding a range of such proposals ably supported by men who have devoted their lives to the study of educational systems. The traveler who wants to talk on the products of his experience can report what he saw, and how he interprets it, without claiming insight into the totality of a culture he experienced briefly.

The speaker’s problem, then, is not so much the search for positions which free him from embarrassment as having enough insight into the possible implications of his position to enable proper management of his relationship with subject, audience, and occasion. For example, the well- known English writer of mystery stories Dorothy Sayers addressed a vacation course in education at Oxford University in 1947, and chose to present a comprehensive critique of the entire design of British common-school education. She was fully aware of the possible tension between the audience’s perception of who she was, and who might be properly qualified to undertake a broad critique of the educational system. She dealt with the problem in her introduction with a note of good natured aggressiveness:

That I, whose experience of teaching is extremely limited, and whose life of recent years has been almost wholly out of touch with educational circles, should presume to discuss education is a matter, surely, that calls for no apology. It is a kind of behaviour to which the present climate of opinion is wholly favourable. Bishops air their opinions about economics; biologists, about metaphysics; celibates, about matrimony; inorganic chemists about theology; the most irrelevant people are appointed to highly-technical ministeries; and plain, blunt men write to the papers to say that Epstein and Picasso do not know how to draw. Up to a certain point, and provided that the criticisms are made with a reasonable modesty, these activities are commendable. Too much specialization is not a good thing. There is also one excellent reason why the veriest amateur may feel entitled to have an opinion about education. For if we have not all been professional teachers, we have all, at some time or another, been taught. Even if we learnt nothing – perhaps in particular if we learnt nothing – our contribution to the discussion may have a potential value.

Without apology, then, I will begin….

We have explored the relationship between the speaker’s person and his position, observing how a speaker’s choice of position may be limited, enhanced, or modified by the particular nature of this relationship. We could explore in like manner the relationship between the speaker’s position and his audience, or between his position and the occasion. For example, a strong position on the virtue of frugality would seem a peculiar choice for a speaker who had just joined fellow club members in a five-course dinner featuring imported wines and gold compacts for the ladies. But the point should not require further elaboration. The speaker works within the constraints and possibilities provided by all aspects of the situation, and he chooses a position rationally to the extent that he is aware of these constraints and possibilities.

We turn next to the interrelationships of the concept of position and the conduct of expository, persuasive, and ceremonial speaking.


We have previously observed that the speaker’s position includes both the central content of his utterance and the point of view from which he treats that content. In this sense, the speaker’s position defines the relationship he seeks with his subject matter, his audience, and the occasion. We shall now explore the interrelationship of point of view and content – the way in which various points of view assumed by speakers tend to define the central content of their utterance. To conduct this exploration we shall have need to use somewhat rigorously a rhetorical term which we have previously used only casually. The term is issue. We shall also have need to return to the three terms introduced in Chapter 2 to designate three broad classifications of public speeches, the terms expository, persuasive, and ceremonial.

In rhetoric, the term issue is used to designate a question to which different men might bring divergent or contradictory answers. A properly formulated question, to which some respondents might answer “yes” and others “no,” identifies an issue, or point of tension, between these respondents. The existence of such points of tension among men is presumably the psychological cause for being of public speeches, and other forms of public discourse. That is, listeners attend public speeches because of the tension existing or potential in some issue they confront. And speakers take positions designed to be responsive to issues they and their listeners confront. In this sense, speakers find their proper subject matter only by responding to their awareness of issues present or potential for their audiences. Therefore, by looking toward the types of issues which underlie various classes of positions, we can uncover the area within which the speaker will choose his particular position.

The various classes of positions we shall be concerned with are identified by the three types of public speeches, the expository, the persuasive, and the ceremonial. In the remainder of this chapter we shall use these terms to designate different points of view a speaker may bring to the speaking situation. Thus, the expository speaker takes a point of view of a reporter or teacher – one who makes knowledge about man or his environment available to an audience. The persuasive speaker takes the point of view of the advocate – one who seeks to influence the attitudes or actions of his listeners. The ceremonial speaker takes the point of view of the artist or philosopher – one who seeks to uncover the values implicit in the lives of particular men, particular institutions, or particular occasions. These points of view are not mutually exclusive. Speakers can and do move from one point of view to another in a single discourse. We have all had experience with the ostensibly expository speech which drifts in and out of controversial assertions on attitudes and actions without assuming responsibility for justifying these assertions. We have also seen that a particular point of view may be a disguise assumed strategically, as in the case of the speaker who purports simply to report the facts objectively, but who selects and arranges his facts to lead toward an inescapable conclusion. However, for the present analysis, we should set aside these complexities.

Position and the Expository Speaker

At first thought, an expository speech seems to have a point of view, but seems also to lack any central ground or any necessary engagement with an issue. The central ground of a persuasive speaker who supports some assertion seems clear. The speaker who says “America should continue nuclear testing until we have perfected an anti-missile weapon” clearly has a position, and is clearly addressing himself to an issue. But what of the speaker who says “We shall examine today the major theses presented concerning the causes of the civil war, and observe the different treatments given the question of causation by different historians.” He has a statement or controlling concept, and he has a mission. But does he have any position other than the point of view of the reporter or teacher?

A useful perspective for viewing the expository speech is to note that the speaker does have a position central to the selection of his content and that if his speech is to be successful, this position must be derived from certain issues implicit in the expository point of view. The position of the expository speaker can be and often is only implicit in his utterance. It must therefore be discovered by inference.

Let us examine more closely the expository speech. The speaker who purports to bring information or knowledge to an audience must necessarily make two assumptions about his utterance. The first is that he has information or knowledge which is in some sense needed by the audience. If the speaker does not make this assumption his reason for talking becomes questionable, and the product of his utterance will be limited to whatever pleasure the speaker may derive from listening to the sound of his own voice. The expository point of view does not require the assumption that the audience perceive its need prior to the speech. The speaker may move to make the audience aware of its need for his information, and in that case he may make explicit his assumption and position.

The second assumption is that the information provided for the audience is reputable or truthful. The question of what constitutes reputable or truthful description of some part of the universe is a baffling one that has haunted scholars since the beginnings of a self-conscious search for knowledge. Since our topic at the moment is the position of the expository speaker, rather than the nature of truth, we can avoid the knotty question “What is truth?” and center our attention on the requirements of the expository speaking situation. The speaker who purports to bring information or knowledge to an audience must necessarily take the position that his utterance has been chosen and arranged in a manner as consistent as possible with the best knowledge or “truth” available to his culture. If he takes any other position, his claim as reporter or teacher is fraudulent. If he makes statements at variance with those his audience believes to be reputable or truthful, he will be considered not as an expositor, but as an imposter. Since speakers and audiences do manage to join to one another on the assumption that they are sharing reputable knowledge, it is clear that commonsense decisions on the nature of reputable information or truthful statements are constantly being made; it should be clear too that they must be made as a precondition of exposition.

We have now proposed that the expository point of view requires a speaker to take the position that his utterance is (a) needed, and (b) reputable or truthful. For example, the speaker who says “I shall teach you how to repair a carburetor” must necessarily also be saying, implicitly or explicitly, “You need information on the repair of the carburetor,” and “the information I shall give you is reputable.” If the speaker cannot take a position on need, his utterance has no justification for the particular audience. If he cannot take the position on reputability, he might better be silent. In this sense, the speaker whose point of view is expository faces two inescapable issues; and he must respond to these issues, implicitly or explicitly, if he is to justify his point of view. Our analysis suggests that the speaker who assumes an expository point of view accepts a rigorous limitation on the nature of the utterance consistent with this point of view.

The importance of this required position for the expository speech can be demonstrated by showing some of its effects on the design, conduct, and results of expository speeches. These effects can be explored by a more extended treatment of the two major issues or questions to which the expository speaker gives implicit or explicit affirmation.

(1) Is the information needed? As we have suggested, an expository speech signals the speaker’s assumption that his information is, in some sense, needed. If the speaker senses that the need for his information is doubtful, he may choose to discuss his position with some explanation of the significance or usefulness of his material.

In the case of the expository speech which selects its audience from those who acknowledge by their presence their interest in the speaker’s subject matter, the speaker can comfortably assume that the issue of “need” has been substantially resolved. Thus the speaker purporting to explain the procedures by which a manufacturer may secure a government contract for his production, and whose audience consists of businessmen interested in the possibility of securing such contracts, approaches a willing audience. This is not to say that the speaker in such circumstances will refrain from “puffing” the importance of his information. It is possible to heighten an existing appetite.

With audiences which are not selected by the speaker’s subject matter, the speaker purporting to bring needed information may face some substantial problems in establishing his position. If he chooses to “inform” an audience with materials already known to many or most, his position is all but hopeless. Student speakers, choosing their information from materials drawn exclusively from the most recent issue of the local Sunday newspaper, face the certainty of substantial failure with their audience. They are merchandising boredom.

Expository speakers whose position on “need” is sustained primarily by some element of enforced attendance on the part of the audience may face a serious tension with an audience. To some extent, the college lecturer faces this situation, particularly if his audience has been recruited by some requirement in the curriculum. If the lecturer is inattentive to the need for his information, he may seem to be arguing that he should be heard only because his course is required, that learning its materials is essential to passing the examinations he will give, and that passing the examinations is essential to those who wish a college degree. In such circumstances the listener’s sense of “need” may be both real and practical enough, but it is scarcely the sort of speaker-audience relationship designed to produce high rapport.

While the speaker’s position on “need,” whether explicit or implicit, inevitably involves the audience’s question, “why should I listen?” the speaker is favored by the fact that most listeners have an all but insatiable appetite for “new” information so long as its acquisition is not attended by excessive labor. The need for information does not require that the information carry with it the promise that it will improve the listener’s earning power, or increase his attractiveness to members of the opposite sex, or prolong his life although such needs have a way of assuring unusual attention on the part of listeners. The generality of mankind seeks to search out the nature of its environment; people were curious about the structure of the atom long before the nuclear bomb: demonstrated the relationship of such structure to human survival. And: anyone who has ever noticed that his world is shared by spiders may have his curiosity aroused by tales of the ways in which they go about securing food and assuring the survival of their species. Without speculating at this time as to the nature of the human motivation which causes listeners to be interested in the mating habits of the stickleback fish, or the edibility of the Mediterranean octopus, or the inside story of how the Cuban crisis was handled by the White House, it may nevertheless be asserted with some confidence that the speaker whose information is genuinely capable of extending the audience’s knowledge has the human quality commonly known as curiosity working on his side.

(2) Is the information reputable or truthful? As with the issue of need, the answer of the expository speaker to this question must be “yes.” If the audience accepts the speaker’s required position, the speech may proceed on a high level of acceptability. To the extent that members of the audience question the reputability of the information they are receiving, the speaker faces difficulty in maintaining his position.

The existence of the question of truthfulness accounts for the importance of the speaker’s qualification as an expert, or his demonstration that he has sought expert sources for his information.

It is not necessarily the case that information which is unclear or disorderly in its manner of presentation is thereby lacking in reputability. Nevertheless the listener cannot judge the reputability of that which he does not understand. Accordingly, to sustain the position that his information is reputable, the speaker must achieve — through his language, organization, and delivery – a reasonable level of clarity with his audience.

If the expository speaker needs clarity of statement as a requisite for any claim he may make for truth, he also needs to conduct the kind of utterance that will sustain examination as to the sources of his information and as to the reasonableness of the relationship between his information and any interpretations he may make of that information. We expect the speaker who tells us the source of his information to be discriminating about his choice of sources. Hence, the expository speaker may take some pains to justify his sources. We expect that his interpretations and conclusions will be logically supported by the information he has gathered – that he will not claim to know things which could not be known from the evidence he has available. The expository speaker often therefore states his claims with the characteristic moderation of the man careful not to let his conclusions outrun his evidence. “We can draw a tentative conclusion,” he says, or “one possible interpretation of this evi would be .. .” Or he says, “while no final conclusions are posit seems to me likely .. .” Clearly this kind of behavior by an itory speaker is also found in persuasive speakers — particularly ine who seek to be persuasive by assuming the manner and position of expository speaker. But by perceiving the implicit existence of the e of reputability in every genuinely expository speech, we also per- e the significance of the kind of language practices which character exposition.

The general position of the expository speaker may be supplemented by other positions, implicit or explicit, present in the selection and ordering of the materials of the speech. For example, the speaker who gives us an account of the battle of Gettysburg primarily through analysis of the character, motivations, and decisions of the major commanders present at that battle has taken, at least for the moment, a position about reputable historical exposition. He is saying in effect: “The character and actions of a particular man have an important influence on the course of history.” The speaker’s general point of view, that of expositor, has been extended by a particular point of view about a good way, or reputable way, of knowing part of the past. The specific extensions of the expository speaker’s general position need to be uncovered if we are to see his position fully. For instance, the speaker who describes human learning and behavior with information drawn from laboratory investigation of the behavior of rats or monkeys makes this assumption: that human behavior may be reputably interpreted on the basis of information about animal behavior.

Our discussion of the position of the expository speaker brings us back to the ambiguity of lines drawn between expository and persuasive speaking. When we discover that the expository speaker has a position, we understand that the success of his exposition rests on his ability to “persuade” the audience to accept this position. We are likely to perceive the persuasion in exposition, however, only at the moment some listener challenges some part of the speaker’s position by asserting that his information is not needed, or that it is not reputable, or that some particular extension of his position is unwarranted. The difference in exposition and persuasion does not lie in the nature of the general process of communication being undertaken, but rather in the extent to which the expository situation tends to prescribe major aspects of the speaker’s position. The speaker who purports to act genuinely as reporter or teacher accepts many rigorous constraints on his choices. Few speakers or writers meet all of these constraints successfully.

Position and the Persuasive Speaker

The prescriptive nature of the expositor’s position contrasts with the relative latitude of choice available to the persuader. To be sure, the persuasive speaker must assume like the expositor that his point of view is needed, and that it is reputable; to concede otherwise would be fatal to his enterprise. But as advocate he starts with the assumption that he is discussing some matter which is a subject of controversy, that he will take a position and seek to influence others to share his position. Ten expositors purporting to give an account of the nature of atomic fission should not vary too greatly in the substance of their utterance. If they do, either some of them should not be speaking, or the status of contemporary knowledge about atomic fission is one of scandalous disarray. Ten persuaders taking a position on the banning of nuclear weapons testing may appropriately take widely varied positions, and the substance of their utterance would be expected to vary widely.

Unless the persuasive speaker moves by indirection, perhaps using the mask of exposition or ceremony, his central position should be readily apparent. This position may be expressed as the proposition or assertion for which the speaker seeks assent, and can readily be perceived as a particular choice among a number of available choices. These choices are available along the familiar pro-con continuum associated with controverted issues. Thus, if we pose the issue, “Should the state of Minnesota legalize parimutuel gambling?” the speaker can take one of a variety of positions representing varying levels of affirmative or negative response to the question. He can respond:

Unquestionably yes … or … Probably yes … or … I am uncertain.., or … Probably no … or … Unquestionably no.

One could hypothesize various shadings of all these possible positions, such as the position, “Under some circumstances, which I shall describe, the state should legalize parimutuel gambling.”

We have earlier made the point that the location of a speaker’s position as a single assertion or statement seldom does justice to the description of the “ground” central to his utterance. Description of this central ground is more likely to require a precis or summary of the central content and stance of the speech than to be expressible in a single assertion.

At a general level, the central ground the expository speaker needs to occupy can be rather clearly designated or predicted. Interestingly enough we can also predict to some extent the area within which certain kinds of persuasive speeches will find their central ground. This prediction is based on the fact that the persuader who takes a public position on a particular controverted issue almost automatically confronts a discrete set of subordinate issues. These subordinate issues define in a priori fashion the space or area within which he will locate his particular position. It is obviously useful to explore the general ground within which the persuasive speaker finds his position. The speaker who knows generally the kinds of questions his speech must or may usefully answer is able to choose a position relevant to his purpose. The listener who knows these same questions can more readily perceive and evaluate the nature of the particular position chosen by the speaker.

Two kinds of persuasive speeches seem clearly to predict the space within which the speaker will choose his position. The first of these is the speech which is responsive to some question of social or political policy – to a proposal for change in the political or social customs of a given society. The second is the speech which is responsive to some accusation of wrongdoing – to a proposal, ordinarily in a courtroom setting, that some person has been guilty of wrongful or illegal action.

We shall examine each kind of speech briefly, observing the possibility predicting the nature of the area within which the speaker may take his position.

The Speech of Policy and its Positional Area

Many persuasive speeches find their origin in some proposal for a change in social or political beliefs or actions. Proposals for changes in laws, changes in the conduct of voluntary associations, changes in customary ways of doing business or of conducting oneself all result in such speeches of policy. Thus speakers favor or oppose federal aid to education; they favor or oppose the use of an honor system for the conduct of university examinations; they favor or oppose increased public control over network programming of television; they favor or oppose changes in the laws regulating automobile driving, and so forth.

For such speeches, a general framework of issues has been developed as part of the theory of argumentation and debate. This framework has been based on a set of so-called stock issues. These stock issues presumably represent the range of questions potentially at issue whenever a proposition of policy is put forward. In other words they define the immediate area within which the speaker will take his position.

Although the stock issues pertaining to speaking about matters of policy have been variously phrased by different authors, a considerable consensus exists as to the nature of these issues. They have been embedded in political and legal controversy throughout the history of western civilization. The following statement of these issues is based on an analysis made by Professor Lee Hultzen, although his terminology has been modified.3 The general questions to which a speech about policy responds seem to be four in number:

(1) Is there a need for a change in policy? Presumably the occasion for any public discussion of policy is the belief by some speaker that there are deficiencies in existing social policies or customs. Someone must propose that “things as they are” are not all that they could be, or should be. Otherwise there is no reason for a public discussion of any proposal for a change in social policy. Since all human societies seem to have escaped perfection by a sizeable margin, the charge that there is a need for change is rather commonly raised by the speaker.

(2) Is the proposed “need” remediable? To say that a social ill exists, or that some need for a change in the human condition exists, inevitably raises the question as to whether or not that ill is remediable. The speaker who argues that a need exists must inevitably propose that it is remediable. One could charge, though not without dispute, that the fact that people die of old age is a human ill which needs changing. But one does not expect a public speech to emerge from such a charge, since the need seems somewhat beyond the possibility of remedy.

The question of the remediability of an alleged need usually involves an analysis of the alleged causes of that need. Presumably only the accurate diagnosis of an alleged need can result in a proposal for change suitable to remedying the need.

(3) Is the proposed change the best way of remedying the need? If it be assumed that a need for change exists and that the need describes a situation which can be remedied, the further question rises as to the nature of the change of policy best calculated to remedy the need. Public speeches on matters of policy often center on this issue, particularly when the speech proposes a policy related to some need which is rather commonly accepted. For example, American society in 1960 revealed a considerable consensus that better provision for the medical care of the aged needed to be made, and that it could be made. Any particular proposal as to how this need might be met, however, was likely to arouse strong dispute.

(4) Would the proposed change introduce problems greater than those it solves? Presumably any change in policy involves the possibility of both desirable and undesirable consequences. A family without a car, for example, might perceive a need for improved transportation. The situation might seem remediable in terms of modern technology, it might be clear that an automobile would satisfy the need better than a tee any alternative plan of action. If it were further apparent that the purchase of an automobile would jeopardize the family’s ability to purchase food, the desirability of the purchase would come into question.

Professor Hultzen calls the four stock issues just described the four “frames” within which the point or points at issue in any discussion of a matter of policy will be located. The four issues are capsulized in the easily remembered quartet term of “ill, blame, cure, and cost.” What illness is charged? What (or who) is responsible for this illness? What policy or action will remedy the illness? And what will be the total cost, monetary or otherwise, of the proposed policy? These issues (or frames) may be said to define the space surrounding any speech proposing or opposing a change in policy. Within this space, the speaker takes his position.

A speaker may choose to take a position responsive to all of the four issues, or he may limit his position to affirmation or negation of one, two, or three of the issues. In any extended debate over the issue of policy, we are likely to find positions emerging on all of the four issues. That is, one or several speakers will have occupied the entire positional ground for speeches on matters of policy change.

The Speech of Accusation or Defense and its Positional Area

If Citizen “A” is accused of murder, we have a situation likely to produce persuasive speaking. The most obvious location for such speaking is the courtroom, but we are all sufficiently burdened by television drama purporting to picture life on the old frontier to understand that speeches of accusation and defense also take place in settings such as saloons and street corners. Moreover, few intensely argued election campaigns are free from such speaking.

Speeches of accusation and defense seem a staple ingredient of history. The issues they involve are associated with the development of systems of law and systems for judging the merit of such accusations. Because such systems are very ancient, the positional area implied by an accusation has been more rigorously defined than that implied by any other kind of persuasive speaking. We can illustrate both the antiquity and rigor of this definition by turning to the analysis made by Cicero of the issues raised by a legal action in the Roman state.

In discussing forensic or courtroom speaking, Cicero developed a system by which a speaker could survey, in advance of the legal action, all of the issues likely to arise in the case. Through such a survey, the speaker could anticipate all of the arguments that might be raised by his opponent, and could examine the facts of a particular case with a view toward finding those statements and arguments which would best support his point of view. In the interests of historical accuracy we should observe that Cicero did not develop this system with reference to a concept of positional space, nor did he use the Latin equivalent of our term issue as the base of his discussion. Rather he wrote of this survey as one which would enable the speaker to discover the status of his case. By status, he meant simply discovery of those issues which were likely to be in contention in a particular case, or those issues which would be most advantageous to the speaker’s case. In the discussion which follows, however, we shall not use the classical term status, but rather confine ourselves to a free interpretation of Cicero’s comments on the speech of accusation or defense as these comments apply to the concept of position.

According to Cicero’s analysis,4 any accusation of wrongdoing would raise five major issues, any or all of which might figure in the defense of the accused. Thus if “A” is accused of the murder of “B,” and brought to trial, the relevant questions become:

(1) Did ‘;4″ kill “B” The question is one of fact. It involves two lesser questions of fact, “Is ‘B’ dead?” and “Was ‘B’ killed?” as well as the decisive question.

(2) If “B” was killed, was his killing murder? The question is one of definition. Not all killing is murder as defined by law. Killing in self-defense, or accidental killing, might not fall under the definition of murder, for example.

(3) Is the court within which the trial is held legally entitled to try Citizen “A”? The question is one of jurisdiction. Even if there is good evidence that “A” murdered “B,” he could be found guilty and punished only by a properly constituted court.

(4) Do the procedures of the trial follow those prescribed by law as necessary to a finding by the court? The question is one of procedure. Court procedures are prescribed presumably to assure the maximum possibility that justice will be done, and if improper procedures are followed, then no finding of guilt ought to be made.

(5) If “A” did murder “B,” were there circumstances surrounding his crime, or which would surround his punishment, which ought to he taken into account? The issue is one of circumstance. If “B” had provoked “A” unconscionably, or if “B” was a notable scoundrel, then the court might wish either to find “A” not guilty of murder, or to provide little or no punishment. It is interesting to note that in a very strict legal sense, the question of extenuating circumstances should be irrelevant to the guilt or innocence of an accused person. However, Cicero made frequent use of this issue in the defense of his own clients, and to the extent that any legal system presumes to temper justice with mercy the issue becomes important.

These five issues – which can be named as the issues of fact, definition, jurisdiction, procedure, and circumstance – were the major issues which Cicero found relevant to any public problem raised by a legal action. There were other minor issues discussed by Cicero.

Certain observations are possible about the nature of the positional area defined for speeches of accusation and defense. Presumably the speaker supporting an accusation within a legal system must be prepared to affirm each of the five issues should that issue be controverted; the speaker defending against the accusation may controvert any or all of the issues. The issues thus define an area within which the accuser and defender will take their positions, but it does not indicate in advance the particular part of that area which the speaker will choose as the ground or position for his utterance. Many interesting examples are available of the way in which speakers have chosen position within this defined area. In 1961, Adolph Eichmann, a Nazi official during World War II, was tried in Israel and ultimately sentenced to death on the charge that he had joined in the conspiracy to murder millions of European Jews during the war – a so-called crime against humanity. Robert Servatius, Eichmann’s German lawyer, made no effort to deny that a crime had been committed, nor to deny Eichmann’s complicity in the crime. He did, however, address himself to two questions: (a) Since Eichmann carried out the wishes of his superiors in the Nazi government, should he be held responsible for his actions and punished for them? Servatius raised here the issue of circumstance. (b) Did an Israeli court have the right to try and punish Eichmann for crimes committed in a place not under the jurisdiction of that court? Here the issue was one of jurisdiction.

One of the famous defense speeches in literature finds the speaker taking his position on somewhat different ground. In the novel The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky presents as a full speech the summation of the defense attorney in the famous murder trial of the novel. The attorney is defending Dmitri, the brother accused of the murder of his father Fyodor. The attorney argues: (a) if there was a murder, Dmitri did not commit it (the issue of fact); and (b) if Fyodor was murdered by his son, it was because he richly deserved killing (the issue of circumstance).

Positional Area and the Generality of Persuasive Speaking

If we are given speeches calling for or opposing policy changes, or are given speeches of accusation or defense, we can predict with reasonable accuracy the area within which speakers will take their positions. Such speeches are a major part of the totality of persuasive speaking. The ability to predict the positional area of advocates is useful in that it tells speakers where to look for their positions, and tells listeners the kinds of positions they might expect.

We should not assume that all persuasive speeches will reveal positions readily describable in terms of the systems of issues we have described. We have already observed the tenuous nature of the line between persuasive speeches, expository speeches, and ceremonial speeches. We can further observe that persuaders take positions which do not involve recommendations about policy or about acts of accusation and defense, and that they intermix matters of policy and accusation with matters of exposition, praise, and blame. As with the expository speech, the description of the position of a particular persuasive speech requires specific analysis of its action.

The Ceremonial Speech and its Positional Area

We have given preliminary definition of the mission of the ceremonial speaker as that of praising or blaming, or seeking to unite an audience in terms of commonly experienced values. We have further suggested that the point of view of the ceremonial speaker is akin to that of the plastic or pictorial artist. The speaker’s art is discursive rather than presentational. But as he seeks to uncover the enduring values in the life of some man, or in the nature of some institution, and to give these values symbolic visibility, his work may share the aesthetic purposes of painter or sculptor.

The difficulty in defining the point of view of the ceremonial speaker as that of an artist rests in the fact that few speakers are able to sustain this point of view, or to support it with appropriate utterance. For example, many speeches in praise or blame of a person are clearly persuasive in nature. A man is praised as a model for our emulation, to prove that his enemies were wrong, or to prove that his ideas should be supported. Ceremonial speeches turn toward persuasive ends as readily as expository speeches, although the fact that a speaker uses a ceremonial occasion to seek explicitly to influence the actions and attitudes of his listeners is certainly not an automatic reason to condemn him.

Moreover, many ceremonial speeches are clearly devoted to the evocation of transient or trivial values rather than the engraving of enduring values. The after-dinner speech, which seems clearly designed to entertain and has no larger pretentions, is a well-established American ritual. Such speeches, if successful, may be said to evoke a common experience with good fellowship – an experience which might be titled, “We members of the Royal Order of Old Buffalos are the world’s most convivial people.” The speaker who brings off this ceremony successfully is practicing a kind of art and making visible a type of human value. His art is a popular one; the values it uncovers may not be exceptionally worthy of deep contemplation. Again, we should not cry “fault” at the skillful practitioner of popular art, for by so doing we seem to argue that all ceremonial occasions are moments of high gravity served only by the action of a true artist who seeks to uncover enduring values.

Most speeches which seem primarily ceremonial in nature, then, do not adhere closely to our narrow definition of this type of speech. We can nevertheless propose a narrow definition of the ceremonial speech in order to illustrate the unique problems and possibilities in such speeches.

As a case in point consider the eulogy delivered in praise of some person, group, event, or institution. Robert Ingersoll’s speech in praise of “Our Pioneer Forefathers” was such a speech. Thucydides’ Funeral Oration, discussed in the foreword to Part I, was such a speech. So also was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, or Wendell Phillips’ well-known eulogy of Toussaint l’Ouverture, the Haitian liberator. The eulogy is a common type of ceremonial speaking, and the impulse to eulogize is also represented in the production of biographical writing of the type known as hagiography, as well as in many historical dramas.

The eulogist’s point of view entails only one major issue which defines its positional area. That issue is represented by the question: Are there values in this man’s life (this event, this institution) which are worthy of contemplation? When the eulogist has found the value or set of values he wishes to make visible, he has found the center of his discourse, the ground on which he will stand. Wendell Phillips found the life of Toussaint l’Ouverture an exemplification of courage, endurance, honor, sense, purpose, and skill crowned with success. The portrait is a stirring one. On the other hand the eulogist may choose to center on some single value epitomizing the totality of a man’s life. One of the biographers of Senator George Norris of Nebraska subtitled his work, “A Study in Integrity.” In it, the single human value of integrity served to give focus to the character and works of Norris, as this eulogist saw him. The eulogist may also choose to work with ironic contrast in his subject’s life. For example, a eulogy of the American comedian W. C. Fields might bring out Fields’ all-too-human penury, addiction to alcohol, and alienation from the generality of virtuous attitudes, and go on to relate these aspects of his life to the nature of Fields’ comic vision and art. The values in Fields’ life do not generate a rendering of unambiguous human virtues.

But however the eulogist selects his ground, by whatever method of utterance he makes that ground visible and secure, however explicit or implicit his evocation of value, the fact remains that the eulogist finds the content center of his discourse in the area defined by the values potentially visible in the life, event, or institution he makes his topic.


Choice of position is the speaker’s most crucial decision. This choice includes selection of the central “ground” or content that the speech will support, and also selection of the stance or point of view the speaker will assume in and through that content. Thus, in taking a position the speaker chooses both what he wants his audience to remember or believe about some topic, and how he wants his audience to know him. In this sense public speakers become known by the positions they take. Positions may be observed as varying according to certain general characteristics. That is, they are narrow or broad, clear or ambiguous, and simple or complex. A particular choice between any of these options presents the speaker with certain advantages and certain limitations.

Positions may also be observed as interacting with the speaker’s person, the nature of his audience, and the occasion. That is, the merit or limitation of a particular position may be determined by its relationship to the person of a particular speaker, or to the nature of a particular audience or occasion. A position which is reinforced by the person of a given speaker may seem an embarrassment when chosen by a different speaker. Similar ratios of reinforcement or embarrassment are inherent in the relationship of a position to a particular audience or occasion.

The stance of the speaker varies in expository, persuasive, and ceremonial speaking. Moreover, each of these three types of speaking generates an abstract frame of reference within which the speaker will discover the central content of his utterance. The speaker who knows that he wishes to take the position of an expositor, or advocate, or ceremonialist can also know the kind of subject matter he needs to look for in developing the content of his position.

Each of the general types of s peaking – expository, persuasive and ceremonial – can be recognized in part by differences in the speaker’s point of view. Thus expository speaking entails the point of view of the disinterested reporter or teacher; persuasive speaking, the point of view of the advocate; and ceremonial speaking, the point of view of the artist. Each point of view generates certain types of issues or questions which define the area within which the speaker will find the central content of his speech. Exploration of the issues relevant to a given type of speech is useful in that it tells speakers where to look for the content of their utterance, and tells listeners the general nature of the position they might anticipate. We can chart with some accuracy the positional area available to the expository speaker, the persuasive speaker who advocates or opposes a change in policy, the persuasive speaker who accuses or defends, and the ceremonial speaker who engages in praise or blame.

Such a priori charting of the positional area available to the speaker provides a frame of reference for uncovering the position chosen by a particular speaker. It does not provide a full and specific description of the concrete position assumed by a particular speaker on a particular occasion.