Practice Analyzing and Interpreting a Speech

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  • 0:01 Common Elements of a Speech
  • 2:18 How to Analyze a Speech
  • 2:48 Analyzing JFK's Civil…
  • 9:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

There are many famous speeches that are inspiring and memorable, but to effectively analyze a speech we need to look at it in a new way. In this lesson we'll discuss exactly how to do this.

Common Elements of a Speech

Ted Sorensen, presidential adviser, lawyer, and well-known speechwriter for former president John F. Kennedy said, 'A speech can ignite a fire, change men's minds, open their eyes, alter their votes, bring hope to their lives, and, in all these ways, change the world.'

A speech is a formal address delivered to an audience. Speeches can be written to inform, persuade, or entertain. Humorous, entertaining speeches often include anecdotes (brief, amusing stories about real events). Entertaining speeches aren't teaching the audience anything like an informative speech given by a scientist or a historian. A speech written to persuade an audience might be a debate speech or a speech given by a president trying to encourage a nation to vote for something or take action.

When persuading an audience, it is important to focus on the audience members who are undecided on the issue. There's no need to work to persuade those who already agree, and those who adamantly disagree have already made up their minds.

While speeches can be written and delivered in many different ways, they generally share the same basic format. The Introduction contains a hook to grab the audience's attention, a preview of what will be talked about in the speech, why that topic is important, and why the audience should listen to him/her. A hook may be a personal story, a joke, or a startling statistic to spark the audience's interest.

The Body includes the speaker's main points supported by facts, details, examples, and/or statistics explained in a clear and concise manner, and counterarguments are made. By talking about their opposition's arguments and countering them with stronger points to support their position, the speaker creates a well thought out argument.

The Conclusion reminds the audience of the key points made and ends with a final, powerful thought or a specific call to action to motivate the audience to do something about this issue. When concluding a persuasive speech, it's important to articulate clear goals, whether the speaker wants a petition signed, a product bought or boycotted, or some other specific action taken.

How to Analyze a Speech

In order to really pick apart and analyze a speech, we need to:

  • Analyze the purpose of the text. Is it written to inform, persuade, or entertain?
  • Note who the target audience is and how the speech connects to its audience through anecdotes, specific wording, and/or examples that relate to its audience.
  • Assess its effectiveness and validity by noting whether or not it has relevant and supportable proof/evidence, such as facts, statistics, examples, or expert testimony.

Analyzing JFK's Civil Rights Speech

After a Supreme Court ruling that forced the University of Alabama to desegregate so that students of color could attend, President Kennedy delivered a civil rights announcement in 1963.

'This nation was founded by men of many nations and backgrounds. It was founded on the principle that all men are created equal, and that the rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.'

'Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free. When Americans are sent to Vietnam or West Berlin, we do not ask for whites only. It ought to be possible, therefore, for American students of any color to attend any public institution they select without having to be backed up by troops.'

President Kennedy's introduction starts with a powerful statement about the United States' foundation. In the second sentence he says that the country was founded on the principle of equal rights, so this tells us what his speech is going to be about. Now, do you think a speech that starts by talking about the topic of equal rights has the purpose to entertain, inform, or persuade? From that first sentence we know it's not to entertain, though it could be to inform or persuade. But President Kennedy states how he views this country, and then asserts his belief about everyone being equal. Although this may seem like an obvious fact to you, this is an opinion-based statement and it's his main argument, which was controversial to say at that time. Since he's stating his position, we know that his purpose is to persuade his audience, and now we want to see if he supports it in the body of his speech.

In the beginning of his speech's body, Kennedy talks about the worldwide struggle for freedom and states the fact that people from all different backgrounds fight for our country. He pushes this piece of evidence even further by saying that recognizing this fact means all American students should be able to attend any public institution without needing to be escorted by troops, since at that time that was what was happening to protect them against angry, racist mobs. Also, did you notice how he used the word 'we'? Why do you think he said that instead of using the word 'Americans'? Well, it personalizes it and tells us that his speech is directed at Americans. He also creates a sense of unity by including himself. He is not saying you need to be involved, he is saying we are all involved.

Kennedy's speech continues and states that all people are not treated equally. 'The Negro baby born in America today...has about one half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one third as much chance of completing college, one third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year or more, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much.'

'This is not a sectional issue. Difficulties over segregation and discrimination exist in every city, in every state of the Union, producing in many cities a rising tide of discontent that threatens the public safety. Nor is this a partisan issue. In a time of domestic crisis men of goodwill and generosity should be able to unite regardless of party or politics.'

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