Core 102 – Speech Analysis

In this assignment you will analyze the persuasive appeals used in a speech given by an authority on a topic. By analyzing the choices made in such a speech, you will develop an understanding of effective techniques for oral communication that you can then apply to the speeches that you yourself develop and deliver.

The specific skills that this assignment will help you develop are the ability to

  • identify the overall theme or message of a speech and
  • recognize how a speaker tailors a speech to his or her audience and speaking context.

Objective I. Identify the overall theme or message of a speech.

Before you can evaluate whether a speech is effective or not, you need to know what the speaker is trying to accomplish. To understand the message or theme of a speech, think about who the audience is and what effect the speaker wants to have on that audience. This section provides advice that will help you identify what a speech is supposed to accomplish. Specifically, it answers the following questions:

  1. How do I identify the purpose of a speech?
  2. What are different types of speeches?
  3. How can I distinguish the main claim from the supporting claims?
  4. How can I identify the key ideas used by a speaker?

1. How do I identify the purpose of a speech?

Every speech has a different purpose, and the strategies that a speaker chooses will vary greatly depending upon what her purpose is. To analyze a speech, you need to be able to discuss those strategies in the context of that purpose.

Some of the reasons a person might give a speech include celebrating a friend’s marriage, updating her boss on a project at work, presenting her research in a classroom, or advocating for a policy she supports at a city council meeting. The purpose will shape everything about the speech, from the tone to the length. The lighthearted, humorous tone of a wedding toast, with its celebratory purpose, probably won’t be appropriate in a city council meeting, where the purpose is to deliberate on proposed ordinances. A speech of ten minutes or more might work in a classroom presentation, where the purpose is to look at a topic in depth; but someone making a wedding toast would be expected to speak more briefly on an occasion when a number of friends and relatives propose to speak, each contributing one memorable or witty thought.

2.  What are different types of speeches?

There are many types of speeches designed to fulfill many different purposes, but speeches in academic settings are usually either informative speeches or persuasive speeches. These are the two types of speeches you’ll give in your Core A classes and in other courses while you’re at Radford University. Chances are good that the speech you analyze for this assignment will be one of these types as well.

An informative speech is designed to give the audience a deeper understanding of a topic. You have probably heard teachers give many classroom lectures that are informative. When you give an informative speech in class it will be much shorter than a professor’s lecture, but you will be trying to accomplish the same goal. Students often give informative speeches using sources they have found in their research to deepen their own understanding of a topic.

A persuasive speech is designed to convince the audience to agree with a particular claim about an issue. When a politician gives a speech encouraging audience members to vote for her, she is speaking persuasively. Students often give persuasive speeches using sources they have found in their research to develop their own position on an issue.

3.  How can I distinguish the main claim from the supporting claims?

Once you identify the purpose and type of speech you are analyzing, it is important to figure out the main claim that the speaker is making in fulfillment of his purpose. Most speakers can choose from several different main claims based on what message is most likely to help the speaker achieve a particular purpose with a particular audience. For example, a politician giving a campaign speech typically hopes to convince her audience to vote for her. If her audience is made up of college students, her main message might be “You should vote for me because I will fight for increased funding for higher education.”  If her audience is made up of workers who are almost old enough to retire, her main message might be “You should vote for me because I will protect social security.”

The majority of a speech will be made up of key points or supporting claims that provide evidence for why the audience should accept the main message. In the previous example, the politician’s supporting claims might be examples of bills she’s introduced to increase funding for education or social security. The same methods you use to evaluate evidence in a paper will help you evaluate the supporting claims used in a speech.

4. How can I identify the key ideas used by a speaker?

Listening is difficult for the average person, and the speaker’s job is to make sure that it’s easy for the audience to remember what they’ve heard. This is best done with a combination of strong delivery and excellent organization. As you analyze the speech, ask yourself whether the speaker has used appropriate organizational cues to help the audience follow and remember the main points.

  • Has the speaker chosen the order of the main points carefully?  If his main points don’t need to be in a particular order, then has he listed the most important ones first and last—they are the ones that the audience is most likely to remember?

Has the speaker stated the main points as complete sentences?  If the audience walks away and remembers only the main points, they should be elements that can be strung together to make the speaker’s case. For example, if a speaker has delivered a speech on packing for a backpacking trip, the take-away points grasped by the audience might be these:

When packing for a backpacking trip, remember to pack as light as possible, always have a dry set of clothes, and be smart about where you put things you’ll need to get to every day.

Objective II:  Recognize how a speaker tailors a speech to his or her audience and speaking context.

When you analyze someone’s speech, it is essential to determine who the audience is and what the context is so you can demonstrate whether the speaker tailored the speech appropriately. Imagine an individual giving a speech arguing that a university should provide more funding for on-campus programs on Friday and Saturday nights. If she is giving that speech to a group of university administrators, she might focus on the potential for alcohol-free on-campus activities to cut down on student drinking. If she is giving the speech to a group of fellow students, she might decide to argue that there aren’t enough fun things to do on the weekends and that more on-campus activities would make campus life more exciting. Although the purpose is the same, her audience and context would shape how she approached the speech.

Audience and context are such fundamental factors that, if you were asked to analyze a speech without being informed of the audience and context, ideally you should be able to deduce these factors from the speaker’s choices of language and content.

To help you recognize how speakers accommodate their audiences and the context, this section of the Handbook will provide answers to the following questions:

  1. Who is the audience?
  2. What is the speaking context?
  3. How does a speaker tailor his or her speech to a particular audience?
  4. What is the difference between verbal and nonverbal communication?
  5. What is a symbol?
  6. What are effective techniques of vocal delivery?
  7. What are effective techniques of physical delivery?
  8. What can I learn from analyzing a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.?

1.  Who is the audience?

Sometimes—for example, when an employee makes a presentation to fellow employees—the speaker may know exactly who is in her audience. As a result, she can tailor her speech to those specific individuals. On the other hand, a professional giving a speech at a trade convention might not know anything more specific than that the audience is made up of people in the same broad field. Still, even though a broad field is a general category, it does provide some information that may help the speaker adapt her speech to that audience by relying upon the audience’s familiarity with certain content and vocabulary.

As you write your speech analysis, look for ways in which the speaker has acknowledged her audience through choices of content and language. Take into account or try to deduce whatever you can about the audience for the speech. If possible, determine the audience’s demographics—objective categories like age, gender, and race—and examine the extent to which the speech is tailored in response to those factors.

Another thing to consider is whether the audience for the speech was a captive audience—that is, an audience that was compelled to attend the speech. Students in a class are a captive audience because they are expected to attend and may suffer consequences to their grades if they don’t. By contrast, when an audience chooses to attend a speech, the speaker can probably assume that they are interested in the topic. When speaking to a captive audience, speakers will try to make their topics relevant to people who might not be particularly interested.

2.  What is the speaking context?

In addition to a specific audience, every speech occurs in a different speaking context.  The speaking context is shaped by things like where and when the speech occurs.  Giving a speech in a small classroom that holds fifteen students is different from giving a speech in an auditorium that holds hundreds of people. Things like the layout of the room, whether there is a podium or not, and what technology is available to use for presentational aids will all affect how the speaker approaches the speech. The time of day is also an important aspect of the speaking context. A speaker giving a speech in an 8:00 a.m. class needs an energetic delivery to make sure a potentially sleepy audience is awake; a speaker giving a speech at 12:00 noon has to account for the fact that audience members might feel that lunch is overdue. When analyzing a speech, you can’t ignore the influence that the speaking context has on the speech’s content.

3.  How does a speaker tailor his or her speech to a particular audience?

A speech can vary greatly depending on what the speaker knows about the audience. Demographic variables like age and gender may dictate what kinds of messages and supporting claims are found in a speech. For example, the author of one speech may choose to cite an episode from The Dick Van Dyke show as a way connecting with an audience that is old enough to appreciate that classic TV show. On the other hand, an author with a different, younger audience may decide that this younger audience might relate better to a current reality show.

Psychographics—the speaker’s analysis of an audience’s values and interests—can also greatly influence the direction a speech takes. If a speaker knows (or figures out from their reactions) that her audience disagrees with what she’s arguing in her speech, then she will have to work hard to change their minds.  On the other hand, if she knows they already agree with what she’s arguing, it will be more effective to use her speech to strengthen their attitudes or to convince them to act on their attitudes.

4. What is the difference between verbal and nonverbal communication?

A speech is more than a script containing the words of the speech. It is a performance, too. So an analysis of a speech would include its delivery, which depends not only on language choices but also on voice qualities and bodily actions. A thorough speech analysis will cover both verbal and nonverbal communication.

Verbal communication involves the transmission of a message through words. In fact, “verbal” ultimately comes from the Latin word for—“word.”

Nonverbal communication involves the transmission of a message through anything other than words. The tools of nonverbal communication include facial expressions, appearance, and gestures.

Think of the sentence “Can you give me a ride?” These words represent verbal communication. On the other hand, if a person sticks out his thumb along the side of the road, he will be using nonverbal communication to ask the same question.

Effective oral communication requires an appropriate fit between verbal and nonverbal communication. Consider two difference scenarios involving the word “banana. If someone is about to slip on a banana peel, an onlooker may yell “BANANA!” to warn them. However if someone is ordering banana as a topping on a sundae, she would speak in a lower volume and less urgently. Both situations involve verbal communication because a word is spoken, but vocal (voice) qualities like volume, rate, and pitch—all forms of nonverbal communication—add meaning to the word used.

When verbal and nonverbal messages appear contradictory, audiences tend to believe the nonverbal messages. As part of your speech analysis, then, examine whether verbal and nonverbal messages agree and reinforce each other. If the verbal and nonverbal messages seem contradictory or inconsistent, consider whether the mismatches lead to misunderstanding and analyze the effect of the mismatches upon the ethos of the speaker.

5. What is a symbol?

Both verbal and nonverbal communication may make use of symbols, which  are words, actions, or objects that stand for something. Frequently a symbol will be something concrete that represents an idea. For example, for several centuries the white dove has been recognized as a symbol for peace. Peace is an abstraction, and the white dove puts us in mind of that abstraction because of a lengthy tradition that associates the two.

More recently, symbols have played a major role in how we interact with technology. Think about the icons on smart phones that represent tools and actions. Each icon is a symbol. It is not the tool or the action itself, but it represents—puts us in mind of—a tool or an action.

To a certain extent, symbols may be arbitrary. That is, there may be nothing about the symbol itself that requires that it represent a particular idea. The dove has been a symbol for peace, but this abstraction may also be represented by an olive branch, a broken rifle, a white poppy, or a paper crane. Depending on the context and audience, each may work equally well as a symbol.

Not only may symbols be arbitrary; they also may be ambiguous. The definition of a symbol is not fixed but depends upon the meaning people assign to it. One symbol may have different meanings to different people and within different contexts. For example, the Confederate battle flag could symbolize pride in heritage to one audience but racism to another.

Because symbols may be arbitrary and ambiguous, as you analyze the speech, consider whether the most effective symbols—whether verbal and nonverbal—have been chosen for the speaker’s audience, message, and purpose.

6. What are effective techniques of vocal delivery?

As you analyze the words of the speaker and how she utters them, consider the following elements of effective vocal delivery.

  • Rate and Pause: Does the speaker speak too quickly or too slowly? A delivery that is too fast or too slow or that features inappropriate pauses may affect the audience’s perception of the speaker and his message.
  • Volume: An audience may tune out a speaker who either shouts or talks too softly. However, it is useful for a speaker to raise and lower her volume to keep the audience’s attention and to help clarify organization of the speech.
  • Pitch and Inflection: Changing either of these can change the meaning of the speaker’s message. American audiences expect women, in particular, to vary pitch more so than men and are more likely to describe a female speaker as boring if she does not.
  • Articulation and Pronunciation: Mispronouncing anything can damage the speaker’s credibility. Did the speaker work out the pronunciation of names, and places and technical, scientific, or foreign words before using them in the speech?
  • Clarity: Did the speaker state her message using vocabulary that make each idea as clear and specific as possible? For example, stating that something “smelled bad” does not convey as concrete a picture as stating that something “was as smelly as a garbage dump in the middle of August after a heavy rain.”

7. What are effective techniques of physical delivery?

As you analyze the how the speaker projects himself physically, consider the following elements of effective physical delivery.

  • Appearance: Did the speaker dress and groom himself appropriately for the situation?  Appearance sends a loud message about who the speaker is and can build or diminish ethos before the speaker has said a single word.
  • Posture: Did the speaker stand erect and avoid slouching and leaning upon a podium or lectern?
  • Facial expression: Did the speaker’s facial expressions match his verbal messages, or did these nonverbal cues contradict his verbal messages?
  • Eye contact: In the US it is important for a speaker to look his audience in the eye so he will appear believable. Did the speaker make repeated eye contact?
  • Movement and Gestures: Were the speaker’s movements and gestures meaningful? Did they match and reinforce his message? If the speaker was presenting in a sizeable room, were the gestures large enough to be seen by people in the back? The speaker’s clothing may be an issue here. People in the back of a large audience may not be able to see a speaker’s movements and gestures unless he is wearing colors that contrast with background colors.

8.  What can I learn from analyzing a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.?

To make the most of this section, you may listen to the speech and follow along on a transcript at

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., closed out a major civil rights march with one of the most famous speeches in history. King’s speech is famous for its poetic language that continues to inspire listeners fifty years later, but it was also a speech that was remarkably well-suited to its audience and context. King had a clear sense of his purpose: promoting laws that would end discriminatory practices. The central message of King’s speech was that racial discrimination had kept the United States from living up to the promises made in its founding documents.  His supporting claims included examples of ways African-Americans experienced racism. The language in which he phrased his claims had a striking cadence (rhythm) and featured effective repetition of key words.

King’s speaking context featured a challenge that has been common to speakers since the invention of television: speaking to multiple audiences at once. The thousands of people who filled the national mall while King spoke had come to Washington to show their support for civil rights and surely didn’t need to be convinced of the evils of racism.  However, King knew that the speech would be broadcast around the nation, so he directed his speech to the sympathetic audience in front of him as well as the less sympathetic viewers who were likely watching from home. Although he directly addressed the horrors of American racism, he used quotes from the Declaration of Independence and the patriotic song “My Country ‘tis of Thee” to express admiration of the principles on which the United States was founded. The famous closing lines of the speech outlined King’s hopeful “dream” of what America can become. King contrasts the ugly realities of racism with an optimistic portrayal of the United States living up to its potential. His goal is to avoid negativity by inviting everyone to share in his dream.  Ultimately, King’s speech managed to serve several purposes for different audiences.  Americans all over the country were asked to join the cause of civil rights, while those who already supported the cause were inspired to do more to bring about equality.



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