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Your next essay assignment (on the next screen) is to write a rhetorical analysis of a political speech or a news article (you choose). Rhetoric means anything designed to persuade. Analyze means to break something down into parts and explain how the parts work together (in this case, to create meaning). You’ve probably analyzed poetry in English classes or film in a Humanities class before. This is similar. In fact, during the Mock Trial, what we were really doing as we read through each witness’s testimony was analyzing the rhetoric and trying to figure out if the witness was credible, biased, hiding something, manipulating the facts, and why. So we’ve already done this.
One request before we start: don’t choose Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Anything else by him is fair game, but that speech has been analyzed to death, and I hope that you will use this assignment to explore other famous (or not so famous) speeches that perhaps we should go back to in order to revisit, or to go out and read the news and look for signs of bias, or identify “fake news” or propaganda too see what the news media is trying to convince us to believe.
The video below will explain what a rhetorical analysis is, then you’ll see the assignment with an outline and some resources to help you find speeches. After that, we’ll practice rhetorical analysis on some articles and speeches. Then, you should be ready to write your own.
Choosing a Topic
One thing that’s always uncomfortable when analyzing anything is that you don’t really know what you’re looking for when you start looking. That’s the challenge. And there really aren’t right and wrong analyses, but there are only ones that are supported by the text or not well supported. So your essay is really an argument that proves that your interpretation and analysis are valid and well-supported by the text.
There are also different outcomes from an analysis like this. Sometimes you’ll uncover a hidden agenda or bias in an article or speech, and you get to reveal what that is in your essay. But other times, you’ll find a great speech or article and your analysis will just highlight the ways in which the speaker or writer is able to persuade an audience so effectively. Then, there’s in between, mixed analyses.
What works best for this assignment is to choose a topic related to something controversial or about which there is a lot of disinformation out there–like immigration, border security, travel bans, police violence, or coronavirus–and then look for an article or speech about it. Writers and speakers often try to persuade readers to feel some kind of way about controversial topics, so there’s usually something there to write about. You might consider selecting something particularly bad on purpose, so you can rip it apart. President Trump on border security or immigration, or his early speeches on coronavirus. Known racists. Police justifying the use of excessive force.
Another approach is to think of a speaker or writer whom you admire because it was so inspiring (or they are), and find an article or speech by that person to see how they manage to be so inspirational or persuasive.
Some of the best analyses I’ve read have been ones where the student has carefully chosen a historical speech that has some sort of current relevance and used the analysis to bring that person’s voice back, making readers revise ideas from the past that we need to hear today. Obviously, that requires exploring speeches a bit, but that’s kind of the point here. For example, the “Ballot or the Bullet” speech by Malcolm X was given in 1964, but since we’re in an election year and since his message now is more timely than ever, perhaps it is time to go back and revisit his speech, which addresses whether or not real social change can come about through voting or if violent revolution is the answer.
Ask questions in the discussion if you have any. Here’s a video that I think explains the basic premises of rhetorical analysis clearly.
Whereas critical reading and viewing are general skills, analysis is a more specific process in which those critical reading and viewing skills are applied to particular subjects. Rhetorical analysis is a kind of analysis that divides a whole into parts to understand how an act of speaking or writing conveys meaning. Thus the goal of a rhetorical analysis is to understand how a particular act of speaking or writing influences particular people at a particular time; however, this type of writing is not limited to speaking and writing: in this assignment, you will be writing a 4-6 page essay (12 point font, 1” margins, double-spaced) that analyzes a specific news article or speech. Your news article can come from a newspaper, news magazine, social media, a website, or a news television show—but use one specific article, story, or posting—and your essay should show how it communicates the news to its audience and make points about what the effect of the presentation of the news is on its audience. For political speeches, again choose a specific speech and show how it communicates its points to its audience and explain what the effect of the speech is on the audience. After you decide on a subject to analyze, you will determine its intended audience, analyze its use of rhetorical strategies, demonstrate how it uses those strategies persuasively, evaluate how well those strategies work for the target audience, and justify the importance of your analysis.
Be careful to present an overall argument about your news article or speech—an insight of some sort—rather than simply a description of it. The main goal of this essay is to uncover and say something about your topic that would not immediately be obvious to someone else. Rather than describing the news article or speech in exhaustive detail, selectively focus on just those specific aspects that pertain to the claim in your thesis.
An introduction that introduces your subject, provides necessary background information and context, justifies why your readers should care about how well your source uses rhetorical strategies to persuade its audience, and leads in to your thesis.
A thesis statement that presents your overall claim about the news article or speech (this will likely be the last sentence of your introduction).
A description of the context and audience of your news article or speech—address both the immediate context, where and when it was broadcast or published, and the broader context, the larger cultural and historical circumstances in which it was broadcast, published, seen or read), as well as identifying the intended audience. All rhetoric is aimed at a particular audience; an argument that persuades one group of people might not persuade another. Include an analysis or description of the intended audience in your essay.
An analysis of the speech’s or article’s use of rhetorical strategies. What is the rhetorical goal? What does it seek to change in the audience’s beliefs, feelings, or actions?
A demonstration of how your subject uses rhetoric to persuade: Use direct quotations to illuminate the broadcast’s, speech’s or publication’s main points and claims. Choose passages that show how your text uses rhetorical appeals (whether verbal, visual, or both) based on credibility (ethos), emotion (pathos), and logic (logos). Also, point out any other relevant rhetorical strategies.
An evaluation of how well the rhetorical strategies might work for the article’s or story’s intended audience.
Adequate, specific evidence to support your statements about the news source or speech. This can include detailed description, facts, examples, quotes, testimony, or statistics.
Developed, well-organized body paragraphs with clear topic sentences and transitions.
A conclusion that provides closure to the essay and considers your argument’s implications.
Consistent, correct use of MLA style (check heading, margins, title, line spacing, page numbering, parenthetical note(s), and Works Cited page – for an example, see How to Write Anything).
Observance of the conventions of standard written English.
Prewriting (How to get started):
Decide on a suitable subject for your rhetorical analysis. You’ll want to choose a subject about which you have something interesting to say—an insight into the subject that isn’t immediately apparent to everyone. Try to avoid the most common, simplistic conclusions (news is biased; speeches are lies). To find a political speech, you might try AmericanRhetoric.com (https://www.americanrhetoric.com/.).
2. Circle your top two choices and freewrite about each of them for at least 10 minutes. Read through your freewrites and put a star next to the one you are most interested in developing – this will be your topic.
3. Investigate your subject, reading or watching it several times, making notes in response to the following:
a. Context: Why was this written, published, or broadcast at this particular time? What else is being said or written about the subject(s)? What is the purpose? What are some of the larger social, economic, or cultural influences that structure the world or media today?
b. Audience: Determine the audience for your subject. (A good clue to the intended audience for any television broadcast can be found in the advertising. Note who the ads target.) What attitudes would you expect the audience to have about the subject? What assumptions are made by the broadcast, publisher, speaker or writer about the audience (concerns, knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, media savvy, etc.)?
c. Source: Where was the news source or speech published or broadcast? How does the broadcast or publication represent itself on television, in print, or online?
d. Focal Points / Subject Matter: What are some of the main focal points? How are they supported? How is the text, speech or broadcast organized? Do the writers or speakers appeal to reason or emotion? Where do you see examples of logos, ethos, and/or pathos? What is included or excluded? What’s missing? What kind of evidence is used? Are any voices or positions privileged or excluded?
e. Style: How would you describe the style (i.e. formal, informal, academic, frivolous)? Does the writer or speaker use humor or satire? Metaphors? Do you see any patterns emerging within the publication, speech, or broadcast that might indicate general trends or attitudes? How is the style related to the purpose?
4. Freewrite for about 5 minutes about the news source or speech that you’ve chosen, trying to make connections among all of the notes you’ve taken. After reading through your freewrite, form tentative claims about the specific news source or speech that you’re discussing (i.e. Consider: How convincingly does the news article or speech support its own thesis (main idea)? What is its role in the larger context? What underlying messages does it contain beyond the obvious? How might it relate to other current events or trends in society, politics, our beliefs, the marketplace, or the world) – this will become your thesis.
5. Make a list of specific evidence that you can use to support your points from #3 (try for 3-4 pieces of evidence per section). Create an outline of your essay-to-be.
Organizing Your Analysis
The following structural suggestions are not the only way to proceed—just a suggestion. However you choose to organize your essay, be sure to cover the topics noted under Key Features above.
As you analyze, use the series of questions from Prewriting #3 to guide your analysis. Note that since you don’t know what you’re looking for–that’s the nature of analysis–your responses to some of the questions may not lead anywhere significant, but others may become very important. The goal here is not merely to answer all of the questions, but to come up with an overarching argument–your thesis–that provides your reader with an insight into the speech or article you are analyzing.
Begin your paper with an introduction, probably one paragraph that does the following:
▪ Place your writing in a larger conversation (in this case, about writers’ use of rhetorical strategies to accomplish their purposes).
▪ Introduce the article or speech you plan to analyze. Name the author, title of the piece, publication date, where the piece originally appeared.
▪ Identify the immediate and broader context: What was going on in the world or society (politically or socially) that might have influenced the message of the writing or speech? Does it communicate values or beliefs? Does it seem to have an agenda besides that which is obvious?
▪ Describe the writer’s purpose. To do this, you might answer the following questions for yourself before you write: What does the writer want to achieve within this community with this writing or speech? What does she or he want these particular people to think and/or do?
▪ Identify the rhetorical strategies that you have decided to discuss and indicate, in general terms, how they function to promote the author’s purpose in relation to the intended audience and what, if anything, seems to be a hidden agenda or underlying purpose to the text.
Thesis: Remember that the thesis should address the main purpose of this assignment: to answer why this particular message was delivered in this particular way at this particular time to this particular audience?
Each paragraph in the body of the paper generally consists of its own topic sentence and unified focus. Be sure to include the following using as many paragraphs per section as needed to support your main point:
A description of the context and audience of your news article or speech—address both the immediate context, where and when it was broadcast or published, and the broader context, the larger cultural, social and/or historical circumstances in which it was broadcast, published, seen or read).
Identify the intended audience. All rhetoric is aimed at a particular audience; an argument that persuades one group of people might not persuade another. Include an analysis or description of the intended audience in your essay.
Analyze the speech’s or article’s use of rhetorical strategies. What is the rhetorical goal? What does it seek to change in the audience’s beliefs, feelings, or actions?
Provide examples of how your subject uses rhetoric to persuade: Use direct quotations to illuminate the broadcast’s, speech’s or publication’s main points, significant focal points, and claims. Choose passages that show how your text uses rhetorical appeals (whether verbal, visual, or both) based on credibility (ethos), emotion (pathos), and logic (logos). Also, point out any other relevant rhetorical strategies. This may require multiple paragraphs.
Evaluate how well the rhetorical strategies might work for the article’s or story’s intended audience.
The purpose of the conclusion is to summarize briefly the main points of the analysis and to explain the significance of your analysis. Questions for considering the significance of this topic include:
▪ Do the rhetorical strategies that you discuss construct (or fail to construct) a persuasive argument for you? Do you think they were successful for the writer’s intended audience? Is there an underlying message that we should be aware of?
▪ Can you generalize about the role of rhetorical strategies in producing persuasive writing?