Vincent Ferraro and Kathryn C. Palmer
Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, MA 01075
Speaking and Arguing: The Rhetoric of Peace and War


Before one begins to think about delivering a speech, one must determine why he or she is giving the speech.  Speeches serve a variety of purposes.  The immediate audience helps determine the purposes of a speech.  People assemble for a speech because they expect to hear or learn something they did not already know.  A speaker must satisfy these expectations.

Establishing one's purpose in giving a speech demands explicit attention.   It is not enough to believe that the speech is expected or that speaking is somehow a routine act.  Such assumptions will quickly be discerned by an audience; and if the audience suspects that the speaker is there unwillingly or unenthusiastically, such an audience will be far less receptive.  If a speaker does not have a clear reason to give the speech, then the speech should not be given.

The Central Purpose of a Speech

There is really only one purpose of a speech: a speaker must wish to engage his or her audience with a central idea or proposition.  The act of engagement is crucial.  A speech is a dynamic relationship between a speaker and the audience.   A speaker who views an audience as nothing more than the passive receptacles of his or her insights will lose that audience.

We tend to think about speeches as purely intellectual activities: ideas are proffered to an audience which then assesses their integrity.  This conception of a speech is valid, but incomplete.  There are a host of ways to communicate ideas; speakers must concentrate on the reasons why a speech is the best way to communicate this idea. The speaker has a central responsibility to assure that the process of communication is expeditious, effective, and pleasant.  More importantly, however, the speaker must recognize his or her obligation to interact with the audience.  Not recognizing this special relationship will lead to a failed speech.   Methods for achieving this connection between speaker and audience are discussed in the section on delivery.

Additional Objectives of a Speech

A single speech usually has three objectives, and a speaker attaches different weights to these objectives depending on the circumstances.  The three objectives include:

To convey information or insight.  This objective is by far the most common objective for most speeches, and it is difficult to imagine a speech that did not satisfy this objective minimally.  Oral presentation is an efficient method of conveying information, particularly if it occurs in a situation in which the audience can ask follow-up questions. This objective requires a careful review of the audience by the speaker: repeating familiar knowledge is boring and a waste of time.  Similarly, this objective demands an almost complete command of the information by the speaker since transmitting information to an audience requires the ability to condense, simplify, and organize without compromising the integrity of the information. There are some forms of speech-making that do nothing more than convey information, but these forms are rare and quite specific to a particular field.  More often, speakers go beyond the simple transmission of information and try to persuade the audience that one ought to hold certain views about the information.

To persuade.  Most oral communication goes beyond mere reporting of information and attempts to persuade others that a specific conclusion, interpretation, or assessment based on the information is true.  The element of persuasion is hardly unique to oral communication, but it usually constitutes a central objective in a speech. Persuasion occurs when an audience believes that it shares the speaker's conclusions.

It is difficult to determine exactly how this process of persuasion occurs, but the process rests upon the degree to which an audience believes that a speaker ought to be believed.  To persuade an audience a speaker must appear to be truthful, well-informed, and sincere.  Furthermore, a speaker ought to articulate a conclusion that resonates strongly with the understandings and sentiments of the audience.  This link between the information and the conclusion is crucial, and to be persuasive the link must be supported by both the information and a clear explication of the logical relationship between the information and a likely or desired outcome.  This connection between the information and conclusion is the argument, a concern which is developed in greater detail below.

To motivate.  Once the argument is established, there is often an action that can bring about the likely or desired outcome.  Many speeches will try to stimulate the audience to take that action.  A speaker who wishes to motivate his or her audience will assert not only a conclusion, but also a conviction:  the conclusion is not simply true, it is a moral imperative. This objective requires that the speaker understand the passions of the audience.   Highly motivational speeches can be quite fiery as was Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech.  Dr. King did not merely assert that racial equality was justified; he argued that racial equality was necessary for America to realize the noble aspirations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. In so framing the argument, Dr. King was able to appeal to the passions of the whites in his audience, the ones who needed to be motivated to take action.  Motivational speeches can also be profoundly understated as was the case in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.   Lincoln used the sacrifices made by those who died at Gettysburg to motivate the living to make further sacrifices to restore the Union.  That he accomplished this objective so brilliantly in such a short speech is testimony to his understanding of the passions of his audience.