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Speeches and Rhetoric: a Political Perpective

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    What exactly is rhetoric? How do we see it used in politics today? Rhetoric, as defined by Aristotle, is “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion. ” (Griffin, p. 276). It is almost certain that we each use some form of rhetoric from day to day, sprinkled throughout casual conversations as we attempt to persuade each other of some not-so-important beliefs or ideas. Rhetoric, however, is also perpetually common in everyday politics.

    A specific facet of rhetoric used within politics as noted by Aristotle is referred to as deliberative rhetoric. This idea states that in politics, people within a community deliberate together and use rhetoric to persuade each other that a certain action will be the best choice in reaching a desired outcome or beneficial consensus for the community as a whole. This specific notion of deliberative rhetoric differs from other forms of rhetoric in that each form uses persuasion in order to accomplish different goals.

    For example, Aristotle notes that while deliberative rhetoric uses persuasion in hopes of reaching a desired conclusion for which action to take in order to benefit the community, something like forensic rhetoric attempts to persuade an audience that an action was just or unjust or that a criminal defendant is guilty or innocent. (Yack 2006). Rhetoric however is not limited to the ideas and applications of Aristotle. Although rhetoric truly can be seen in almost any study or discipline, its function within politics in particular remains severely relevant and important.

    Rhetoric in politics may include anything from the specific wording of messages in a political advertisement to the style of language a politician chooses to use depending on where they are located geographically. One of the most prominent and functional forms of rhetoric seen in politics though would be the act of giving a public speech. Political speeches have a deep rooted and notorious history of persuading large sums of people to various ideas. Examples of famous political speeches include Martin Luther King, Jr. s “I Have a Dream” speech and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. (Powell & Cowart p. 150). Other political speeches can have an equally powerful message with, instead, a much darker tone. A prime example of this would be the antisemitic speeches of Adolf Hitler in 1940’s Germany. So how are political speeches and the art of rhetoric used in communication research? In order to answer this question it would be helpful to take a look a some specific examples of recent times.

    One particular article by Deborah Atwater in 2007 did an excellent job of analyzing present day political rhetoric by examining the future president of the United States, Illinois senator Barack Obama, and his reoccurring “rhetoric of hope”. It turns out that after the publication of that article, Barack Obama continued his rhetoric of hope throughout his campaign and into his first term of presidency. Why is it though that certain themes such as a rhetoric of hope can be so pervasive while other topics are not? Part of the success of Obamas rhetoric of hope no doubt lies in his ability to present a speech.

    Obamas exceptional public speaking skills combine with his broad optimistic messages of hope and motivate the listener to act. Essentially, his rhetoric of hope was proven effective when enough people were persuaded to vote him into the White House in 2008. With this example we begin to answer the question of how speeches and rhetoric are used within communication research. In order to use rhetoric effectively, specifically within politics, one must learn how to give an effective speech. A speech is one of the oldest and purest forms of human communication.

    Concerning the advancement of communication research, rhetoric and political speeches are often studied by campaign teams in order to learn how effectively convey a candidates ideas to an audience. As noted by Powell and Cowart, rhetoric within political speeches is an extremely important part of the campaign process. It is the act speaking ones ideas out loud, and presenting themselves physically and intimately to the public forum, which gain many politicians the initial support they need in order to move forward in a campaign. Political speeches have been known to unite groups of people with common goals as well as nspire them to act towards achieving those goals. With the proper rhetoric however, a politician will tell you that the specific common goals can only be achieved by voting for them and following their political plan of action. By expressing these ideas and using rhetoric within political speeches, a political candidate can easily gain the support of many potential voters. On the contrary however, they can just as easily use the wrong rhetoric and lose voters as well. Because of this possibility, political speeches are most often written by a professional third party speech writer.

    More so in higher levels of government such as the campaign for presidency, a political speech must be carefully crafted and worded in order to avoid potential misinterpretations. Political speeches, unlike other forms of public speaking, are more complex and must be developed as part of an on going process. Sensitive topics of certain issues and policies tend to generate debate and argument, and having a speech misinterpreted by the media who uses sound bites for their story could be disastrous for a candidates campaign. Powell & Cowart, p. 149-151). Having a political speech written by an outside source other than the speaker however is not a new idea. Throughout history, famous political figures have relied on others to help convey their ideas to the public. As noted by Powell and Cowart, famous presidents like George Washington and Andrew Jackson received help from ghostwriters for many of their landmark speeches. Having a third party source craft a speech however does not necessarily discredit the actual candidate and speaker themselves.

    The concept, messages, and ideas within the crafted speech are usually that of the speaker, but they are just simply articulated carefully word for word by the ghostwriter. As mentioned before, the reason for this is to avoid misinterpretations. Especially today, a candidate might give hundreds of speeches in a matter of weeks. With such a high volume of words it would be impossible for a candidate to constantly think of new ways to use the rhetoric in public speaking to their advantage. A professional speechwriter does more than simply pick which words to use though.

    They too must be keen to rhetoric and organize speeches accordingly. They must write in an easy to understand language or format and incorporate conversational tone and quotable phrases in order to make the speech optimally effective. This coincides with the idea that the audience for a speech goes beyond the immediate crowd who heard it. By making a speech quotable, the opinion leaders of the initial audience, along with the media, will essentially regurgitate the information along to others who were not actually present.

    Through analyzing the concept of rhetoric, specifically in a political context, and understanding the importance of political speeches, it is easy to make the connection of its importance in communication research. By studying how to make an effective argument speechwriters can begin to use deliberative rhetoric to persuade audiences towards common goals. By studying how to create political speeches and understanding how they differ from other forms of public speaking, one can use the skill necessary to make their message clear and memorable.

    Campaign teams can analyze the effectiveness of certain messages, the presentation of messages through speeches, and the rhetoric used in the delivery of messages to decide what can be done to increase campaign productivity. Sociologists can look at the effect of opinion leaders and how they help to convey messages from political speeches on to others. Media analysts can study how specific implicit messages of deliberative rhetoric permeate audiences in order to make more effective campaign ads. All of these things can likely be seen even today with Barack Obamas campaign for re-election.

    As the 2012 election nears more and more public addresses and campaign advertisements can be seen and one can witness the strength in rhetoric with Obamas campaign of “hope”. One can witness his ability to give a strong and memorable speech filled with persuasive messages for the future. With the proper rhetoric and his ability to convey his ideas effectively in a political speech, there should be no surprise if Barack Obama becomes re-elected to persuade us for another four years of hope.

    References Atwater, D. F. (2007). Senator Barack Obama: the rhetoric of hope and the American dream. Journal of Black Studies, 38(2), 121-129. Retrieved from http://www. jstor. org/stable/40034970 Griffin, E. (2009). A first look at communication theory. (K. Stevens, Ed. ). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. Powell, L. , & Cowart, J. (2003). Political campaign communication inside and out. (K. Bowers, Ed. ). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon. Yack, B. (2006). Rhetoric and public reasoning: an Aristotelian understanding of politicaldeliberation. Political Theory, 34(4), 417-438. Retrieved from http://www. jstor. org/stable/20452473

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