Speeches

What makes a speech 'moving'? In what ways can speeches use stylistic and structural devices to persuade audiences? This lesson introduces you to the wonderful world of rhetoric and appeal. You 

  1. Watch the video below, have a good laugh and discuss how this parody pokes fun at TED Talks in general. How are TED Talks different from or similar to speeches?


  2. Read Text 1, a speech by Robert (Bobby) Kennedy, delivered shortly after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The news of King’s death came during Kennedy’s election campaign for President of the United States. He delivered the speech from the back of a truck to an angry crowd in Indianapolis. Watch the speech below, read the transcript (Text 1) and discuss your answers to the following questions.

    • On the night of King’s assassination, there were riots in most major cities around the United States with the exception of Indianapolis. Many people attribute the peace to RJK’s speech. Why do you think this speech had this effect on this audience?

    • It was once claimed by Socrates that good speeches should appeal to the audience’s sense of logic (logos), emotion (pathos) and ethics (ethos). How does this speech do that? How does it make you feel when you watch the video recording?

    • What is the structure of RJK’s speech and argument? What does he do with his words? And in what order does he do these things?

    • How might the structural features of his speech be ‘typical’ of speeches in general?



    I have bad news for you, for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world, and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and killed tonight.

    Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.

    In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black--considering the evidence there evidently is that there were white people who were responsible--you can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge. We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization--black people amongst black, white people amongst white, filled with hatred toward one another.

    Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.

    For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust at the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man. But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times.

    My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: "In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

    What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.

    So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that's true, but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love--a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

    We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; it is not the end of disorder.

    But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.

    Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.

    Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.


  3. Study the table below, which describes the defining features of speeches with examples from RFK’s speech (Text 1). How are these features similar to or different from the features that you explored in the previous activity, when analysing Text 1?

  4. Feature Example
    Parallelisms: This device refers to the use of parallel sentence structures or phrases in consecutive order. “We've had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future.”
    Hypophora: A common technique is to start a speech with hypophora, in which the speaker first asks a question and then answers it. “In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”
    Repetition: This is a key ingredient to any speech. There are different forms of repetition, such as anaphora, which is the same phrase at the beginning of each sentence. “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: […] Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
    Antithesis: This is the contrasting of two ideas in a sequence. The word ‘but’ is sometimes used to highlight the opposite nature of these ideas. “We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization […] Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to […] understand with compassion and love.
    Figurative speech: Figurative speech refers to any form of language that is not meant literally, this can include many devices from rhetorical questions to imagery.

    “[…]that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land […].” “Pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart”

    Tricolon: Speeches often include lists of three, as this appeals to audiences’ ears and sense of order.

    “The vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land.”

    Allusion: Allusion is the reference to another speech or event. By using allusion, the speaker not only associates herself with the ideas of the original text or event but also create a bond with the audience by evoking shared knowledge.

    I can only say that I feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.


  5. Read Text 2, a speech by Barack Obama upon being elected President of the United States of America. Where in this speech do you see examples of parallelisms, hypophora, repetition, antithesis, figurative speech, tricolon and allusion? Compare your findings to those provided in the collapsible boxes below.

  6. If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy  tonight is your answer.

    It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen, by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different, that their voices could be that difference.

    It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled. Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states . We are, and always will be, the United States of America.

    It’s the answer that led those who’ve been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day  .

    It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.

    I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn’t start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington. It began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston. It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20   to the cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation’s apathy who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep.

    It drew strength from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on doors of perfect strangers, and from the millions of Americans who volunteered and organized and proved that more than two centuries later a government of the people, by the people, and for the people   has not perished from the Earth. This is your victory. …

    The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even in one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there. 

    There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won’t agree with every decision or policy I make as president, and we know that government can’t solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.

    Hypophora: In Obama’s speech, the word “answer” is used regularly as an obvious signpost of the speaker’s intention to give his audience answers. Note that here the questions were embedded in the first sentence and not asked as direct questions, as is customary with hypophora.

    RepetitionNotice that the opening words of the second, third and fourth paragraphs are the same: “It’s the answer.” This gives the audience a sense of direction and the speech a sense of structure.

    Antithesis: Obama states: “We have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America.”

    Figurative speech: Obama refers to “The arc of history” which can be bent, “once more toward the hope of a better day.” Furthermore he sketches images in the minds of his audience by referring to “backyards of Des Moines” and “the living rooms of Concord” suggesting he is the candidate of the average man.

    Tricolon: Obama lists three dollar amounts in the phrase “It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give $5 and $10 and $20 to the cause,” in order to emphasis the value of small amounts.

    Allusion: Obama’s “arc of history” phrase comes from Martin Luther King’s famous speech, ‘I Have a Dream’. The words “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” are taken from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Last modified: Monday, 17 February 2020, 7:53 PM