Talk in Action – Interactions, identities and institutions

Research proves that to speak successfully in public, eye contact with audience is crucial.

The contrast is the most common and diverse weapon in a speech.  Contrast is a play on words in which the meaning of words is phrased.  The audience has time to foresee the applause.

Types of contrast:

–       Contradictions – not this but that:  advice is judged by results, not by intentions.  Ronald Regan stated “The house we hope to build is not for my generation but for yours”.

–       Comparisons – more this than that:  Aristotle famously said “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who overcomes his enemies”.

–       Opposites – black or white:  Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever (Napolean)

–       Phrase reversals – John F. Kennedy’s words “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’”.

Contrasts are powerfully linked with the audience response.

Lists can also predict when the audience should react.  The most important point about lists is that they negotiate in threes, both in speeches and in normal conversations.  In normal conversations, lists are associated with emphasis.  The receiver hesitates for a speaker to generate the third item of a list, and frequently start to respond on a completed third item even though the speaker may continue the list.

Three-part lists are active in speeches, and combine emphasis and predictability of the response on the third item.  For example Bob Dole 1996 Repulican National Convention said “I can tell you that every family, wage earner and small business in America can do better”.

Lists take several shapes and are more helpful in motivating audiences’ to respond after a short delay prior to when the last item is mentioned or when the last item is longer than the other three.  In both cases, the audience has a little more time to get ready to applause, and the chances are that other members will do the same.

There are four types of lists:

  • Three identical words:  first delivery, second delivery and third delivery (Cicero)
  • Three different words:  I came, I saw, I conquered (Julius Caesar)
  • Three phrases:  Government of the people, by the people, for the people (Abraham Lincoln)
  • Three sentences:  dogs look up to us.  Cats look down on us.  Pigs treat us as equals (Winston Churchill).

Researchers Heritage and Greatbatch announced that approximately 6.5 percent of all applause events at the British conventions were twice as likely to be applauded as unformatted statements (Heritage and Greatbatch 1986:  142).

The puzzle-solution is another speech arrangement.  The speaker awakens the audience by instituting a problem or puzzle.  Then delivering the point as the solution to the puzzle, the speaker stress the point while giving the audience advance warning that an applauded point is coming, so this invites applause at the first point at which the solution starts evolving.  Puzzle-solutions can fix problems and gain solutions to combine humour with a political message, and produce laughter and applause.

Puzzle- solutions are less regular than lists but have higher success rates (Heritage and Greatbatch 1986:  142).

The above systems can send the message.  Combinations can bond puzzles with contrasts.  Not every contrast or list has a positive effect.  Mistakes in the making and implementation of the speech can cause any one of these rhetorical systems to be unsuccessful.  But all is not lost – the audience can have a second chance.

  • First there is the argument structure – most likely against opponents.
  • Second, there is a level at which certain points are made and are rhetoricaly structured to build towards a specific slot.
  • Finally, there is a micro-structural level of inflection, rhythm, timing and gesture which guides the audience towards an exact opening in the talk where response can be initiated.

Great speakers link all these levels to produce a faultless argumentitive structure.

Form and content are equally important in a speech.  Content is needed to allow the audience to applaud, however it is not always enough to make a successful speech.  Form is also required to improve applause as this allows individual audience members to express their support for positions that they feel strongly about.  In summary, the rhetorical formats serve both the interests of speakers and their audiences.  The researchers concluded that speakers want immediate, substantial and enthusiastic bursts of applause in response to their assertions.  Audiences want to show their support for speakers while reducing the risk that they will be clapping alone.  This is a “game of pure coordination”.

Chapter 18: Interaction en Masse: Audiences and Speeches in Heritage, J and Clayman, S 2010 Talk in Action: Interactions, Identities, and Institutions, Wiley-Blackwell, West Sussex, pp. 263-287.
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