Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Evaluating the pols' rhetoric


Richard L. Weaver II


AS A student in Montana, my son had the opportunity to attend a political rally of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. He didn't go because of political affiliation; he went because of curiosity. And he came away amazed. Mr. Jackson's language and delivery style absolutely captivated him. It didn't make him a believer, but it revealed the power and effectiveness of a competent, persuasive, public speaker.

We will be hearing a great deal of public speaking during this campaign year, and when it finally ends, we will sigh and be happy.

We are all speech consumers. Whether it is the State of the Union, State of the State, or the visual- and sound-bites selected for us by the media, we are exposed, and in a presidential campaign year, we are exposed more than we want.

But, what if the process weren't so painful? What if you had a way to judge the quality of the speeches you hear?

One of the biggest problems I faced in teaching speech communication in college was getting students to look beyond speakers' delivery to examine the information and logic of the speech. Of course, it is true that audiences have a limited capacity to appreciate an intricately argued case or absorb vast quantities of information. That is why it's essential - to be an effective speaker - that a case is made by emotional means as much as by intellectual ones.

Our Constitution does not guarantee anyone the right to be free from criticism. And political speakers, especially, put themselves and their ideas in the spotlight.

So we need to ask, how much should the delivery count? Speakers' appearance, eye contact, gestures, vocal volume, body movement, the rate at which they speak, their articulation and pronunciation, and even their use of notes or manuscript are all classified as delivery features.

If you weigh the importance of these criteria in your overall assessment of a speech, they should constitute about 30 percent of your evaluation.

What is more important? Content. It should weigh about 45 percent in your evaluation. Make certain that speakers have a clear, effective theme. Speakers should have high quality evidence and supporting material, or documentation, to support their main theme. Without content, speakers are merely empty vessels who are using their mouths and bodies but with no substance to make their presence worth much except, perhaps, entertainment.

The content of the speech may include the organization of the speech; however, organization is often difficult to detect, especially without written copies of speeches.

Perhaps one of the easiest methods for detecting organization is the old three-part bromide: Tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell 'em what you told them.

Basically, it means having a dynamic, commanding opening, followed by an effective body of the speech, and followed again by a well-thought-out conclusion. It may be all you can detect, but what this suggests is that speakers have thought through their ideas. Why is this important? Serious consideration of their ideas and organization shows they respect their listeners.

Another important aspect to be examined is speakers' language, which can make up as little as 5 percent of an evaluation or as much as 15 percent.

Is the language appropriate to the speech, audience, and speaker? Has the speaker used good grammar, pronunciation, and word selection?

The reason for the 5-15 percent range of weight is that some people respond more to a charismatic approach - one that reveals power, energy, and drama - such as that experienced by our son at the speech by Mr. Jackson. Others may prefer a direct approach or, perhaps, poetic language. For some, it may be language that never calls attention to itself.

The remaining portion of the evaluative weight should go to overall effectiveness - as much as 15-20 percent. A speech isn't just one variable, even though sometimes one variable, like a person's character, might stand out above all others. Overall effectiveness is the way speakers draw all of the elements together. It is what marks a speech original.

To be convincing, speeches need to make a genuine contribution to your knowledge or beliefs.

They need to provide relevant, high quality, compelling information.

They need to sustain your interest, contain elements of vividness and exceptional clarity of language.

They need to make you feel comfortable listening to their content because of the signposts, transitions, and internal summaries that assist your progress.

They need to offer you thorough preparation and exceptional credibility.

How do you remember the criteria when evaluating speeches? You don't, nor do you need to.

You've heard the saying, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Grasping the idea that there is more to a speech than language, delivery, appearance, and showmanship means recognizing the existence of other tools, opening a full toolbox, introducing ourselves to a new world of meaningful content, convincing evidence, and the essential elements of believability.

It is within this world of ideas and evidence that you should make your decisions and rest your judgment.

Richard L. Weaver II is the author of Communicating Effectively. He is a retired professor of speech communications at Bowling Green State University.

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