Many of the speeches that are popular today belong to specific categories, and are often made in response to specific occasions.
This is especially true in the political realm, where there are often established norms and formats when prominent politicians make their speeches. In the US, for example, two specific types of speeches include the inaugural address that newly elected Presidents make upon assuming office in January, or the yearly State of the Union address during their terms. Other examples include the victory speech that is delivered after winning an election, or the special Address to the Nation which is used in times of crisis (such as after the 9/11 terrorist attacks). Another common format is the announcement speech where a candidate makes it known that he or she will run for President.
There are also categories of speeches that do not belong directly in the political realm. One example is the commencement address, which is delivered to the graduating class of a university. These are sometimes delivered by celebrities or politicians, and often touch upon topics of national or global interest.
Finally, TED talks are also a popular genre that one might often be asked to work with in a school context. TED talks are intended to spread knowledge about a range of scientific, cultural or political topics, and often resemble a hybrid between a speech and a lecture. Although their main purpose is usually to inform, they often contain political messages as well.
Address to the nation
An address to the nation is typically a speech made by a nation’s political leader, usually to respond to a time of crisis or make other crucial announcements that are in the public interest. Because it is usually made in response to a specific situation or event, there is no set date or time for when such an address is delivered, unlike many of the other categories of speech covered in this guide.
On 8th of January, 2019, US President Donald Trump delivered an address to the nation about the threat of immigration from Latin American nations south of the US. The background of the speech was a rise in immigration numbers from these countries. Trump opened his speech with the following statement:
My fellow Americans, tonight I’m speaking to you because there is a growing humanitarian and security crisis at our southern border.
The purpose of Trump’s address was to secure political and public support for the border wall that he had repeatedly promised to build between the US and Mexico. However, both the opposition and the media criticized Trump after this speech, as they argued that he abused the address to the nation format to advance his personal goals, and that his immigration crisis was to a large extent made up.
However, the address to the nation format has also been used in situations when there was no doubt of a genuine threat to the nation. For example, George W. Bush delivered an address to the nation on 11th of September, 2001, in the wake of the dramatic terrorist attacks that had shaken both the US and the world.
It is clear that this address was made a very short time after the attack. Bush had little concrete information to offer at this point, about either the terrorists responsible for the attacks or the initiatives the government would implement in response. Therefore, the purpose of his address is mainly to present an image of a strong leader who can protect and reassure the nation. We see this intention plainly in some of the final lines of the address:
America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time.
In the US, an announcement speech is the speech that a candidate makes in order to declare that he or she intends to run for a political office (such as the presidency).
An announcement speech is thus meant to inform the nation that the speaker is running for office, and it is also generally used by the speaker to share her political vision. It is also notable that the speaker is in control of the rhetorical situation for an announcement speech, as she can deliver it at a specifically selected time and location to a specifically selected audience.
Since the politician will typically be competing with many other candidates from her own party in this part of the process, it is important that the announcement speech gives a clear presentation of her political agenda, to help the speaker stand out from the crowd and get attention from the media and potential voters. Therefore, the rhetoric of an announcement speech is often very strong, and often based more on ideology than on solid facts. Some politicians have also included highly controversial statements in their announcement speeches in an effort to gain extra media attention - often with positive results.
One of the most famous announcement speeches is Donald Trump’s announcement speech from 16th of June, 2015. Trump used the speech to sum up all of the problems that he saw in America at the time, such as unemployment, immigration and the trade deficit. He concludes with a promise to fix all of these problems, using a phrase that would later become famous as the slogan of his presidential campaign:
But if I get elected president I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.
Trump was criticized for some of the controversial statements in his speech (especially his description of Mexican immigrants), but it ultimately proved effective, as Trump went on to win the election, repeating the rhetoric and messages of his announcement speech throughout his campaign.
A commencement address is a speech made to the graduating class of an educational institution, typically a university. It is generally meant to both offer congratulations to the class on their hard work and provide some kind of introduction to the adult life that the students will begin.
The educational institution often invites a celebrity to make the speech - for example people who are well-known within politics or business. But even though the speaker might be a politician, the rhetorical situation is not necessarily political, as the purpose of a commencement address is usually to let the speaker share her life experience and values, and give the students some advice for their future lives.
One of the most famous commencement addresses was made by the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, on 12th of June, 2005, to the graduating class of Stanford University. The speech is constructed around three specific life lessons that Jobs has learned in his own life, and which have helped him become the person he is. He concludes the speech by giving the students a final piece of advice on how to live their lives:
Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
Even though a commencement address is not normally intended to be political, occasionally there may be speakers who include overt political messages in their presentation - especially if the speaker is a politician with a clear agenda. For example, the Democratic politician Bernie Sanders delivered a strongly political commencement address to the graduating class of Brooklyn College in 2017, which was clearly intended as a criticism of Donald Trump’s presidency:
The truth is that the only rational choice we have, the only real response we can make, is to stand up and fight back – reclaim American democracy and create a government that works for all of us, and not just the 1 percent. And for us to do that it is necessary that we fight for a vision of a new America. An America based on progressive, humane values…
An inaugural address is traditionally delivered when a person assumes a prestigious political office. The most famous inaugural addresses are those delivered by US presidents upon assuming office, where they make their first speech as leaders of the nation. Inauguration typically happens on 20th of January, the year after the presidential election has been decided.
The inaugural address usually receives global media attention. This is both because it is the new president’s first official speech, and because the president of the US holds significant power and makes decisions that can have far-reaching effects across the globe. For the speaker, the inaugural address offers a unique opportunity to present political priorities, but it is also important to present an image of strength and competence, to make people feel confident in their new leader.
A historical example of a famous inaugural address was made by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. The speech is strongly marked by the historical context, as Kennedy assumed office at a time when the Cold War was at a high point, and many people feared a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. Kennedy therefore had to show that the US will not be intimidated by foreign powers, but he also needed to make clear that he has no wish to escalate the conflict:
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction. We dare not tempt them with weakness.
Thus, Kennedy warns the Soviet Union by noting that the US will never be weak, but he also reaches out to them and encourages renewed peace negotiations.
State of the Union address
The State of the Union address is a yearly speech that the US President makes to Congress at the beginning of the year. The purpose of the speech is to inform Congress about the state of affairs in the country - for example with regards to economic matters such as unemployment and debt - and to recommend political focus areas for the coming year.
The address typically receives a lot of media attention, so it is also a useful opportunity for presidents to highlight themselves, their results and their goals. Indirectly, the speech can also show how well presidents have lead the country up to this point.
As an example, we can consider George W. Bush’s State of the Union address from 29th of January, 2002. This address is particularly interesting because it was the first of its kind after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. At this point, Bush was in a situation where he had both negative and positive things to report. On one hand, the national economy was struggling since the terrorist attack, and the nation was also at war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the people’s support of their president was at an extremely high level, about 80-90%.
Bush seems to be aware of this paradox, and opens his speech by making reference to both positives and negatives:
As we gather tonight, our nation is at war, our economy is in recession, and the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers. Yet the state of our union has never been stronger.
After this opening statement, Bush systematically lists the ways in which the US will be strengthened by the initiatives that his government has begun. He thus uses the speech to emphasize his own political achievements, which is normal for a State of the Union address. Because of the unusual situation, the speech is almost entirely focused on the topic of national security - leaving little room for more traditional State of the Union topics such as jobs or education.
At this point in time, Bush had already made the War on Terror his key political priority, and therefore he also uses the occasion to point out areas that he believes the US should prioritize and fund to a greater extent in the future:
It costs a lot to fight this war. We have spent more than a billion dollars a month - over $30 million a day - and we must be prepared for future operations. [...] Our men and women in uniform deserve the best weapons, the best equipment, the best training - and they also deserve another pay raise.
Bush adds an element of pathos here, as he puts a personal spin on the need to spend more money on the military. By calling attention to the soldiers who fight bravely to defend the US, Bush has a better chance to secure the goodwill of both Congress and the American people, which will make it easier for him to get approval for spending more money on the military and the War on Terror.
A TED talk can be seen as a hybrid between a speech and a lecture. TED is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to spread accessible knowledge about a wide range of topics, in the form of talks of up to 18 minutes in length. The talks take place in locations across the globe, and are usually filmed and made freely available on the TED website. The acronym TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, but TED talks may also touch upon a wide range of other topics.
The speaker of a TED talk is not necessarily a professional orator with extensive media training (as opposed to most prominent politicians), but is simply an expert on a given topic who has been asked to share some of her knowledge. Therefore, TED talks may vary widely in style, and can also contain informal elements.
The speaker is usually alone on the stage, but on rare occasions there may be two speakers making a presentation together, or a representative of TED may step in to ask the speaker a few questions. The audience of a TED talk is usually made up of people with a strong interest in the topic, and therefore they typically listen attentively and behave respectfully.
If you are asked to work with a TED talk in a school context, you will typically have access to both the transcript and the video. Therefore, you will have a good opportunity to examine the rhetorical aspects of how the speaker presents her message, and what the intention behind the talk might be. Analyzing the video of the speech also lets you include observations about how the talk is delivered, and what the audience’s reactions are.
As an example, consider Kelly Jean Drinkwater’s TED talk “Enough with the fear of fat” from 2016. In this talk, Drinkwater relies on humor as one her main rhetorical devices, in her effort to communicate the message that people who are overweight should stop feeling ashamed of themselves, and should simply just start doing the things they want to do. Drinkwater’s humor helps disarm any prejudice the audience might feel towards her, and it also helps Drinkwater present herself as a sympathetic speaker. Furthermore, because of her own size she also gains credibility when speaking of this sensitive topic:
Let’s not sugarcoat it. I am the capital F-A-T kind of fat. I am the elephant in the room. When I walked out on stage, some of you may have been thinking, “Aww, this is gonna be hilarious, because everybody knows that fat people are funny. [...] Because the real elephant in the room here is fatphobia.
Her argumentation here is a good example of refutation. She anticipates the negative comments that her talk might generate by voicing them aloud. She thereby uses humor to disarm people who might be prejudiced against her. By looking at the video, we can see that this strategy seems to work well, as the audience increasingly laugh and applaud as Drinkwater gains their sympathy. You can watch Drinkwater’s TED talk here.
As the name implies, this is typically a speech that is delivered after a significant political victory. The most famous examples of these speeches are typically delivered by the winner of the US presidential elections, which often receive global media attention.
A presidential victory speech is typically made to an audience consisting of one’s political supporters, meaning that the speaker is ‘among friends’. Furthermore, the general mood is likely to be happy and full of optimism for the future. All these factors affect the structure and content of the speech, and also help create a more informal atmosphere.
The purpose of the speech is to announce one’s victory to the world and thank the many people who have given their votes or other support to the speaker during the campaign. It is also considered good form to compliment one’s political rival on a well-fought campaign, in the style of a good winner.
A famous example from recent history is Barack Obama’s 2008 victory speech, delivered after he won his first presidential election. In this speech, he respectfully thanks his opponent John McCain for his well-fought campaign, and he also thanks all the people who have assisted him along the way, such as the vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, his own family, and the many volunteers who have assisted in his campaign. However, he also looks to the future by reaching out to those Americans who did not vote for him:
And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.
Even Donald Trump, who had adopted a very aggressive rhetoric against his political opponents during his campaign, presented a fairly diplomatic and forward-looking victory speech after his surprise win in the 2016 election, where he both complemented his opponent and called for national unity:
Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country.
I mean that very sincerely. Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division, have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people.