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Unbreakable Bonds: The Enigmatic Audience-Speaker Dance

Part I: Audience and Genre

When College Board added the standard focusing on audience [RHS-1.D An audience of a text has shared as well as individual beliefs, values, needs, and backgrounds], I was thrilled! Before this addition, many of my students discussed audience with a flat analysis including general characteristics, like being shocked or empowered. But when students discussed the shared beliefs, values, needs, and backgrounds between the speaker and audience, their analysis became more complex, including elements of context, exigence, and genre.

Lou Gehrig’s Farewell Speech

I love teaching the complexities of audience through Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech, because it is the ultimate example of connection between context and audience. I begin with an opening slide of quotes for the class to discuss:

Quotes about audience and speaker connection

We discuss that in all quotes, the connection between the audience and speaker is imperative for any message delivery. I ask them: Have you ever had a teacher who you feel didn’t understand their audience? And of course students all agree that they can relate. I then ask: What happens to you, as the audience? And they all report that they lose interest and zone out. We then talk about the importance of the audience/speaker relationship.

When I introduce Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech, I give a brief background of Gehrig and ALS (AKA Lou Gehrig’s disease), and then I show students the following video. In the video, students focus on audience, genre (farewell speech), context, and speaker.

My favorite part of the video is the recognition of context: people loved Gehrig as a person and as an athlete, baseball is America’s pastime, ALS was unfamiliar and people were scared, it was the Fourth of July, they were retiring his number, the stadium was packed with fans, there was only standing room because the stadium was so filled, etc. . Amidst all this, Gehrig, humble and thankful, does not want to speak – he is overwhelmed with the support, and he doesn’t believe he deserves the attention. In the video, when asked to speak, he declines, but the cheering crowd “We want Lou!” and soft push from Joe McCarthy compel him to take to the microphone.

From that point on, Gehrig’s entire speech is about everyone but himself. He thanks all his support: family, friends, fans, teammates, coaches, and the list goes on. Gehrig’s intention, to assure his fans that he is in a good place, is felt by all people. His lesson about life is heard by all, that at the end of the day, love is all that matters.

We complete the following chart:

Audience Analysis Chart

And then we analyze the document looking for examples where Gehrig appeases his audiences needs, background, values, and beliefs. See here:

Key to Gehrig’s Speech

For this entire lesson, please access the following, where you can also get my entire 10-week unit on the rhetorical situation:

Part II: Audience and Genre

After students have a foundational understanding of audience as it relates to speaker, genre, and context, we then look at some other examples of varying rhetorical situations. My purpose in analyzing multiple genres is for students to fully understand audience as a complex piece of the rhetorical situation. When I read for the AP exam, one of the most common flaws I encounter is a flat understanding of audience – students don’t dig into the audience’s complexities.

Madeline Albright’s Commencement Speech (2018 RA Prompt)

Take, for example, Madeline Albright’s commencement speech at Mt. Holyoke College (2018 rhetorical analysis), which focuses heavily on the speaker-audience connection.

Annotations of 2018 RA prompt

First, we discuss the contextual climate of a commencement speech. We discuss the attendees at a commencement, and most students can infer graduates, parents, family, professors. We then look deeper into the contextual place: Mount Holyoke College, a women’s college in Massachusetts. I remind students that College Board exam writers provide information that is pertinent to the text. In this case, we dig more deeply into our primary audience, female college graduates. I ask students: who attends an all women’s college? It is important that students differentiate students who attend a coed school versus students who attend a same-sex school. Students draw conclusions that while all colleges offer a complex body of students, social experiences, and academics, a same-sex school draws students who seek empowerment. In the case of Mount Holyoke, not only is the college all-female, but it is the very first all-female college, therefore, attendees would likely feel a sense of empowerment for women, drive for reform, comradery with like-minded students, etc. We then take another look at the secondary audiences: parents, family, and professors. My students consider the accomplishment that all the secondary audience members would feel. We then complete the following chart for all audiences:

Audience Analysis Chart

When we analyze audience with the consideration of genre, we must also consider context. Albright is giving a commencement speech in 1997, a time when women were climbing in the workforce, but were often met with unequal pay. Some of my students know that in January of that very year, Madeleine Albright was sworn in as the nation’s first female secretary of state, per nomination of Bill Clinton. We also recognize other worldly events: rise of the Internet, major technology growth, radical advances in communication, ending of the Cold War, etc. We discuss that the context is filled with “change,” and when reform is happening all around, a sense of progress can be felt by all parties. Again, we revisit the audience: these women graduates would feel a major sense of empowerment, encouragement, duty, obligation, drive, desire, hunger, and our list of audience characteristics grows as we consider the complexities of the context and genre. As students move forward, analyzing the rest of the piece, I encourage students to focus on how the audience would react to each of Albright’s choices.

Here is an example of how I encourage students to analyze for speaker choice and audience reaction. This excerpt is the first two paragraphs of Albright’s speech:

Introduction of Albright’s commencement speech

In the first two paragraphs, Albright anaphorically describes our choices as humans first “as individuals” and then “as a nation,” to help her young graduates differentiate their role as individuals vs their role as a collective group of humans. With this role comes choice of “liv[ing] narrowly, selfishly, and complacently, ” and seeking to serve only one’s self, “or to act with courage and faith” which serves for the betterment of our world. Albright’s female audience, who likely attended Mount Holyoke College in search of humanity’s betterment, would feel guilty for choosing the self-serving life-role and dutiful toward the more courageous life-role. Albright builds upon her eager audience’s motivation by moving from an individual role to a national role, and providing the same opportunity for choice: “turn[ing] inward” to “betray the lessons of history” which would be self-serving, “or…seiz[ing] the opportunit[ies]” that “shape history, ” which serves to better all humanity. Albright begins her commencement speech with a series of choices, all of which would guilt her audience away from self-service and dutifully motivate her ambitious audience toward “shap[ing]” history through action.

Margaret Thatcher’s Eulogy of Ronald Reagan (2016 RA Prompt)

I then have students explore Margaret Thatcher’s eulogy of Ronald Reagan, which is also a speech, but the context is completely opposite of a commencement speech. Using the building blocks from the Albright commencement speech, we then explore the complexities of Thatcher’s audience: Reagan’s family, friends, and the American people as a whole population. Thatcher would certainly know that her eulogy would be broadcasted to the American public, so in our analysis, we would make sure to discuss all audiences.

2016 RA Prompt – Thatcher’s Eulogy

With a eulogy, students recognize the climate: somber and mournful while also celebratory and honoring. Students might have knowledge that the Iraq War began in 2003, which would help them understand the need for foreign friendships. Thatcher not only honors her close friend’s life, but she also uses the podium to remind her audience of the continued allegiance that the United States and England must endure. Like her strength of friendship with Reagan, which brought great success, Thatcher illuminates the need for loyalty between the two countries.

Students chart out the background, values, needs, and beliefs, and in this discussion, many students come to the understanding that Americans would perhaps feel fear and uncertainty from an ongoing war. We discuss that Americans would likely feel a sense of security in knowing that England is a friend.

Other examples of audience:

Benjamin Banneker in his letter to Thomas Jefferson is particularly compelling. First, I have students consider the genre of a letter. We discuss the targeting nature of a letter – instead of a broad audience, the audience is a direct. We look at the contextual climate and ongoing situation: Thomas Jefferson had penned the Declaration of Independence, stating that “all men are created equal,” yet Banneker and his “brethren” are still not free. We also know the hypocrisies that exist: at the same time that Jefferson wanted to end slavery he also owned slaves. We fully analyze Jefferson’s needs, background, values, and beliefs.

Thomas Jefferson as the audience

We then move on to discuss a variety of other genres: essays, letters, memoirs, etc.

I find that in working with audience, students need to spend more time grasping the complexities of who is listening or reading. Students are so focused on finding strategies, that they often fail to answer how the strategies impact the specific audience.

To find more of my lessons on AP Language and Composition, you can see my store:



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I am a passionate high school English and Digital Media teacher whose lifelong purpose is to ignite creativity and critical thought in young minds. With an unwavering commitment to nurturing imagination and fostering intellectual curiosity, I thrive on embracing each student's unique voice and I hope to inspire other teachers with my own journey.

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