Lloyd Bitzer in his journal article, “The Rhetorical Situation” (Philosophy & Rhetoric, 1.1 1963, p. 3) outlined . . . well he outlined exactly what the title says: what makes a sitiuation rhetorical. He explained that it takes three things:
1. Exiegence–a situation in the world that needs to change.
2. Audience–a group of people who are able to make change happen.
3. Constraints–Resources and limitations available with regard to the means of persuading the audience.
The point being that speeches–which are the original rhetorical act–come into being because of a situation in the world of people and events. Speeches are meant to create change. Speeches do not change topics . . . unless, of course, you’ve done ground breaking research and that’s what the speech is about. People have the will and capacity to change and people make up the audience of the rhetorical situation. Yet, so often speakers begin preparing speeches thinking about what they are going to say (topic) rather than who they are talking to and what the needs of the situation are.
Some Questions Speakers Should Ask Before Preparing Speech Content
1. Demographic questions: Who are they? What’s their age and age range? What’s their ethnicity or ethicities? What is their educational background? MOST IMPORTANTLY: What do they have in common with each other? What makes them an audience? In the process of answering that question, you may discover you have more than one audience in the same room.
2. Who are you to them? Do you have a certain built-in authority that the audience acknowledges? Are you practically unknown to them and will have to do some work to introduce yourself to them? (BTW, never underestimate the value of a good introduction of the speaker).
3. What language and understanding resources are and are not available to the audience? Frequently speakers speak past audiences by using technical language, abbreviations, and verbal shortcuts that they understand but the audience may not. Fred Craddock, who taught generations of preachers how to preach, once said, “Your congregation is willing to run with you, but you have to remember that you have a 10-hour head start.” Applying that to speeches in general, I would say you better know how big your head start is on the audience. In many cases, the speaker has a head-start of a few years, a degree or two, and professional competence. There will be things you have to explain in order to help an audience run with you. A lot of misunderstanding can be avoided if speakers begin by defining their terms.
4. How do they feel emotionally about the situation that they’re in? Just as people come from their own frame of reference intellectually they also come from their own frame of reference emotionally. Are they happy? Nervous? Grieving? Confused? Frustrated? Angry? Some speeches miss their audience because the speaker misunderstands or responds poorly or completely ignores the emotional front of the audience.
There are other questions to consider and these questions are preliminary. However, speech preparation that begins by addressing the topic rather than the audience has a greater potential to miss the mark than a speech that begins by assessing the situation into which a speech is spoken. As speakers begin preparing their speech they should remember–speeches address audiences not topics.