CDA speeches! A practical exploration of Aristotle’s artistic proofs and other rhetorical techniques

by Craig Evans

For last week’s Critical Discourse Analysis module, several students volunteered to write speeches which they then delivered in the seminars. The purpose of the exercise was to explore the way that features of classical rhetoric, in particular Aristotle’s artistic proofs, work in persuasive writing. The format involved four speakers in each seminar making opposing arguments on two topics. After each speech the rest of the seminar group were asked to discuss the rhetorical merits of the speech; and after each topic, a vote was held to decide which argument had won the most support.

The two topics chosen by students to speak on were immigration and the Oscar Pistorius trial. Speakers were asked to argue against or for the following propositions:

“Immigration has gone far enough and a firm limit should now be placed on Britain’s borders”

“Oscar Pistorius is guilty of murder and should be sentenced accordingly”

These topics were chosen after some class discussion and agreement that they divided opinion enough to give speakers on both sides of the argument a fighting chance.

The background to this task was module leader Prof. Jonathan Charteris-Black’s proposal that we put into practice the theory of persuasion in language that is at the heart of CDA. The format of the seminars was based on the balloon debates, where speakers are motivated by the imagined threat of being off-loaded from a sinking balloon should they fail to persuade. Fortunately no speakers were harmed in the making of this debate, and some have even lived to tell the story.

I am one of those speakers, and I was interested to hear what others who delivered speeches felt about the experience. A few email exchanges later, and the general verdict seems to be that the balloon debate was great fun and a good way to learn the subject.

One of the benefits of writing your own speech is that you get firsthand experience of the thought processes involved. Responding to my email asking what she felt about writing a speech, Izzee observed that ‘it certainly makes it more clear how politicians use [rhetorical] techniques to make people think certain things’. I agree, and it’s not simply a case of having a checklist of rhetorical devices to tick off as you write. I found that I wrote a lot of my own speech intuitively, and it was only afterwards that I realised just how much I had used different persuasive strategies. Likewise, Izzee observed how discussing ‘the parts of each other’s speeches’ helps to highlight if techniques were used ‘purposefully or if they were naturally’ produced.

As I mentioned above, one of the aims of this task was to consider the use and effect of Aristotle’s ‘artistic proofs’. These rhetorical appeals include ‘ethos’, which involves using language to establish credibility and encourage trust; ‘logos’, which appeals to the rationality of an argument; and ‘pathos’, where a speaker attempts to arouse a strong emotional response in the listener.

After listening to and discussing the speeches, it quickly became apparent that there was no fixed model for how best to use the artistic proofs. Tom noted afterwards that different artistic proofs ‘work better depending on context, audience and purpose’. This was especially evident in the arguments of those speakers representing the anti-immigration stance. With an audience of students more likely to have liberal leanings, appeals to the fear of otherness using pathos would have limited effect. So James and Olivia, arguing against immigration, were wise to use lots of logos in their speeches. James ‘decided to weigh [his] arguments down with a lot of facts and statistics’. For Olivia, this need to use artistic proofs strategically impacted her style: ‘I … relied on lots of logos so I might be a bit more poetic and try out some pathos … if I were to take part in the balloon debate again’.

The notion of a balloon debate may conjure up images of confident orators gesticulating at the lectern. Well, while there were certainly confident public speakers among the group, the debate was an opportunity for all levels of ability. I for one was happy to just read the speech I’d written word-for-word, while others impressively worked from memory and some notes. There were plenty of paralinguistic features being used for persuasive effect, such as one used by Matt: ‘at each full stop I paused for a few seconds to add emphasis’.

All in all, writing a speech for the balloon debate and listening to the speeches of others was a great way to reflect on the relationship between cause and effect in the use of rhetoric. Quite a few of us found ourselves making arguments contrary to our own opinions on the given subjects. This presented a real challenge to see how well we could use persuasive techniques to make our cases. What I found was that the more I developed an argument to convince others, the more I convinced myself of the merits of my argument. Perhaps the lesson here is to recognise the importance of making the case for the opposite of what you believe, for you may just find that you don’t quite believe it as strongly as you first thought.


Thank you to those of you who provided some feedback about your experience of the balloon debate. Some of you who had electronic copies of your speeches have kindly given permission for these to be published here – Speeches from CDA Balloon Debate at UWE 2014. I must stress that the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the speeches’ authors, and that this has been an exercise in practising the use of rhetorical techniques.


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