To listen to the speech analyzed in this essay and read the official transcript, visit Elie Wiesel Buchenwald's Speech at American Rhetoric. Citations in this essay follow MLA format.
In the year 2009, at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany, former prisoner Elie Wiesel delivered a passionate speech reminding the world of a horrific incident in history. His purpose was to commemorate the lives lost at the Buchenwald camp during the torture and extermination of its prisoners over half a century ago. My analysis will focus on how Wiesel used the strategies of storytelling, intonation, articulation, pause, quotation, and redundancy to engage and maintain his audience’s interest, as well as evoke their sympathy. Utilizing the three major divisions of a speech, his introduction captured the audience’s attention; the body presented his position; and his conclusion summarized the theme he wanted to portray (Beebe 13).
Wiesel opened his speech in a most humble and clear tone, loud enough to be audibly heard, yet soft enough to portray the deep pain he still felt as he told the story of how his father called his name just before dying in the bunk bed above him. He explained that he was too afraid to go to his father’s deathbed for fear the German guards would see him. His opening story of his father’s death was a powerful attention grabber (Beebe 189, 14). He also paused to add effect and used short, simple sentences in his introduction and throughout the speech to allow his audience to visualize his experience without an abstractions (Beebe 134,137). Without overloading the audience with long descriptive details of his horrific experience, he enabled them to feel his pain and perceive his honesty. He does not shy away from remorseful words of recollection, either (Beebe 19, 79). Using these tactics combined with direct eye contact, Wiesel stood erect before the audience with his hands held loosely together in a humble display of character and integrity (Beebe 142-143).
To achieve a warm reception, Wiesel assessed his audience and appropriately referenced the current German Chancellor’s civic contribution and President Obama’s earlier speech on humanity (Beebe 43). He challenged the world’s claim of having learned from the historical atrocities of the past by referencing victims in Rwanda, Darfur, and Bosnia, selecting the examples that best suited his theme (Beebe 97, 118). Wiesel spoke with the right intonation of measurable staccato, in addition to pausing to emphasize his dissatisfaction with what people have purportedly learned. In perfect pitch, he asked the crowd, “Will the world ever learn?” (Beebe 190).
As the speech moved from the introduction, through the body, and onto the conclusion with carefully crafted verbal transitions, the speaker used an appropriate quotation to drive the seriousness of his feelings home (Beebe 111, 121). He closed his speech with a quote from the philosopher Albert Camus, author of The Plague.
Studying other speakers is a critical skill, one of the 25 essential skills for a public speaker. The ability to analyze a speech will accelerate the growth of any speaker.
The Speech Analysis Series is a series of articles examining different aspects of presentation analysis. You will learn how to study a speech and how to deliver an effective speech evaluation. Later articles will examine Toastmasters evaluation contests and speech evaluation forms and resources.
The first in the series, this article outlines questions to ask yourself when assessing a presentation. Ask these questions whether you attend the presentation, or whether you view a video or read the speech text. These questions also apply when you conduct a self evaluation of your own speeches.
The Most Important Thing to Analyze: The Speech Objectives
Knowing the speaker’s objective is critical to analyzing the speech, and should certainly influence how you study it.
- What is the speaker’s goal? Is it to educate, to motivate, to persuade, or to entertain?
- What is the primary message being delivered?
- Why is this person delivering this speech? Are they the right person?
- Was the objective achieved?
The Audience and Context for the Speech
A speaker will need to use different techniques to connect with an audience of 1500 than they would with an audience of 15. Similarly, different techniques will be applied when communicating with teenagers as opposed to communicating with corporate leaders.
- Where and when is the speech being delivered?
- What are the key demographic features of the audience? Technical? Students? Elderly? Athletes? Business leaders?
- How large is the audience?
- In addition to the live audience, is there an external target audience? (e.g. on the Internet or mass media)
Speech Content and Structure
The content of the speech should be selected and organized to achieve the primary speech objective. Focus is important — extraneous information can weaken an otherwise effective argument.
Before the Speech
- Were there other speakers before this one? Were their messages similar, opposed, or unrelated?
- How was the speaker introduced? Was it appropriate?
- Did the introduction establish why the audience should listen to this speaker with this topic at this time?
- What body language was demonstrated by the speaker as they approached the speaking area? Body language at this moment will often indicate their level of confidence.
The Speech Opening
Due to the primacy effect, words, body language, and visuals in the speech opening are all critical to speaking success.
- Was a hook used effectively to draw the audience into the speech? Or did the speaker open with a dry “It’s great to be here today.“
- Did the speech open with a story? A joke? A startling statistic? A controversial statement? A powerful visual?
- Did the speech opening clearly establish the intent of the presentation?
- Was the opening memorable?
The Speech Body
- Was the presentation focused? i.e. Did all arguments, stories, anecdotes relate back to the primary objective?
- Were examples or statistics provided to support the arguments?
- Were metaphors and symbolism use to improve understanding?
- Was the speech organized logically? Was it easy to follow?
- Did the speaker bridge smoothly from one part of the presentation to the next?
The Speech Conclusion
Like the opening, the words, body language, and visuals in the speech conclusion are all critical to speaking success. This is due to the recency effect.
- Was the conclusion concise?
- Was the conclusion memorable?
- If appropriate, was there a call-to-action?
Delivery Skills and Techniques
Delivery skills are like a gigantic toolbox — the best speakers know precisely when to use every tool and for what purpose.
Enthusiasm and Connection to the Audience
- Was the speaker enthusiastic? How can you tell?
- Was there audience interaction? Was it effective?
- Was the message you– and we-focused, or was it I- and me-focused?
- Was humor used?
- Was it safe and appropriate given the audience?
- Were appropriate pauses used before and after the punch lines, phrases, or words?
- Was it relevant to the speech?
- Were they designed effectively?
- Did they complement speech arguments?
- Was the use of visual aids timed well with the speaker’s words?
- Did they add energy to the presentation or remove it?
- Were they simple and easy to understand?
- Were they easy to see? e.g. large enough
- Would an additional visual aid help to convey the message?
Use of Stage Area
- Did the speaker make appropriate use of the speaking area?
Physical – Gestures and Eye Contact
- Did the speaker’s posture display confidence and poise?
- Were gestures natural, timely, and complementary?
- Were gestures easy to see?
- Does the speaker have any distracting mannerisms?
- Was eye contact effective in connecting the speaker to the whole audience?
- Was the speaker easy to hear?
- Were loud and soft variations used appropriately?
- Was the pace varied? Was it slow enough overall to be understandable?
- Were pauses used to aid understandability, heighten excitement, or provide drama?
- Was the language appropriate for the audience?
- Did the speaker articulate clearly?
- Were sentences short and easy to understand?
- Was technical jargon or unnecessarily complex language used?
- What rhetorical devices were used? e.g. repetition, alliteration, the rule of three, etc.
Sometimes, a technically sound speech can still miss the mark. Likewise, technical deficiencies can sometimes be overcome to produce a must-see presentation. The intangibles are impossible to list, but here are a few questions to consider:
- How did the speech make you feel?
- Were you convinced?
- Would you want to listen to this speaker again?
- Were there any original ideas or techniques?
Next in the Speech Analysis Series
The next article in this series – The Art of Delivering Evaluations – examines how best to utilize speech evaluation skills as a teaching tool.
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