On Rhetorical Criticism

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Tools for Doing Rhetorical Criticism


Let’s reconsider the 5 Canons of Rhetoric. Thus far you have learned them exclusively in their technical application (as tools for crafting a speech). They also have a "heuristic" function (for purposes of criticism). A heuristic tool is one that prompts questions, or guides inquiry.

When you do this rhetorical criticism you are conducting an inquiry into the primary question, "What makes this speech so powerful?" The 5 Canons prompt questions about invention, arrangement, style and so on (more detail below).

By the same token, Aristotle’s three modes of artistic proof [click here], ethos, pathos and logos may be used as tools for critique. Consider how powerful it is to hear someone who impresses you as being a person of exemplary character, who really knows his or her stuff, and seems to look at all sides of an argument with equanimity (look it up! HA!). Now, consider the opposite: How persuaded are you by people who (a) don’t seem to really know what they’re talking about, (b) don’t seem interested in what the other side of the issue has to say, (c) can’t control their biases, and so on. So, if you think the speaker’s character is exceptional, and that it comes through "loud and clear" in his or her speech, you’ve got something to write about (namely, Ethos). Right?

Finally, I’ve got to introduce two more concepts that you can use as critical tools: kairos and to prepon.


Kairos is timing. Timing is an important element of rhetoric. Consider the difficulty in getting a laugh when one muffs the punchline of a joke. Why so? For one thing, it throws off the timing. The same element applies to speaking.

To prepon has to do with fitness for the occasion. Every occasion calls forth certain expectations, and if the speaker fails to address those expectations, the speech seems to have missed the mark. On the other hand, great speeches generally are deemed great, in part, because they are widely considered "so fitting a response to the occasion."

These tools and the detailed questions that follow will help you formulate lines of critical analysis. When you do your criticism paper, use the tools that best suit your purpose and answer whichever of these questions help you evaluate the speech that you selected. WARNING: Don’t try to discuss all 5 Canons, ethos, pathos and logos, kairos and to prepon in a 6-7 page paper. It will seem "a mile wide and an inch deep" as my coach used to say! Say more about less (that’s the key to giving your analysis substance).

Questions, Questions, Questions!

Invention: The speaker’s resources and lines of argument.


  • Was it evident the speaker had researched the subject carefully?
  • Did the speaker narrow the topic well?
  • Did the speaker focus on what was essential, and attempt to discuss a number of points suitable for the time allowed?
  • Were the lines of argument persuasive? Can you think of other lines of argument the speaker might have included to make the speech more powerful?

Ethos: is the intelligence and goodwill or character of the speaker.

  • In your opinion, did the speaker know what he was talking about? Why or why not?
  • In your opinion, was the speaker really interested in informing you about a vital topic?
  • Did the speaker strike you as a fair-minded individual? One whose opinion you can trust?

Pathos: has to do with strategies the speaker uses to make the audience feel a need for the information, or to put them in a certain frame of mind.

  • Did the speaker do this? How?
  • Did the speaker appeal to your emotions or core values particularly well?
  • Was your curiosity aroused? Why or why not?

Logos is the combination of good reasons plus their support.

  • Was the evidence plentiful?
  • Was it documented?
  • Did the evidence the speaker employed support what he was saying?

Disposition or Arrangement is the organization of the speaker’s ideas.

  • Was the arrangement so excellent that you found yourself appreciating the logical flow of the speech?
  • Did the speaker divide the topic cleanly, like a clever butcher?
  • Was the conclusion especially powerful? How about the introduction? Body? Why so?

Style has to do with ornamentation and orchestration; the imagery and rhythm crafted to make the ideas come alive and to emphasize main points.

  • Was the speaker’s language clear?
  • Did he define technical terms?
  • Did the speaker explain each point concisely?
  • Was the language appropriate for this audience? Were there any particularly striking supporting examples or illustrations? Give examples to illustrate how they worked to move the audience.
  • Can you pinpoint any figures of speech the speaker utilized that make the speech especially powerful? Explain how they "grabbed you."

Memory has to do with how well the speaker remembered the main points. If you had a chance to watch the speech,

  • Did the speaker use notes? If not, was the ability to speak without notes one of the exceptional things about the speech?
  • When the speaker used notes, did you notice that she relied on them very little?

Delivery has to do with vocal and physical aspects of the speech. If you had a chance to watch the speech,

  • Was the speaker’s eye contact direct and sustained?
  • Was the delivery conversational or rote?
  • Were facial expressions natural and appropriate?
  • How enthusiastic was the speaker?
  • Did the speaker project a lot of passion for the subject?

Overall, how do the rhetorical characteristics of the speech on which your paper focuses combine to make the speech excellent?

  • How do they affect you personally?
  • How can you use them to get the same rhetorical power working for you?

WARNING: Don’t try to discuss all 5 Classical Canons, all three modes of artistic proof, kairos and to prepon in a 6-7 page paper. Like a builder of fine structures, select only those tools most useful for the task you have in mind. In other words, utilize the two or three tools that seem most useful, in your eyes, to build the arguments you wish to make regarding the rhetorical excellence of the speech you are analyzing.

Focus on those tools and questions that help you make the arguments you want to make, and, for every line of critical analysis, remember: exemplification, elaboration, illustration, application. (In other words, use specific examples from the text to support your analysis, elaborate on your assertion, illustrate your point, then apply your support back to your main point, make a transition and move on to your next main point.)

Be a lean mean writing machine!!! Oh, and don’t forget to have fun.