What is a rhetorical analysis?
Rhetoric is defined as the art of persuasive speaking or writing. So, a rhetorical analysis is the examination of techniques used in a cartoon, advertisement, speech or piece of writing to persuade the reader or listener. These techniques are sometimes called rhetorical strategies or stylistic choices, and vary depending on the medium (visual, audio, written etc.) of the message. Rhetorical analysis is usually limited to non-fiction texts that are trying to sell a product or idea. To analyze the persuasive appeal of a message you have to understand how the message is appealing to the audience.
Don’t miss our guide on How to write a persuasive essay!
3 Main types of Rhetorical Strategies (Appeals)
Aristotle noted that the art of persuasion can be sub-divided into three main categories. When analyzing the techniques that a text uses to persuade, it is helpful to keep these three methods at the forefront:
Ethos or ethical appeal (Credibility)
Ethos refers to a situation where an author cites his or her own credibility as an attempt to appeal to an audience. There are two types of credibility to examine – intrinsic and extrinsic.
Intrinsic forms of credibility are those things that are inside the message, for example, does it contain field related terminology, is it used correctly, and how confident they are when they speak?
Extrinsic forms of credibility are those things that exist outside of the message, for example, whether they are perceived as an authority on the subject matter. A professor in English would have more credibility on Chaucer than a professional football player; however, a professional football player would have more authority on football than an English professor.
Pathos or pathetic appeal (Emotions)
An author uses ethos to appeal to the audience’s sense of identity, their own interests or their emotions. If the author is trying to identify with the audience, then he is appealing to the audience pathos. This is a common trope in political speeches that usually open with terms like “My fellow Americans…”
If the producers of the message are trying to evoke an emotion, this is also a pathetic appeal. An example would be a charity advert that monologues the plight of people living in the third world while bombarding you with pictures of their distress.
Logos or logical appeal (Rational Thinking)
A logical appeal is when the producer of the messenger is trying to use a logical argument to persuade the listener. The author will make reasonable claims and cite proof in order to support their argument. Examples of such cosmetic adverts are cited research studies, customer surveys, and laboratory testing to sell their products.
It is important to note that an argument doesn’t have to be logical to be using logos. An example is Pastafarianism that uses the argument that the decline in pirate numbers has caused the incline in global warming as the two-phenomenon correlate. Although this is another logical appeal to a deeper, unstated argument inherent to the purposes of Pastafarianism.
When analyzing a rhetorical strategy assign it to one or more of these categories. Texts can operate on several different levels.
What is a rhetorical analysis essay?
This type of essay focuses on analyzing how writers and speakers use words to persuade a reader or listener about a subject or topic. The essay breaks the message down to its core components and analyzes its influence on the targeted audience. It should be an objective report that does not include the authors own opinion on the subject.
What is the purpose of a rhetorical analysis?
Four main purposes exist:
- To identify and give examples of the techniques used to persuade the audience
- To discuss how these techniques work
- To analyze how effective these techniques are in persuading the audience
- To discover the producer’s goals in the message
When writing such an essay, it is important to avoid stating whether you agree or disagree with the argument you are analyzing. You are just writing an objective analysis of how the argument is presented and its effectiveness on the audience.
How to get started?
You should always start with the analysis. Analyzing the subject in-depth and fully is the key component of an analytical essay. Examine the piece of rhetoric, and break it down into devices, its appeals, and purpose. Your thesis statement, body paragraphs, and conclusion should form naturally as you deconstruct the message.
A popular example is JFK’s inaugural address. Here a short extract of JFK’s inaugural address is used as an example to show how a rhetorical analysis will naturally lead to forming paragraphs and bodies of text. Two techniques are apparent in the first two paragraphs of the speech.
Washington D.C, January 20, 1961.
“We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom–symbolizing an end as well as a beginning–signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.“
Example from JFK’s inaugural speech:
Technique: Inclusive Pronouns
Examples: We – our x 2
Appeal: Pathos – identity.
How: Narrows gap between speaker and audience. Invites them to see the speaker and themselves as the same.
Goal: Build rapport. Narrow distance.
Effectiveness: Very. Draws on common ancestors and events to enhance it.
Other: Personal pronoun I and pronoun you used. Still collective – describing a communal event.
Example: ‘man holds in his mortal hands’ – ‘the hand of God.’
Appeal: Pathos – draws on emotions of shame
How: Compares man’s godlike power to their lack of god-like generosity.
Goal: To change the audience perspective on the role of the state.
Effectiveness: Questionable – it was a very large audience. Not everyone religious, not everyone will get the symbolism (but how relevant is that to 1960 USA?) etc.
Other: Supported by the use of words – renewal – change – same – different – still. Also, religious terminology and previous parallelism.
Constructing a chart like that allows you to build an argument and support for it. You can deconstruct the text, but also see how the small segments create bigger links throughout the text.
Other rhetorical effects noteworthy in these two paragraphs are words associate with war and religion (lexical sets), language that compares and contrasts, word repeats and use of consonance.
One important thing to note is that a speech is not a text to be read but an act to be performed, so by finding a recording of the speech you could also include pauses, intonation, stresses, and body language as a subject to analyze. Always think about your medium where your audience receives it.
How to plan a Rhetorical analysis essay Outline
The most important thing in forming an outline for your analysis is having performed an in-depth analysis on your subject. Through extensive analysis notes you can:
- See where common appeals are used throughout the text
- You can see where common rhetorical devices are used throughout the text
- You can build a map to see how an argument is developed from these rhetorical strategies.
- Sorting through this information will allow you to define a narrow thesis state and plan your introduction, body text and conclusion from the examples you have found.
Having an in-depth analysis will allow your outline to form naturally.
Check out our recent guide on How to write a critical analysis essay!
The first line of a rhetorical essay should be a hook. This is a line that catches a reader’s attention and makes them want to read on. A powerful hook can be:
- An interesting anecdote
- A gripping story
- An intriguing fact or statistic
- A quote
- A question
- A comparison
- A simile or metaphor.
Next, you want to introduce the subject of your analysis and the context of analysis. This is just what you are analyzing and how it was originally delivered. It’s important to highlight that you understand genre conventions and will be analyzing them in these terms. It’s also important as it outlines that you understand the culture surrounding the event.
After establishing the context, you want to outline the author’s claim or purpose.
And then you want to finish the introduction with your own argument or thesis statement.
If we go back to the JFK inaugural example above, a rhetorical analysis introduction could be:
“JFK gave his inaugural speech over fifty years ago and it remains one of the most memorable and cited speeches in American history. So, what makes this powerful speech so timeless? [Hook]. JFK’s gave his inaugural speech on the 20th January 1961 after reciting the oath for the office of president to a crowd gathered at the Capitol and it was broadcast on television. [Context] JFK’s speech argued for the discontinuation of an arms race and embracing a program of state aid. [Author’s purpose] JFK’s message was so effective as it drew on the commonality of mankind. By comparing mankind’s escalating power and selfishness against God’s power and generosity, JFK played on the audience’s pathos, inciting emotions of hope, and fear as well as drawing on their self-identities as Americans. [Thesis statement]“
The body text
Each body paragraph should deal with a single topic or area of analysis. How you organize the paragraphs depends on the areas that you have set out to discuss. If you are discussing the three appeals you might want a paragraph dedicated to ethos, one to pathos and one to logos. If you are discussing three rhetorical devices, you might want one paragraph for each. Some even choose to discuss the devices in chronological order.
A very effective way to set up your paragraph order is to state the subject being discussed. Explain the subject and provide examples. Finally, analyze and evaluate.
Body text example
“JFK’s speech uses several rhetorical devices to underline the commonality of the human race. [State] Pronouns used in the speech like ‘we’ and ‘our’ are inclusive pronouns. [Explain and Examples] These inclusive pronouns are used to reduce the distance between JFK and the audience. They are commonly used before shared history or ‘forbears’ to remind the audience they are connected. The use of this commonality is furthered reinforced by words such as ‘mankind’ that reminds the listener that we are one race. The religious lexical project the connotations of mankind’s brotherhood and relation through biblical stories. [Analysis.] This is an effective message for drawing Americans together as a nation as it both draws on a shared past of the civil war and the Gettysburg address. This plays on the appeal of the pathos evoking emotions of pride and identity; however, it may be less effective at dissolving the lingering post-war tensions between countries. [Evaluation]”
By constructing paragraphs in a consistent formula like this you will signpost your essay for the reader while presenting a logical thought out essay plan.
The main questions each paragraph should answer are:
- What is the strategy?
- How effective is the strategy?
- What examples of this strategy are there?
- What was this strategy used for?
- What effect did this strategy have on the audience?
- What feelings does this strategy provoke?
The concluding paragraph
The concluding paragraph of a rhetorical analysis essay should form a conclusion about the analysis.
Was the technique strong to begin with but lost effect over time?
Did the rhetorical appeals to pathos get counteracted by a higher appeal to ethos?
Did the message producer reach their goal or not?
A good way to form these conclusions in relation to your thesis statement and paragraph topics is to first give a quick summary of each. Then you can follow with a verdict on how all topics work in conjunction or even work against each other.
Stating why your argument matters or the importance of your analysis is another good way to conclude an essay.
You shouldn’t include new information in the conclusion.
Rhetorical analysis essay topics examples
If you are looking for a topic for your essay, these examples provide some rich stylistic devices for you to analyze and are very popular. Going through these examples is a good way to prepare for an AP English exam that includes a rhetorical analysis.
- JFK’s inaugural speech
- Martin Luther King Junior’s Letter from Birmingham Jail
- Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech
- Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia conference 1775
- Franklin D Roosevelts Pearl Harbor speech 1941
- Ronald Regan’s Challenger speech 1989
- John M Barry’s Great Influenza
- Steve Jobs Commencement speech 2005
- Barack Obama’s inaugural speech 2009
If you are looking for an example that is a little different, here are topics that rely heavily on rhetoric and haven’t been overly analyzed on the web:
- Analyze the routine of your favorite standup comedian.
- Analyze a cosmetic commercial.
- Analyze a charity appeal.
- Analyze a political cartoon.
- Analyze a television advert.
- Analyze a film trailer.
To some degree, all these are trying to persuade you of something and use all three methods of appeal to do so.
Tips for Rhetorical analysis essay
- When you begin to do your analysis, you should have a list of all rhetorical devices. Stylistic analysis guides or poetry analysis books will contain definitions and examples of stylistic devices. This list and guide may enable you to discover more classical stylist tools that you may have missed when analyzing the message. Key techniques to look out for in a style guide are assonance, consonance, parallelism, alliteration, hyperbole, and anaphora.
- When undertaking your rhetorical analysis, always bear in mind the media where you are planning to deliver your text. Was it meant to be read or heard? In case of a recording, consider features such as word stress, tone, and pauses which add to the persuasion. Are certain points of a speech stressed through body language? If it is a printed advert – how does the visual aspect interplay with the written? If it is an advert, how do the visuals and imagery interact with the words?
- Choose a topic that sets you apart from the rest of the class. A lot of students use the same speeches listed above. Instead, choose something that speaks to you. Something that has persuaded you. When it comes to marking, using unique source material will set you apart from the crowd – as your essay will not only be on a different topic but also something that you care about.
- When you prepare for an AP English exam, look at previous papers and questions to get an idea of what you’ll be asked to do during the exam. Going through the rhetorical examples above is another great way to get experience and practice for the rhetorical analysis on your AP English exam. Our paper writing guide can assist you with the preparing process.
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