Dr. Lulu Sun
Short Paper 1
Writing to Engage an Audience
Inspirational speech and writing always rests on a balanced combination of rational rhetoric and emotional motivation. It prompts the readers and listeners to view the world in a way the speaker or writer views it. When the writer’s voice is as vibrant as the words that are displayed on paper, the audience’s attention is captivated with an open ear and essentially a more open mind to the author’s message. Each individual can use various different writing techniques to reach the result of effective speech. Some techniques such as propaganda and charged language take advantage of what the reader may or may not know. Yet ultimately, these speakers know that the key to opening up the most resistant and closed-minded listeners is to first truly know their audience. Linda Flower, author of “Writing for an Audience,” reminds us that a writer must gauge the distance between him or herself and the audience. One can bridge the gap between the two groups by knowing the reader’s knowledge of the topic, their attitude toward it, and personal or professional needs (91). By knowing that his listeners came from a wide variety of educational backgrounds, Martin Luther King Jr. appeals to both reason and emotion. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King takes the opportunity to have a heart-to-heart with the most discerning readers; those who have already judged him for breaking the law, those who agree with his beliefs but disagree with his actions, and those who look to him for the hope of leadership. First and foremost, the letter was addressed to his fellow clergymen to whom he reaches out to. King asserts, “Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms” (453). He cleverly opens with this paragraph to ensure that his listeners will not turn away before they have read all that he has to say, that much of what he is about to say is to answer their concerns. In addition to his peers, he also targets the ears of public figureheads and governmental officials. These are prideful folk who would be quick to write him off as a public renegade. He chooses a more assertive tone, specifically calling out individuals such as Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights leaders. He mentions their inability to deliver on the decision – from a previous negotiation – to remove racial signs at community stores. King’s word usage is careful, referring to the black community as ‘victims of a broken promise’. He goes on to lament that, “…our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled on us” (453). Words like blasted and shadow are charged with the attitudinal disposition he naturally puts forth, an attitude of frustration and disappointment. Once again, MLK carefully chose his words with the apprehension that his adversaries were reading. Dr. King also knew that the general public was looking to him for direction. He knew he had to appeal to all readers, particularly those concerned with the eradication of injustice. The letter was rife with charged language, which is natural and necessary medium for the communication of attitudinal meaning (Birk and Birk, 122). King systematically lists the ills and grievances experienced by the black community, with skillful use of repetitive semi-colons in the following excerpt. “…When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement… and see tears welling up in her eyes… and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky… --then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait” (455).
In this passage, form follows function, as the sentences flow like a raging waterfall, rattling down the tall hill of injustice and pounding down without cease. Consequently, the reader is left with a well of emotions. King reaches out to the fellow fearful citizen, one who is skeptical of following him, but perhaps jaded by preconceived notions of right and wrong. He quiets these fears by quoting St. Augustine: that “an unjust law is no law at all.” He justifies breaking of the law because it did not coincide with morally right values (King 456). Simultaneously, Martin Luther King Jr. counteracted passion with intellect by weaving together a sound argument delivered from his doctoral-level experience in theology. He battles the scrutinizing audience through the use of ‘transfer’, a propaganda device which is used to take credibility of an authority and actually transfer it to what or whom it is speaking about (Institute for Propaganda Analysis 430). King uses this in a positive manner to carry over the esteem of the church towards accepting himself and his beliefs; that naturally, they are of one mind. Martin Luther King further saves his image and credibility by embracing the given label of ‘extremist’. He refers to Christian gospel regarding noble extremists and aligns himself with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus Christ (King 457-458). King was one of the most influential speakers against segregation in the 1960’s. He believed in nonviolent civil disobedience as a tool to promote equal rights for all, especially for African-Americans who were highly discriminated against. Now almost forty years later, perhaps Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream in some way did come true. In 2009, the first African-American, Barack Obama, was voted into office. In his inaugural address, Obama opens his oration similar to MLK’s Letter to Birmingham by addressing his “fellow” citizens. He calls upon the aid of the thousands of citizens present in record-breaking attendance. Barack Obama and his speech writers had to take into consideration that their audience, the United States citizens, were generally disgruntled in disrepair. Setting aside categories of race, creed, heritage, and social background, Americans could all agree that the country as a whole is experiencing widespread economic stagnancy. In order to be well-received in a time where the media is skeptical of presidential political agenda, the president attempts to level with Americans by calling to “an end to the petty grievances and false promises… that for far too long have strangled our politics” (Obama 466). He urges his people to undertake with him a difficult path that will require hard work and tough choices. In doing so, he is able to pull some of the blame off of the government and place the power in the hands of the people. After bridging the gap between audience and speaker, Obama proceeds to employ a battery of propaganda devices in order to motivate his audience. He openly makes use of the ‘bandwagon’, a device that makes the reader want to follow the crowd (Institute 431). He speaks in the pronouns “we” and “us” to ignite unity between the two groups and uses this repeatedly in sequence intermittently throughout the piece i.e. “…Our power grows through its prudent use… the justness of our cause…We are the keepers of this legacy” (Obama 468). Despite ongoing evidence presented in newspapers and media regarding economic deterioration – as well as evidence even presented by he, himself – Obama is able to make the reader temporarily forget about these issues through the use of ‘glittering generalities’. In this device, the author makes the reader accept or approve what is being said without examining the evidence (Institute 429). He foretells of economic progress by dropping shiny ideals of prosperity via the ‘common good’ (Obama 468). Whether or not Obama was able to deliver as universal and long-lasting message as the inspirational Martin Luther King, Jr. is questionable, but this does not take away from the fact that he was effective in engaging his audience at the time of inaugural address. This was evidenced by the jeers and cheers of applause at every pause of oration. Given the magnitude of attendance, he was successful in his ability to reach such a widespread population by appealing to commonalities. Both writers used various means to justify the ends of engaging the audience. By knowing who they were speaking to and the previous dispositions, both political figures were able to deliver to the audience’s desires and needs upon their final word.
1) King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Exploring Language. Ed. Gary Goshgarian. 13th ed. Pearson, 2011. 452-60. Print.
2) Obama, Barack. “Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address.” Exploring Language. Ed. Gary Goshgarian. 13th ed. Pearson, 2011. 466-470. Print.
3) Flower, Linda. “Writing for an Audience.” Exploring Language. Ed. Gary Goshgarian. 13th ed. Pearson, 2011 91-93. Print.
4) Birk, Newman P., and Genevieve B. Birk. “Selection, Slanting, and Charged Language.” Exploring Language. Ed. Gary Goshgarian. 13th ed. Pearson, 2011. 116-123. Print.
5) Institute for Propaganda Analysis. “How to Detect Propaganda.” Exploring Language. Ed. Gary Goshgarian. 13th ed. Pearson, 2011. 427-432. Print.