Audience Reception: The King’s Speech

dusty old telephone, waiting in the shadows to again be relevant

Rhetoric helps us manipulate an audience’s reception of our message. We always exert influence over our audience, but we might not always do it with intention. At the end of his presentation, Dr. Bailey challenged us to do two things:

  1. When we read, to always ask who wrote the text and for what purpose.
  2. When we write, to always ask who our audience is and what they value.

According to Bailey, those two tasks form the heart of understanding Discourse and using rhetoric effectively. Those tasks also come in handy for this assignment, which is all about analyzing audience reception of a famous speech—both then and now.

The Preparation

You have already selected a famous historical speech. That speech serves as an example of rhetoric appropriate to a certain social situation. (As Bailey’s Rule #1 says, “All language is contextual.”) Attempting to understand that context poses a challenge, especially if you weren’t in the Discourse community the speaker intended to reach.

You might lack the context to understand the subtle cues and intertextual phrases being used. To do a thorough analysis of the speech’s reception, find other texts that review, respond to, cite, or continue the work of the first speech. Those related texts (what I would call part of the speech’s “genre ecology”) help us better understand the original context, which necessarily fades over time.

The Task

After analyzing the reception of that speech when it was given, think about how that same speech is viewed today. What social changes affect your perception of the speech? How does your current context give new meaning to, or shed new light on, the speech you selected? If the speech were given today, how would modern audiences respond? For that matter, does the speech’s original Discourse community still exist?

The Basics

According to the syllabus, your job is this:

Locate a transcript of a famous or influential speech from the past. Contrast the initial reception of that speech with the way it is discussed/remembered today. How have views of the speech’s subject and of rhetoric’s role in civic discourse affected the speech’s reception? Present your conclusions to the class.

You will, as usual, present those conclusions in the form of a blog post. This time, your peers form your audience. Nice and simple. Please file your post in the “King’s Speech” category.

The Complication

After Dr. Bailey’s presentation, the phrase “rhetoric’s role in civic discourse” should mean one heckuvalot more to you than it did before. You should be able to put the speech’s reception into context—twice—and draw meaningful conclusions about the changing effects of language and Discourse over time.

Understanding the impact of a speech on its audience requires an understanding of much more than just the presented words. In this case, reaction might be more important than content.

The Example

As a quick demonstration of my point, I’m going to be a total fanboy/nerd and use Steve Jobs’ introduction of the iPhone as an example speech. That presentation, given January 9, 2007, both made and changed history. And at the time, I worked for Apple—I was a retail employee at their store in Orlando. (Even writing that seems ancient, as the original store has expanded three times, and Orlando is home to three Apple stores now.) Because I am a nerd and worked for the company, presentations like these meant a lot to me. I tuned in and watched it live. I was, in effect, part of the crowd witnessing the speech, and I was definitely part of the intended audience and its greater Discourse community—I even got the T-shirt.

The reception of that speech cannot be over-dramatized. Members of the audience inherently understood the significance of the product reveal, but the speech itself contained several blatant cues to lead the audience to think that. In other words, Steve Jobs was not simply selling a new phone. He was selling the importance of a new phone.

Reception in the Moment

All the way back to the Stone Age we now refer to as “2007,” cellular phones functioned primarily as phones. Sending text messages involved a tedious process. Each letter required multiple button presses, so messages stayed short. Most people disliked their phones and held no brand loyalty.

Apple, by contrast, had droves of fans. People obsessed over their products and praised their design simplicity. Apple products weren’t like cellular phones.

So when Steve Jobs announced that Apple designed a cellular phone, people lost it. They believed that, if anyone could simplify the design of phones and make them easy to use, Apple could. You can see the intensity of that relief in the product-announcement video. When the green phone icon first appears on the screen behind Steve Jobs (at 23:00 into the video), the audience goes bonkers. Most people in the audience that day hoped to hear that one announcement. It seemed like an answer to a prayer.

The reception of the initial iPhone announcement reached far beyond that one speech. Echoes of it lasted all the way until September 29, 2007, when the device first arrived in stores. YouTube videos, trade magazines, bloggers, television shows—everyone with an audience and an interest in technology weighed in on the significance of the speech. I go so far as to say it was the most-hyped product launch in history. In fact, when Tesla unveiled the Model 3, many people measured that product announcement’s success by saying it was “the biggest launch since the iPhone.”

Apple’s iPhone set the standard for products, product launches, phone interfaces, mobile technology, and the company’s trajectory, all with a single speech.

Reception Today

How people today respond to Steve Jobs’ announcement of the original iPhone likely depends on how geeky they are. While in 2007 the technology in iPhone amazed anyone, the launch today might seem quaint. We take for granted many things that had never been seen before that product demonstration.

If you are a tech enthusiast, you probably view the speech with reverence and perhaps a little awe. Nerds see the speech as the musings of a prophet. Jobs appears more soothsayer than salesman.

But to the uninitiated, those outside the Discourse community of tech nerds, the speech likely has far less significance or appeal. Discussing technology that is now 13 years old may not capture much attention. And don’t get me started on the thing about the stylus.

My Conclusions

So in a way, the speech has remained significant, but its value has shifted over time. The speech has always targeted an audience of tech nerds. But originally, it served to make those nerds apostles of the brand and to ignite a nearly nine-month media frenzy. Today, the speech is used by those same nerds to reflect on the changes in technology instigated by that one product announcement, emphasizing nostalgia over excitement.

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