The mission of the G.I.F.T. (Great Ideas for Teaching) Interest Group is to provide members of the Association a place to share their teaching activities and assignment to enhance the ever-changing communication discipline.

Chair and Program Planner
Mark Cruea, Ohio Northern University
Vice-Chair and Program Planner 
Kathie Fleck, Ohio Northern University 

Stacey Macchi, Western Illinois University

Sample G.I.F.T. Submission

Considering Lyrics as Public Speeches: Extending the Application of Audience Analysis

Public Speaking 
  • To increase students’ understanding and use of audience analysis techniques.
  • To expand students’ perceptions of what counts as persuasive discourse.
  • To enhance students’ critical thinking skills
While audience analysis remains one of the most important skills public speakers can employ, the activities to assess speakers’ abilities to analyze their audiences are fairly standard: Select a speech (usually delivered by someone “famous”) and determine how that speaker adapted to her/his audience by using specific evidence from the actual speech to support your claims. Having used this approach numerous times, I know this activity successfully demonstrates how effective speakers are able to tailor their messages to their audiences; however, I sought an assignment that went beyond the basics of audience analysis (e.g., What are the demographics and psychographics of the speaker’s audience and how does s/he adapt to these concepts?). As a rhetorician, I want students to understand that rhetors in various contexts are able to construct a type of reality through their use of words and that these rhetors often encourage audiences to accept their view of reality without question. I also stress to students that while examples of rhetoric certainly include presidential addresses and speeches by Congressional representatives, rhetoric must also, as Burke notes, be thought of “[…] as a general body of identifications that owe their convincingness much more to trivial repetition and dull daily reënforcement than to exceptional rhetorical skill” (26, emphasis in original). Thus, I developed an assignment that invites students to assess the lyrics of contemporary songs since these rhetorical texts do not appear to be explicitly rhetorical.

Description of the Activity:
This activity may be completed in a 50 or 75 minute class period. This activity requires a student handout featuring questions for analysis (see below), lyrics to the song being analyzed, and a recording of the song being analyzed.

Before completing this activity, students should understand (a) the definition of audience analysis, (b) the importance of conducting an analysis of their audience, and (c) the components of audience analysis (it may even be helpful to analyze a speech together as a class to determine the demographics, psychographics, and the cultural values of a particular audience so that students have a clear understanding of how to conduct a basic audience analysis). Students should also be familiar with the notion that, through persuasive discourse, rhetors are able to develop a type of reality for their audiences. One of my favorite examples includes the naming of diseases. As Shilts reports, in the early 1980s, it seemed that gay men were overwhelmingly being stricken with a peculiar and new disease. As such, the disease was named Gay Related Illness Disease (GRID). GRID would later be renamed Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome in 1982 by the Centers for Disease Control so that the name of the illness would not just highlight one population for possible discrimination and also allowing members of other populations to assume they could not become infected with GRID if they were not gay men. This is just one example of how language can draw attention to particular aspects of a situation and deflect attention away from others.

At the beginning of class explain to the students that they’re going to be conducting a more advanced form of audience analysis to determine who rhetors are able to persuade without seeming to do so. Distribute the song lyrics to “She Thinks His Name was John” (search any popular lyrics site). Ask students to read the lyrics before you play it (this should take about 5 minutes). Play the song for the class two times and ask students to answer the following questions (this should take 15 minutes):

Questions for Students to Answer While Listening to the Song:
  1. What is the overall message of this song? That is, what are the rhetors (i.e., the songwriters) trying to persuade the audience to do?
  2. What is the role of the narrator? Is she sympathetic to the other characters? Judgmental? Informative? Be sure to use specific lines from the lyrics to support your answer.
  3. Is the audience expected to identify with a particular character in the song? If so, how would identifying with this character reinforce the rhetors’ persuasive message?
  4. What types of values (either cultural or social) do the rhetors hold? For example, what does the song encourage the audience to believe (again, be sure to use specific lines from the lyrics to support your answer)?
  5. Are the values identified in the song presented in an overtly persuasive manner (i.e., do the rhetors tell the audience exactly how to behave)?
  6. Were the rhetors successful in their analysis of their audience (i.e., how are they able to persuade listeners without making it seem as if they are doing so)?
Depending on the size of your class, you could ask individual students to share their answers with the entire class or you could assign students into group and have each individual share his/her responses with the group (this should take 10 minutes).

After students have shared their responses with their groups or the entire class, you’ll need to debrief by asking the class the following questions:
  • Can you think of other examples in our culture where rhetors are able to persuade us without seeming to do so?
  • Consider the importance of tone in your own speeches: Are audiences more apt to be persuaded when they think they are merely being “informed,” or when they know they’re being persuaded?
  • Let’s focus on the upcoming persuasive speech in our class: Given your topic can you think of a way you might want to persuade your audience by telling them to do the opposite? That is, in the song we analyzed, the rhetors try to get audience members to practice safer sex by describing what happens when a woman did not engage in safer sex practices—could you use this type of strategy in your speech?
Students enjoy this activity since they are able to analyze a different type of rhetorical text. In addition to analyzing the lyrics, I’ve had students point to changes in the musical score and in the type of instruments used in the song as further evidence of persuasion. Since this is an in-class activity, students are awarded participation points depending on the significance of their contributions. For alternative uses or extensions of this activity, students could bring the lyrics of their favorite song to the next class to practice the skills they’ve learned and then share their analysis with their group or the entire class.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1969.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic
          New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

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