Speaking as Civic Engagement

Learning Objectives

Outline public speaking as a form of advocacy or civic engagement.

The very foundation of public speaking is rooted in advocacy and civic engagement.  Aristotle framed public speaking, or rhetoric as it was called at the time, as the art of persuasion and said the early study of it would lead a rhetorician to discover all means of persuasion within a given case. So important was rhetoric that it became a discipline of study necessary to take part in the civil society of Athenian Greece.

Today’s form of civic engagement involves seeking out and creating opportunities to listen as well as to be heard, whether speaking at your local city counsel meeting, PTA, or even in front of Congress.

A crowd of people sitting in a large circle, holding a meeting.

When we learn to speak up and speak out, we increase our civic agency, which can be defined as the capacity of members of a society “to work collaboratively across differences like partisan ideology, faith traditions, income, geography and ethnicity to address common challenges, solve problems and create common ground.”[1] According to political theorist Danielle Allen, civic agency entails three core tasks:

First is disinterested deliberation around a public problem. Here the model derives from Athenian citizens gathered in the assembly, the town halls of colonial New Hampshire, and public representatives behaving reasonably in the halls of a legislature. Second is prophetic work intended to shift a society’s values; in the public opinion and communications literature, this is now called “frame shifting.” Think of the rhetorical power of nineteenth-century abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, of Martin Luther King, Jr., or of Occupy Wall Street activists with their rallying cry of “we are the 99 percent.” Finally, there is transparently interested “fair fighting,” where a given public actor adopts a cause and pursues it passionately. One might think of early women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage.[2]

Allen organizes the three elements of civic agency along a continuum of interest—the degree to which one is personally invested in or affected by a given issue. When I attend a meeting about improving traffic flow in my city, I may be doing so from a fairly disinterested standpoint. Regardless of my feelings about traffic, I don’t have any greater or lesser personal stake in it than anyone else. However, if the issue under discussion is whether to knock down my apartment building to put in a new freeway, I might have a more interested view of the subject, and I might advocate a different solution, such as improved public transportation. This public advocacy is what Allen calls the civic task of “fair fighting”: speaking up for a cause.

When we ask an audience to consider our ideas, take action, find solutions, or support a policy, we are advocating. Most importantly, advocacy demands that you identify what you hope to accomplish. Wanting change is where advocacy begins, but it requires that we identify the specific changes that we are advocating for. Otherwise, we cannot prescribe behavioral calls to action.

Civic engagement demands that we move beyond our social circles to consider what an oppositional or undecided audience believes, feels, and values. A skilled public speaker then shapes arguments and uses examples and support that will resonate with that audience to deliver a powerful, well-executed, and meaningful speech.

To Watch

In May of 1969, Fred Rogers spoke before the US Subcommittee on Communication to advocate against cutting the PBS budget in half. Committee Chair Sen. John O. Pastore, who was initially adversarial and dismissive toward Rogers, responded to his speech by saying, “I think it’s wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

You can view the transcript for “May 1, 1969: Fred Rogers testifies before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

True to form, Mr. Rogers makes an emotional, sincere appeal for the importance of the kind of programming he wants to bring to children. Rogers uses simple language, but his argument is sophisticated and his description of the show is detailed and precise.

I’m very much concerned, as I know you are, about what’s being delivered to our children in this country. And I’ve worked in the field of child development for six years now, trying to understand the inner needs of children. We deal with such things as — as the inner drama of childhood. We don’t have to bop somebody over the head to…make drama on the screen. We deal with such things as getting a haircut, or the feelings about brothers and sisters, and the kind of anger that arises in simple family situations. And we speak to it constructively.[3]

Note how Rogers uses the same techniques—and even the same gentle language—that he models in his show to win over a hostile Committee Chair. Think how different his argument would be if he defended the value of the show with bombastic rhetoric such as “How DARE you take away the children’s hopes and dreams?!” The consistency between his language, argument, and tone signals Rogers’s genuineness and authenticity.

Try It

  1. Civic Agency. American Association of State Colleges and Universities, http://www.aascu.org/programs/adp/civicagency/.
  2. Allen, Danielle. “What Is Education For?” Boston Review, 24 Oct. 2016, bostonreview.net/forum/danielle-allen-what-education.
  3. https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/fredrogerssenatetestimonypbs.htm