Handout Two: Argument Construction in Impromptu Speaking
Dr. Andrew Wood, Communication Studies
In the first impromptu handout, you learned about thesis statement development through the game of threes; you also learned how to create a topic matrix. That handout was your introduction to a way of 'doing' impromptu speaking that emphasizes deep analysis of the quotation (or other topic). Our goal is to get to the heart of an implicit statement of the human condition in each quotation, no matter how banal they appear at first. An exercise that might illustrate my point - consider the quotation by Leopold Fechtner:
"He's got a photographic mind. Too bad it never developed."
That's a rather snippy statement. It isn't too witty, but it's clever. Still, the question you must consider as an impromptu speaker is this: what is the underlying theme offered in this statement? The game of threes teaches us to seek a value that serves as a foundation to this otherwise basic putdown. To me a value that would be useful to explore is change. I define change as a value because I hold it to be necessary and essential to understanding the human condition.
I suggest that change is a useful starting point because it is debatable. Some people might argue that change is part of the problem to being human, not part of the solution. Remember: a debatable proposition in impromptu speaking is far more interesting than a tautology - a statement that appears to be self-evident. Why, after all, should we talk about things that we all agree upon?
Playing the games of threes, I suggest that Fechtner wants us to understand that change is necessary. More specifically, we must develop our skills and change ourselves in order to become better people. An undeveloped person (like photo paper that hasn't been exposed to light) does not change, and does not improve. Now, you might be thinking that change is a stretch. Why didn't I just choose "improvement" as a value? My answer ties back to the implied debate that makes impromptu speeches effective. You must gain the audience's attention by surprising them with new insight about an idea, not convincing them of what they already know.
The next question is this: how do you use your topic matrix to convince your audience that your interpretation of the quotation makes sense? Answering that question reminds us that you have two goals when speaking on a quotation or topic in this activity. First, you must provide an interpretation of the quotation from the author's point of view. In other words, you might say, "Fechtner wants us to believe that change is necessary for human improvement." The second step is for you state your opinion of that claim. Is it true or false, right or wrong, ethical or unethical, practical or impractical? It is perfectly acceptable to merely respond, "I agree with Fechtner." It is also acceptable (and sometimes, desirable) to refute the author's meaning. You might reject his claim by saying, "But I disagree. I believe that childlike innocence and simplicity are better values than constant change. The more we 'develop,' in this world the more corrupt we become." That is a thesis that demands proof. But, then again, your thesis that change is good must be supported as well. But how?
Newer impromptu speakers find that the topic matrix helps them develop main points to support their claims. The system works a lot like this: you survey the topic matrix in your mind. You don't need paper for this process; you merely recall those topics about which you're very comfortable. You'll note that your topics provide you different contexts from which you might address the quotation. Some of my favorite topics might be "philosophy," "70s movies," and "current politics." From these topics, I know of at least three examples. For example, I might discuss "Jaws," or "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," or "Convoy" as examples of 70s movies. Your goal is not to memorize or "can" statements. Instead, you should use the topic matrix to help you ask this question, "how much do I really know about each example?" Thus, to consider yourself an expert on Close Encounters, you should know the director, the basic plot, the actors, the year the film was released, among other things.
Recalling that we're talking about a strategy best employed by newer impromptu speakers, an effective use for these examples requires you to show how they shed light on your thesis. In this case I might offer the following thesis: "Fechtner wants us to believe that change is necessary for human improvement - and I agree. Change helps us develop into better people." That thesis is effective; it is simple, direct, and debatable. Again, you might ask, "why would I want a debatable thesis? Don't I want to state a claim that cannot be refuted?" An answer to this question follows this line of argument: any claim that cannot be refuted is unlikely to be terribly interesting to your audience. Most of us believe that "love is good," so your attempt to argue such an obvious point would likely annoy your audience. Instead, take a stand through your interpretation of the quotation that challenges your audience. In this way, you are inspired to reveal specific insight on an issue of human values that is contested in contemporary society. Sure, some judges may not agree with your point of view, but most will appreciate your willingness to be direct and take a stand.
The examples that you've developed through your topic matrix are necessary to support that thesis. Now, your goal is to demonstrate that you've marshaled a broad range of evidence to support your thesis. That's why the matrix is divided by topic. Moreover, that's why I suggest that you should ensure that each topic is unique. Your ability to offer a range of evidence - philosophy, 70s movies, and current events, for example - will more likely convince your audience that your conclusions are sound. In a round, therefore, as you survey your mental database of topics and examples, ask yourself this question: "how might this example offer insight into the value I'm trying to support, in this case, the value of change?" So, arguing that change is good, I might survey my list of examples from the topic of philosophy and come up with Heraclitus who argued that "one can never step into the same river twice." His philosophy argued that change is the only permanent reality in our lives. Understanding that fact makes us happier people. A conclusion of that point might be, "So we see from the perspective of philosophy that change is inevitable. Understanding inevitable, immutable realities is good." A second point might draw an example from the topic of 70s movies. I might use to describe how Steven Spielberg challenged his audience to change our assumptions about alien contact. In response to the "monster movies" of the 1950s and 1960s, he introduced little gray people as friendly and peaceful. His change in our perceptions of aliens was beneficial; it was good. For point three I might use current events to describe a recent decrease in interest rates shows how the Federal Reserve can adapt to changing economic conditions. Indeed, failure to change interest rates could harm us all by causing a recession. To summarize this concept, a basic impromptu speech might use three examples as main points. The goal of this speech would be to develop a wide range of evidence that supports your claim.
More advanced impromptu speakers use the topic matrix to shape arguments that reveal depth as well as breadth. Arguments employ examples, but are not interchangeable with them. What then is an argument? An argument is composed of context and evidence that support a "sub claim" designed to support your thesis. Context serves multiple roles. It outlines the organization of the argument; it justifies your choice of examples; offers explores alternative points of view that might contradict your claims. Example:
"An examination of 70s films reveals how our ability to deal with change is instrumental to the improvement of humankind. One might disagree with this approach. You might think that a discussion of film isn't terribly relevant to such a weighty issue. However, since films play such a significant role in the narratives that shape our identities, I think we'll find this perspective to be a useful one. Let's consider the role change plays in human improvement through an examination of two films: Coming Home and Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Note that this is a much more lengthy and complicated way to approach argument development. The key difference is that you offer claims to support your thesis. The context you just read accomplishes three goals. It specifies the topic of analysis, it answers the judge's question ("why did s/he pick this approach?"), and it outlines the specific examples to be used. Filling out the point, you then explore the examples more fully. That section constitutes the "evidence" part of the argument duo. Taken as a whole, each argument supports the thesis. Each point offers a distinct argument.
This is the key distinction between a basic and advanced form of impromptu speaking. The basic form organizes points principally by examples. The advanced form offers arguments with subjects and verbs; the examples are merely part of the arguments. In other words, a basic form of impromptu speaking would offer the following forecast: "I support the value of this quotation through an examination of Heraclitus, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and recent changes in Federal Reserve Policy." An advanced approach toward impromptu speaking might state: I will support the value of this quotation through three arguments. First, philosophy reveals how change is a constant in our lives. Second, 70s films reveals how change helps us become better people. Third, current events demonstrate how change is necessary for survival." Remember, once you launch into each point, you offer an argument that contains both context and evidence, just like the example on the previous page.
Talking About Topoi
A question arises: how should you best organize your points? The basic form of impromptu largely dispenses with this question. There is no best way to organize topics or examples without context. The advanced form, however, demands a clear sense of organization. That's where topoi comes in. Topoi is a Greek term designating (loosely) the place of the argument. In other words, topoi offer ways to organize which argument should come first, which should come second, and which should come third. Some topoi forms would suggest a chronological perspective. Older precedes more recent which precede newest. Another might organize points by near, far, and farther. Still another might focus on interesting, significant, essential. Each one of these organizational patterns (and there are many others) assumes that the human mind is trained or designed to see the world according to certain relationships. All you need to do is specify to the judge which relationship you've chosen, and why.
Transitions are generally a great place to justify your choice of topoi. In other words, your transitions should not merely connect the topic/example (in the case of a basic form of impromptu) or the argument (in the case of an advanced form) to the thesis and forecast the next point. The transition should also justify the relationship of main points. Example: "So we've seen how philosophy reveals the constancy of change. It's clear that when Fechtner said, 'He's got a photographic mind. Too bad it never developed,' he's referring to the fact that change always occurs. We suffer when we ignore this fact. Now let's consider an even more important idea -- as 70s films demonstrate, change helps us become better people." See the relationship? We're organizing the arguments from least significant (though interesting) to most significant. This approach works from the assumption of recency effect, the idea that we are most likely to remember the last main point, so that point had better be significant. Your choice of topoi is up to you -- just make sure you justify the relationship of each main point.
There's plenty more to argument development within impromptu speaking, but we've covered some serious ground in this discussion. We've learned that the topic matrix provides a set of examples from which we can build main points and, ultimately, arguments. We've seen how beginning impromptu speakers can organize their speeches according to examples. We've also explored a way to craft more sophisticated arguments that stand alone. These arguments are composed of context and evidence. Through this process, we've considered the power of impromptu speeches to reveal within each quotation or object or cartoon a claim about the human condition that must be supported or challenged.