Monologue Feedback from a Student

I thought I’d share this exchange between myself an another student (anonymous) because I imagine it’s a frustration that some of you share right now and I want you to encourage you to voice that frustration and also to reflect on it so we can align our objectives more closely on the next speech.

Anonymous student writes:

Hey, Lee!

Sorry to bother you, but I was slightly disappointed in the grade I received for the monologue (and I’d like to note that I hate talking about grades but I’m generally a perfectionist). I understood your points about the theme, specifically the way you described that the speech [asks more questions about life than it answers]. I know that I need to more directly answer these questions in order for the theme to be more blatant, but I picked this monologue specifically for that reason; it lets the audience think about the different ways they are able to [live their lives], which allows each audience member to interpret the speaker’s struggles in ways that apply to their personal struggles and situations. I liked the open-endedness of the script, but again, I understand how you saw how it could’ve left the audience wanting more in terms of answering the questions of, “How? What? Why?” I planned to present this topic and then address it in future assignments, so this idea was kind of a spring board into more discussions. If there is any room for grade improvement, that is wonderful! If not, I can still take your advice/comments to heart and be better next time!

Thank you for taking the time to read my rambling, and I really appreciated your comments!

I responded (lol, probably with more words than they wanted):

Hi Student,

I think this is actually a really good point and one we will probably discuss further as we get into new assignments. Also I get the drive for perfectionism. I’m always happy to meet in advance of assignments to help you try and fine tune some things but after the assignment is over all we can do is kind of talk about it if you agree with the assessment but just wish in hindsight things had gone better.

Leaving things “opened ended” for audience interpretation is tricky business. It is the entire realm of what we usually call rhetorical questions – which we will discuss more tomorrow. Generally I think that when people say “oh my theme is open to interpretation” then they are not doing their public speaking job. It’s kind of like if, as a teacher, I tell people to just “do the assignment the way they want” and then evaluate them the way I want to – it wouldn’t be very fair. I have to know what I want, I have to tell people what I want, and I have to stand behind why I want what I want. I think the same is true of good public speakers. They have convictions, they present those convictions, they give evidence for why their perspective is right. It’s kind of like good religious leaders – they don’t stand up and say “God’s word just kind of means what you think it means” – they say “God’s word means this, it applies to you in this way, you should do this because it’s what God said to do.” The same is true of great speakers like MLK or Lincoln – they didn’t leave things open to interpretation, they said what they meant and they convinced people it was an interpretation worth believing.

Regarding your monologue specifically you have to remember that this is sort of a mid-range [movie/television show/play] whose action transcends any specific monologue. So in that case they might have left things open to interpretation in the specific monologue but you can probably bet that if you look at the larger picture, at some point, they told the audience how you are supposed to persevere through difficulty. That show clearly thinks there are right ways and wrong ways of living life. The goal was to pick a monologue that BEST captures this kind of strong idea — the monologue you chose is interesting, it’s catchy, but it’s not the BEST model you could have chosen. Picking good models is SO important for future assignments. If you are seduced by the “leave it open to interpretation” type of theme then you will write speeches that do not have strong central ideas and you will learn to produce second best speech. This will not only negative affect you in the class but in life as well. I want you to have interesting things to say and I want those things to be specific and convicted. That’s why I picked the Devil Wears Prada monologue: because she’s not leaving things open to interpretation. She’s telling you the way the world works and she’s making you believe it. Is she right? Who knows. But she’s convincing. That’s my goal for you as well.

So I’ll tell you what. Go back and [re-watch the monologue in its larger context]. Revisit the monologue. And if you can find an actual theme implied in the monologue about HOW a person is supposed to move on after something terrible has happened (or, indeed, maybe the whole point is that there is “no how” you just put one foot in front of the other until the trauma is behind you — that’s certainly how I’ve experienced coping with grief in my own life, there’s no “aha” moment, there’s just waking up and doing the mundane until you don’t think about it as much anymore) and you want to try and convince me that the answer is IN the monologue then I’ll revisit the grade. As of right now, though, I don’t see an actual grade appeal so I wouldn’t know what I’m assessing.

I hope all of this gives you some direction for the next speech, however. If it’s more confusing than helpful let me know and we can get together to chat about the speech of self introduction to be sure you have a “blatant” theme as you put it. With any luck the impromptu assignment also gives you a better sense of the value of “blatant” central ideas over these kind of “everyone gets to make their own path” public speaking cop-outs.

With ire to your enemies,


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I am a rhetorical scholar, public speaker, and teacher at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I study speech and contemporary U.S. political culture and teach courses in public speaking, interpersonal and visual communication, speech and media, and rhetorical theory and criticism. I have been featured on RabbitBox Storytelling and TEDx.

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