Rhetorical Analysis: J.k. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement Speech

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On June 5th of the year 2008, thousands of people of all ages came to Cambridge Massachusetts, to watch the author of the beloved Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling give her commencement speech at Harvard University. She stood before this crowd and delivered a powerful graduation speech that very quickly became the most-watched commencement at Harvard to this day. Rowling profoundly dived into two topics within this speech: the significance of failure and the power of imagination. She executed these matters thoroughly by using the Rhetoric tools of ethos, pathos and logos to effectively depict her main points and persuade the young, bright Harvard graduates who sat before her.

For some, it was then startling hear Rowling speak about the topic of failure when her life portrayed quite the opposite, due to her well-known series and great success in life.

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However, in her speech, Rowling explains her experience with failure through her own back-story and how she confronted her failures head one. Rowling demonstrates this by saying, “And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” This as a result gives her a credibility, for the audience are able to trust her opinions and viewpoints on the topic because she herself has faced such issues. The reason for this exigence on why she chose to speak about failure at such a successful event is because everyone fails in life, even Harvard graduates. Rowling states, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default” (Rowling). Another way in which ethos is incorporated is how Rowling makes a clear reference to her claim to fame and reason she has the ability to stand in front of everyone that day: Harry Potter. At the end of her introduction she refers to the Red Harvard banners and says, “ I will convince myself that I am at the world’s largest Gryffindor reunion,” knowing that everyone in the audience will immediately be able to make a connection to this woman standing in front of them. Her ethos is more convincing during this time and provides the most amount of credibility, for it was during this time when the movies and books were still coming out.

In the aspect of Pathos, Rowling did a great job presenting many strong emotional connections to the audience, especially in the second part of the narrative. J. K. Rowling tells various stories about her interactions with Amnesty International. A story in particular about the victims of the political regimes in Africa and other states grasped the heart strings of the audience. She also uses humor to create a more comfortable atmosphere during such a formal environment. Rowling brings humor into her speech in the very beginning, “Not only has Harvard given me an extraordinary honor, but the weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight. A win-win situation!” (Rowling). Not only does this relax the audience, but it also provides a connection to the students in the same intense feelings about entering the real world officially.

Outside of using emotional appeal, Rowling also provides logical reasonings for her arguments. Rowling uses logos in her speech by giving examples of reality and the brutality of the real world in which these graduates are about to enter. It is also through her use of diction and carefully chosen words that helps provide an appropriate tone. Through her job at Amnesty International where she encountered torture victims, cases of rape and execution and controlling governments who unjustly took power over its citizens. The audience that was laughing earlier turned quiet and their smiles melted away. It is due these rhetorical devices, in particular logos that causes the audience to think about these people and about the horrible things they’ve been through.

Outside of her uses of these devices her uses of organization also strengthened her speech. The speech consists of the introduction, two main parts, and conclusion. In the first part, the author discusses the experience of overcoming hardships. In the second part, J. K. Rowling describes how success can come from failure Finally, in her conclusion, she summarizes the main idea, then encourages them to take action and use their imagination while overcoming failure. She does not go off topic, but instead sticks to the order of these four topics so that her audience can follow along. This speech was done so smoothly that it lacks weaknesses, other than her nervousness and shaky voice in the beginning. However, who isn’t nervous, especially in a crowd of thousands of people.

Evidently, J. K. Rowling is one of the most famous writers of the 21st century. She succeeded to overcome poverty and become a high-paid writer. Therefore, her opinion is considered to be very important for all those who only start their attempts to achieve some goals. Undoubtedly, this speech inspires the listeners to find the unique way of self-development and professional growth. It was regarded as a very powerful and well done speech in 2008 and continues to impact and influence more than a decade later.  


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