What rhetorical strategies does Anna Quindlen use to tailor her speech at Mount Holyoke College to a specific occasion and audience?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In her commencement address at Mount Holyoke College, Anna Quindlen tailors her speech to her specific occasion and audience in a number of ways, including the following:

  • She begins with the words “I look at all of you today,” thus immediately establishing a personal connection to her audience.
  • In the rest of the opening sentence, she tells the graduates that they remind her of herself as she was twenty-five years ago.
  • She refers to the specific day on which she is speaking.
  • After describing how she, when a college student, tried to be perfect, she says,

So what I want to say to you today is this: if this sounds, in any way, familiar to you, if you have been trying to be perfect in one way or another, too, then make today, when for a moment there are no more grades to be gotten, classmates to be met, terrain to be scouted, positioning to be arranged . . .

  • She continually refers to her audience, often addressing them as “you.” She even at one point tells her audience to conduct an experiment:

Look at your fingers. Hold them in front of your face. Each one is crowned by an abstract design that is completely different than those of anyone in this crowd, in this country, in this world. They are a metaphor for you. Each of you is as different as your fingerprints. Why in the world should you march to any lockstep?

  • She speaks not only of the individual pasts of her audience but also of their potential futures, especially their futures as parents.
  • She makes common cause with her audience at one point by referring to the values and traits she knows she shares with them:

Trying to be perfect may be sort of inevitable for people like us, who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion.

  • Quindlen’s tone is informal rather than pompous; it is down to earth rather than pretentious. She doesn’t speak “down” to her audience or present herself as a sophisticated expert. Rather, she presents herself as a humble person who overcame her earlier pride and learned from her mistakes.

Something extra: Note all the various things Quindlen doesn't say that might have made her speech seem even more specific to the occasion. She doesn't mention Mount Holyoke College. She doesn't refer to the campus or to any of the architecture visible to her audience. She doesn't mention the specific year of the class she is addressing (as in, "Greetings, Class of So-and-So"). In other words, Quindlen doesn't pander to her audience. She doesn't try to win their attention or wind them over by patting them or their college on their backs. She doesn't tell flatter them by telling them that they are especially gifted and full of potential. Instead, she tells them to let go, a bit, of the sense that they are gifted and full of potential. She discourages them from thinking of themselves (graduates of an elite school) as perfect. In fact, she cautions them not to think in this way. Quindlen, in short, does not tailor her address as specifically to her audience as she might have done, and that is probably a good thing.