What is a Rhetorical Situation?

Using the Power of Language to Persuade, Inform, and Inspire

Big brother
A rhetorical situation, said Lloyd Bitzer, is "a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance” ( Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1968). Colin Anderson / Getty Images

Understanding the use of rhetoric can help you speak convincingly and write persuasively—and vice versa. At its most basic level, rhetoric is defined as communication—whether spoken or written, predetermined or extemporaneous—that’s aimed at getting your intended audience to modify their perspective based on what you’re telling them and how you’re telling it to them.

One of the most common uses of rhetoric we see is in politics. Candidates use carefully crafted language—or messaging—to appeal to their audiences’ emotions and core values in an attempt to sway their vote. However, because the purpose of rhetoric is a form of manipulation, many people have come to equate it with fabrication, with little or no regard to ethical concerns. (There’s an old joke that goes: Q: How do you know when a politician is lying? A: His lips are moving.)

While some rhetoric is certainly far from fact-based, the rhetoric itself is not the issue. Rhetoric is about making the linguistic choices that will have the most impact. The author of the rhetoric is responsible for the veracity of its content, as well as the intent—whether positive or negative—of the outcome he or she is attempting to achieve.

The History of Rhetoric

Probably the most influential pioneer in establishing the art of rhetoric itself was the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who defined it as “an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.” His treatise detailing the art of persuasion, “On Rhetoric,” dates from the 4th century BCE. Cicero and Quintilian, two of the most famous Roman teachers of rhetoric, often relied on elements culled from Aristotle’s precepts in their own work.

Aristotle explained how rhetoric functions using five core concepts: logos, ethos, pathos, kairos, and telos and much of rhetoric as we know it today is still based on these principles. In the last few centuries, the definition of “rhetoric” has shifted to encompass pretty much any situation in which people exchange ideas. Because each of us has been informed by a unique set of life circumstances, no two people see things in exactly the same way. Rhetoric has become a way not only to persuade but to use language in an attempt to create mutual understanding and facilitate consensus. 

Fast Facts: Aristotle's Five Core Concepts of Rhetoric


  • Logos: Often translated as “logic or reasoning,” logos originally referred to how a speech was organized and what it contained but is now more about content and structural elements of a text.
  • Ethos: Ethos translates as “credibility or trustworthiness,” and refers to the character a speaker or author and how they portray themselves through words.
  • Pathos: Pathos is the element of language designed to play to the emotional sensibilities of an intended audience, and geared toward using the audience’s own attitudes to incite agreement or action.
  • Telos: Telos refers to the particular purpose a speaker or author hopes to achieve, even though the goals and attitude of the speaker may differ vastly from those of his or her audience.
  • Kairos: Loosely translated, kairos means “setting” and deals with the time and place that a speech takes place and how that setting may influence its outcome. 

Elements of a Rhetorical Situation

What exactly is a rhetorical situation? An impassioned love letter, a prosecutor's closing statement, an advertisement hawking the next needful thing you can't possibly live without—are all examples of rhetorical situations. As different as their content and intent may be, all of them have the same five basic underlying principles:

  • The text, which is the actual communication, whether written or spoken
  • The author, which is the person who creates a specific communication
  • The audience, who is the recipient of a communication
  • The purpose(s), which are the various reasons for authors and audiences to engage in communication
  • The setting, which is the time, place, and environment that surrounds a particular communication

Each of these elements has an impact on the eventual outcome of any rhetorical situation. If a speech is poorly written, it may be impossible to persuade the audience of its validity or worth, or if its author lacks credibility or passion the result may be the same. On the other hand, even the most eloquent speaker can fail to move an audience that is firmly set in a belief system that directly contradicts the goal the author hopes to achieve and is unwilling to entertain another point of view. Finally, as the saying implies, "timing is everything." The when, where, and prevailing mood surrounding a rhetorical situation can greatly influence its eventual outcome.

Text

While the most commonly accepted definition of a text is a written document, when it comes to rhetorical situations, a text can take on any form of communication a person intentionally creates. If you think of communication in terms of a road trip, the text is the vehicle that gets you to your desired destination—depending on the driving conditions and whether or not you have enough fuel to go the distance. There are three basic factors that have the biggest influence on the nature of any given text: the medium in which it’s delivered, the tools that are used to create it, and the tools required to decipher it:

  • The Medium—Rhetorical texts can take the form of pretty much any and every kind of media that people use to communicate. A text can be a hand-written love poem; a cover letter that’s typed, or a personal dating profile that’s computer-generated. Text can encompass works in the audio, visual, spoken-word, verbal, non-verbal, graphic, pictorial, and tactile realms, to name but a few. Text can take the form of a magazine ad, a PowerPoint presentation, a satirical cartoon, a film, a painting, a sculpture, a podcast, or even your latest Facebook post, Twitter tweet, or Pinterest pin.
  • The Author’s Toolkit (Creating)—The tools required to author any form of text impact its structure and content. From the very rudimentary anatomical tools humans use to produce speech (lips, mouth, teeth, tongue, and so forth) to the latest high-tech gadget, the tools we choose to create our communication can help make or break the final outcome.
  • Audience Connectivity (Deciphering)—Just as an author requires tools to create, an audience must have the capability to receive and understand the information that a text communicates, whether via reading, viewing, hearing, or other forms of sensory input. Again, these tools can range from something as simple as eyes to see or ears to hear to something as complex as sophisticated as an electron microscope. In addition to physical tools, an audience often requires conceptual or intellectual tools to fully comprehend the meaning of a text. For instance, while the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” may be a rousing song on its musical merits alone, if you don’t speak French, the meaning and importance of the lyrics are lost.

    The Author

    Loosely speaking, an author is a person who creates text to communicate. Novelists, poets, copywriters, speechwriters, singer/songwriters, and graffiti artists are all authors. Each author is influenced by his or her individual background. Factors such as age, gender identification, geographic location, ethnicity, culture, religion, socio-economic condition, political beliefs, parental pressure, peer involvement, education, and personal experience create the assumptions authors use to see the world, as well as the way in which they communicate to an audience and the setting in which they are likely to do so.

    The Audience

    The audience is the recipient of the communication. The same factors that influence an author also influence an audience, whether that audience is a single person or a stadium crowd, the audience’s personal experiences affect how they receive communication, especially with regard to the assumptions they may make about the author, and the context in which they receive the communication.

    Purposes

    There are as many reasons to communicate messages as there are authors creating them and audiences who may or may not wish to receive them, however, authors and audiences bring their own individual purposes to any given rhetorical situation. These purposes may be conflicting or complementary.

    The authors’ purpose in communicating is generally to inform, to instruct, or to persuade. Some other author goals may include to entertain, startle, excite, sadden, enlighten, punish, console, or inspire the intended audience. The purpose of the audience to become informed, to be entertained, to form a different understanding, or to be inspired. Other audience takeaways may include excitement, consolation, anger, sadness, remorse, and so on. 

    As with purpose, the attitude of both the author and the audience can have a direct impact on the outcome of any rhetorical situation. Is the author rude and condescending, or funny and inclusive? Does he or she appear knowledgeable on the subject on which they’re speaking, or are they totally out of their depth? Factors such as these ultimately govern whether or not the audience understands, accepts, or appreciates the author’s text.

    Likewise, audiences bring their own attitudes to the communication experience. If the communication is undecipherable, boring, or of a subject that holds no interest, the audience will likely not appreciate it. If it’s something to which they are attuned or piques their curiosity, the author’s message may be well received.

    Setting

    Every rhetorical situation happens in a specific setting within a specific context, and are all constrained by the time and environment in which they occur. Time, as in a specific moment in history, forms the zeitgeist of an era. Language is directly affected by both historical influence and the assumptions brought to bear by the current culture in which it exists. Theoretically, Stephen Hawking and Sir Isaac Newton could have had a fascinating conversation on the galaxy, however, the lexicon of scientific information available to each during his lifetime would likely have influenced the conclusions they reached as a result.

    Place

    The specific place that an author engages his or her audience also affects the manner in which a text is both created and received. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech, delivered to a rapt crowd on August 28, 1963, is considered by many as one of the most memorable pieces of American rhetoric of the 20th century, but a setting doesn’t have to be public, or an audience large for communication to have a profound impact. Intimate settings, in which information is exchanged, such as a doctor’s office or promises are made—perhaps on a moonlit balcony—can serve as the backdrop for life-changing communication. 

    In some rhetorical contexts, the term “community” refers to a specific group united by like interests or concerns rather than a geographical neighborhood. Conversation, which most often refers to a dialog between a limited number of people takes on a much broader meaning to and refers to a collective conversation which encompasses a broad understanding, belief system, or assumptions that are held by the community at large.