Rhetoric as a guide in shaping/reviewing a piece of communication

Rhetoric hails from Ancient Greece and along with grammar and logic is one of the three arts of discourse.  At its simplest it is the art of effective (or persuasive) speaking and/or writing and a key to effective communication.  The word is now often used however in a derogatory way ‘language designed to have a persuasive or impressive effect, but which is often regarded as lacking in sincerity or meaningful content’.  While pretentious speaking and/or writing is not for the modern scientist, at least in my view, the basic elements of Aristotle’s rhetoric of logos, pathos, and ethos has some value.  A speaker or writer does well to consider these three elements which for the rhetorical triangle (Fig. 1).

rehetroci and writing

Figure 1: The rhetorical triangle.

We can start at any point, so let us consider first the writer/speaker’s perspective (ethos).  Fundamentally your audience/readers want to know what your motives are in communicating to them.  Are you providing information? Trying to educate or call them to action?  Is your aim simply to entertain or to change hearts and minds?  The identity of the speaker/writer is also important to the audience and impacts on the argument.  Who are you and what are your credentials for speaking out on this subject, where is your mandate to speak and where does your authority come from?  At its simplest this may be about setting out your experiences/qualifications, your roll in any debate and/or demonstrating that you have knowledge of a subject.  The literature review in a dissertation or academic paper serves this function; to show your mastery of a subject.

The context or logos of your communication is also important and overlaps with the example above.  The literature review is a way of demonstrating context, but it is more than this.  A good introduction will establish a rationale for the communication, why are you speaking on this subject now for example.  What events have preceded and led to the communication?  Why it is important now and why is being delivered in this way?  The logic of an argument and the evidence gathered to support or debate that argument all have a context.  There is an emphasis on rationale, logic and reason. Your audience/reader needs to be able to follow what you are saying for it to be believable and understand its context and implications.  The discussion and conclusions of a piece or prose or a speech are critical here.  That is, the extension from the specific case in question to the general case with wider implications and/or recommendations for action.

The final element is the audience itself.  Knowing who you’re speaking to or writing for helps you pitch it well.  For example, should you use lay-terms or will you be accused of dumbing down if the content is intended for an expert professional? What are the audience’s expectations of your communication?  Has it been invited or is it unsolicited?  Are they likely to be hostile?  How will they use the information you provide and what are they hoping (and you would like them) to take away?  Ultimately why do they care about the question argument in hand and how do you use the emotions of the audience (the pathos) to get them to engage and perhaps act on your message?  What emotion do you want to evoke: Fear, trust, loyalty…?  Do you have shared values or beliefs you want to draw on?  How do you connect with the audience/readers to gain their support, interest and/or action?

These all questions to ask and consider in framing any form of communications be it written, oral or graphic.  So how do you use the triangle?  Well it is simply something to bear in mind when writing an email (give me a job!), reporting a piece of research or giving a talk.  Best applied in the planning stages; you could for example sketch out a triangle and note some points or observations around each corner.  When you are finished and are reviewing your communication consider each corner in turn: have you set out the context, have you provided enough information about you as the communicator, and have you met the audience expectations?  When all said and done it is a tool and nothing more, but despite the negativity associated these days with the word rhetoric it is a useful and valuable tool.

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