1.3 Understanding the Rhetorical Situation

Suzan Last; Candice Neveu; and Robin L. Potter

It is common knowledge in the workplace that no one really wants to read what you write, and even if they want to or have to read it, they will likely not read all of it. So how do you get your reader to understand your purpose quickly and efficiently? Start by doing a detailed Task and Audience Analysis — make sure you understand the “rhetorical situation.”  Review the video below for an explanation of what is meant by a rhetorical situation.

 

(The Rhetorical Situation, 2021)

 

Figure 1.3.1 the five components that are essential to determining how to respond to any situation.

The “rhetorical situation” is a term used to describe the components of any situation in which you may want to communicate, whether in written or oral form. To define a “rhetorical situation,” ask yourself this question:  “Who is talking to whom about what, where, how, and why?” There are five main components:

  • Purpose
  • Writer
  • Audience
  • Message
  • Context/Culture

PURPOSE refers to why you are writing. Determining your purpose requires that you engage in Task Analysis — that is, determine what you hope to accomplish by writing this document. Ask yourself what you hope the reader(s) will do/think/decide/ or how they will behave as a result of reading the text. There are three general purposes for communication in the workplace: 1) to inform, 2) to instruct, and 3) to persuade.

Within those general purposes, you will find a myriad of specific purposes. For example, your purpose may be to propose an innovative solution to a specific problem. In this case, you want the reader to agree to explore the idea further, or approve funding for further research and development, which would fall under the general purpose of writing to persuade.

WRITER refers to you, the writer/creator/designer of the communication. It is important to examine your own motivation for writing and any biases, past experiences, and knowledge you bring to the writing situation. These elements will influence how you craft the message, whether positively or negatively. This examination should also include your role within the organization, as well as your position relative to your target audience.

AUDIENCE refers to your readers/listeners/viewers/users. Audience Analysis is possibly the most critical part of understanding the rhetorical situation. Consider Figure 1.3.2 below. Is your audience internal (within your company) or external (such as clients, suppliers, customers, other stakeholders)? Are they lateral to you (at the same position or level), upstream from you (management), or downstream from you (employees, subordinates)? Who is the primary audience? Who are the secondary audiences? These questions, and others, help you to create an understanding of your audience that will help you craft a message that is designed to effectively communicate specifically to them.

You have relationships with Supervisors; Colleagues and Team Members; Subordinates; and the public, clients, supplies, and government.
Figure 1.3.2 Understanding your relationship to your audience.

Keep in mind that your different audiences will also have differing purposes for reading your document. Think about what their various purposes might be and how you can best help them achieve them. Considering what they are expected to do with the information you provide will help you craft your message effectively. Remember also that technical writing often has a long “life span” – a document you write today could be filed away and reviewed months or even years down the road.

Table 1.3.1 Workplace audiences and purposes
Audience Purpose for Reading
Executives Make decisions
Supervising Experts/Managers Advise decision-makers; direct subordinates
Technical Experts/Co-workers Implement decisions; advise
Lay People/Public/Clients Become informed; choose options; make decisions

Consider the needs of that audience as well. What is their interest in the matter at hand? What is their anticipated response to your message: will it be positive, neutral, or negative? How much do they already know about the situation or topic? Thinking about the audience’s needs allows you to determine the appropriate tone and the amount and type of information to include in the message.

Some companies develop audience profiles to help guide their communications. This is a good exercise whenever you have to communicate complex information. Here are some questions to consider as part of the audience profile:

Developing an Audience Profile

Identity and role:

  • Who are your primary readers? (specific names and titles, or general roles)
  • What is their level of authority? Do they have clearance to view your document?
  • What is their role? Are they above you in the organizational hierarchy? Lateral, subordinate?
  • Who else might read this document? (secondary readers)
  • How might cultural differences affect their expectations and interpretations?

Expertise and attitude

  • How much do they already know about the topic?
  • How much technical background do the readers have?
  • What is their attitude towards the topic?

Language:

  • Are they familiar with jargon (specialized technical vocabulary) or would plain language be more appropriate for the situation?
  • Given their role, would formal language or informal (conversational) language be suitable?
  • Given specific language needs, should your document be translated? (applies to documentation sent internationally.)

MESSAGE refers to what information you want to communicate. This is the content of your document. It should be aligned to your purpose and targeted to your audience. While it is important to carefully choose what content your audience needs, it is equally critical to cut out content that your audience does not need or want. “Time is money” may be a tired old cliché, but it is important to avoid wasting your audience’s time with information that is unnecessary or irrelevant to them. So, differentiate between the “need-to-know” information, which you must include, from the “nice-to-know” information, which you can omit or place in an appendix. In addition, your message should always be professional and expressed in an appropriate tone for the audience, purpose, and context. We will discuss aspects of using a professional style and tone in crafting your message more in Chapter 2.

CONTEXT refers to the situation that creates the need for the writing. In other words, what has happened or needs to happen creates the need for communication. The context is influenced by timing, location, current events, and culture, which can be organizational or social. Understanding context goes a long way in helping you create a useful message. Some questions you might ask relating to context analysis include:

  • Are you addressing an internal audience or an external one?
  • Where is the audience situated: in a technical or non-technical environment?
  • What external factors are affecting the communication? For example, regulatory or legal factors will affect what you can communicate?
  • Is this a decision-making or informational context?

Ignoring the context for your communication could result in awkward situations, or possibly offensive ones. It will almost certainly impact your ability to clearly convey your message to your audience.

Consider the subtle (and not so subtle) similarities and differences in the rhetorical situation when you offer feedback on Course Experience Surveys vs when you evaluate an instructor on Ratemyprofessor.com.

EXERCISE 1.3 Identify the differences in the rhetorical situations

Course Evaluation Survey Ratemyprofessor.com
Purpose
Audience
Writer
Message
Context

EXERCISE 1.4 Task and audience analysis

Download Task and Audience Analysis Exercises (.docx)

The table below contains a collection of details about a research project you have just completed on rising sea levels. Imagine that you’re writing documents for each of the five following audiences:

  1. Your supervisor/boss
  2. Scientists
  3. The general public
  4. Politician
  5. High school students

What information about rising sea levels might each audience be interested in? As you go down the list, write in the blank spaces in front of each detail the number that corresponds to the audiences that you think would find this detail most relevant.

Consider what kind of document might contain that information for that audience.

Interested Audience Categories of Information on Sea Level Rise
The dollar damage caused by sea level increases each year.
A literature review of previous research on rising sea levels.
Descriptions of calibration procedures for your instruments.
Some basic physics of how tides and currents work.
How much your project costs.
A log of all your measurements during the whole project.
A list of people who worked on the project.
Specifications of a new instrument to measure water conditions.
A new result showing a connection between sea level and coastal developments.
Procedures you used to avoid statistical biases in your data.
Your plans for further measurements.
Your recommendations for future research.

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Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last; Candice Neveu; and Robin L. Potter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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