This post is part of a series explaining basic principles of rhetoric as they apply to professional and public writing. Check out the first post and stay tuned for more posts on rhetoric!
When you sit down to write something for your job, what’s the first think you do? And don’t say panic.
If you’re like most people, you probably think about what it is you want to say. You might also think about the person or people you’re writing to, and why they should listen to you.
If you’re writing something short and simple, like an email reply, you might not spend a lot of time thinking about these things. On the other hand, if you’re writing something really big, like a grant proposal or a technical report, you probably think quite a bit about them.
In rhetoric, we talk about something called the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation is made up of three main components:
- The author
- The audience
- The purpose
Sometimes we like to illustrate these components with a neat little triangle.
Most likely, you’re already thinking about these things when you sit down to write. You’re thinking about who you’re writing to—that’s the audience. You’re thinking about why you’re writing, or what you want people to do after they see your message. That’s the purpose. And you may be thinking about why your audience should listen to you, the author.
If you’re not thinking about these things when you sit down to write, you should start! Thinking through each component more explicitly can help you be more effective in your writing.
Fix this Social Media Post with the Rhetorical Situation
Here’s a quick, short example:
Say your organization is hosting an online trivia event to raise money for a charity. You create this great social media post with all the details, and you plan to ask everyone in the organization to share it. Let’s think through this piece of writing. Who is the author? Who is the audience? What is the purpose? And do you think the document will succeed in achieving its purpose?
Okay, so, first of all: who is the author? In this case, it’s you, but only sort of. The event is hosted by your organization. Can you tell that by looking at this piece of communication? Not really. It might be a good idea to add an organizational logo to the image so that the author is easily recognizable. Especially if it’s a big, well-known organization, that’ll give the post a boost in credibility.
Second, who is the audience? Well, you want everyone in your organization to share it, so, potentially, it could have a very wide audience—the social media friends of everyone in your organization! But, really, is that actually your audience? Or is it a bit more specific than that? If the event is a charity fundraiser, you probably want people to attend the event who have some disposable income and are amenable to donating it to the fundraiser.
And speaking of donating, what is the purpose of this post? You want to let people know about this event, but more specifically than that, what is the action you want people to take after they read the post? You want them to actually participate! And eventually, hopefully, give to the fundraiser. But does the poster let people know how to attend the fundraising event?
No, it doesn’t, because it’s a fake example I engineered as a teaching tool. The big place this piece of communication fails is in the purpose. If you want people to actually attend the fundraiser after reading the post, just saying, “Your Computer!” is the location isn’t quite specific enough. You’d need to give a link to the Zoom meeting or to the online ticketing service you’re using or whatever so that people know how to participate.
Identify Your Purpose
Understanding your purpose when you sit down to write and communicating that purpose clearly to your audience are both crucial parts for successful communication. But how, exactly, do you do that?
Well, it’s tricky. Especially because documents can have more than one purpose. Take for example meeting minutes—those documents that get sent around after organizational meetings that explain, sometimes in excruciating detail, what was discussed at the meeting. What are the purposes of those minutes? Here are a few I came up with:
- To have a record of organizational activity. Sometimes organizations need to refer to these things later on.
- To let people who couldn’t attend the meeting know what happened. Folks who didn’t attend can read through them to know what decisions were made and what tasks may have been assigned to them at the meeting. And speaking of tasks….
- To remind attendees what they agreed to at the meeting. I used to work as an editorial assistant at an academic lab that developed curricular materials for engineering education classrooms. I regularly referenced the lab meeting minutes to remind myself of all of the projects that needed my attention each week.
One way to think through your purpose for a document is actually to begin by thinking through your audience(s). Once you’ve identified your audience(s)—the topic of another post—you can think through what you want each audience to do after they’ve read your work. That’s your purpose.
Next up: Audience
Next time, we’ll take a deeper dive into identifying your audience for a piece of communication. But for now, I want to hear from you! Have you ever come across a piece of communication that failed in it’s purpose like this example? What about one that misunderstood its audience? Feel free to share examples in the comments below!
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