Rhetoric’s Audience

Guest blogger Laura Dunbar

Think about the people you talk to on a day to day basis. You talk to your friends, your family, your professors, etc. Now think about the way you talk to these people. How you address them, the language you use, the tone of voice you present. You talk to different people in different ways. You wouldn’t have a casual conversation filled with slang to your professor, and you wouldn’t address your friend in a formal, professional way. This is the concept of audience in rhetoric, something you use everyday without even knowing it.

The study of rhetoric goes back a long time. One of the first authors to research the topic of rhetoric was Aristotle, in his book Rhetoric. Aristotle understood the importance of considering the audience when using rhetoric. In a commentary on Aristotle’s book, author and researcher of rhetoric Tim Peeples wrote, “[There is persuasion] through the hearers when they are led to feel emotion by the speech; for we do not give the same judgment when grieved and rejoicing or when being friendly and hostile. To this and only this we said contemporary technical writers try to give their attention” (Peeples 29). The emotional appeal that Aristotle refers to is known also as pathos, which can be defined as the appeal to the emotions of the audience.

Think about this in your own life. Has someone played on your emotions to attempt to get you to do something? You may not realize it, but many advertisements do this in attempt to convince you to buy their product or listen to their message. In the commercial below, the audience is made to feel sad through the use of a scared, crying child and slow, gloomy music in the background, all in an attempt to convince people to listen to their message and stop smoking.

Author Barry Kroll describes the importance of audience in rhetoric as well, in an article where he examines the rhetorical perspective of audience. This perspective encourages writers to really know their audience, so that they can analyze that audience in order to effectively persuade it. The article advises, “you must keep in mind the concerns and values of the people you want to reach. . . You will have to analyze your audience consciously, specify its traits, and decide what conclusions you can legitimately make about an audience with those traits” (Kroll 173). If you really know all of the traits of your audience, you will be able to predict how they will respond to the points you make, thus allowing you to craft an effective rhetorical argument.

This idea of knowing so much about your audience comes into play in everyday life, especially when kids try to convince their parents of things. As a college student, I have frequently found myself having to call my mom to ask for money. Because she is my mom, I know a lot about her. Because I know her so well, I can predict what her answer will be— no— and can use my knowledge of her to change that answer. Because she is so family-oriented, I can appeal to her by explaining that the money is for a gift for a family member. Because I know she, like me, is a food-lover, I can tell her that a new taco restaurant opened in town that I want to try. By using these things I know about my mom, I can, in the end, persuade her to give me money— the end goal of the rhetoric.

James Crosswhite, a rhetorical theorist, agrees with both Aristotle and Kroll on the importance of audience in effective rhetoric. Crosswhite references Chaim Perelman, another researcher of rhetoric, who addresses an important question— what if you don’t know your audience? Sometimes, the rhetor will not have access to so much information about their audience. In this case, he brings up a concept called the “universal audience.” To create this audience, he says to only focus on the universal characteristics of an audience, excluding thoughts that are skewed or prejudiced, so that the the writing will appeal to the general characteristics of the members of the audience (Crosswhite 163). The universal audience is the main target for situations in which a detailed analysis of audience is not possible.

Audience, as it determines the effectiveness of rhetoric, is an extremely important aspect of the rhetorical process. Analyzing an audience is also something you do subconsciously every day. Now, however, with this information, you can think more deeply about audience as you address people in your life, write papers for school, contribute to a personal blog, or any other form of rhetorical writing or speaking in your life.

Crosswhite, James. “Universality in Rhetoric: Perelman’s Universal Audience”. Philosophy & Rhetoric 22.3 (1989): 157–173. Web.

Kroll, Barry M.. “Writing for Readers: Three Perspectives on Audience”. College Composition and Communication 35.2 (1984): 172–185. Web.

Peeples, Tim. Professional Writing and Rhetoric: Readings from the Field. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.

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