You Didn’t Know It, But You Use Rhetoric

Guest Blogger Maggy McGloin

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 10.17.43 AMThe day has come: your class’s final presentation. When you step up to the podium, something in your mind switches gears. You feel as if you’ve gone into what I like to call “presentation mode.” You’re cool, confident, and a little bit nervous, but you’ve prepared as such so that by the end of your presentation, your classmates will have been impacted in some way. Whether you know it or not, you are using rhetoric to achieve this final goal. By changing your actions to furthermore influence an audience, you are already thinking with a rhetorical mindset. Understanding your audience with a basic, rhetorical mindset is key. If you are able to keep the basics of “understanding audience” on the back burner throughout your final presentations, you will be able to influence more efficiently.

Aristotle is a great rhetorician to begin with when learning these basics.  He stated that the best thing one can do for their rhetorical situation is make an argument that does the greatest good for the greatest number of people. According to Lester Faigley, the author of “Nonacademic Writing: The Social Perspective,” orations are not the only means of communication where rhetoric is used. Texts are additionally written for a specific group of people. No matter what is being written or said, a person who utilized rhetoric is always adapting his or her words or actions to suit a certain audience. Academic textbooks do this in particular. Faigley states that these disciplines (different academic subjects) are their own discourse communities, each with their own terms, values, and methods of argument (Faigley, 52). Each person is different and therefore will be persuaded differently. This is an ideal you consider for your own presentation. Are you writing or speaking to a group of peers? A professional? A professor? What are you trying to convey to this audience member? All of these are valid questions that correspond to the main, overarching idea: What are you trying to do here?

Secondly, you need to understand what you are trying to accomplish, and then move forward towards how you plan to accomplish this idea. If you are planning on giving a speech with the intention of promoting, say, the legalization of illegal drugs, you must evaluate the type of audience that would be most likely to resonate and sympathize with the idea. Though the speech could be physically performed in the most eloquent and convincing way, deciding to give the speech to, say, a group of parents with children aged 15-20 may not be the best idea. You must understand your “constraints,” or your limitations, as a rhetor. This could include the area where the speech takes place or is being read, the beliefs of the audience, and the overall mindset and motives of the audience (Grant-Davie,“Rhetorical Situations and their Contexts,” 272). Although such constraints may limit your presentation, they will ultimately give structure to what your presentation may be. It will make it easier for you to decide what to include and what to throw away.

Using “appeals” to connect with your selected audience is another aspect to consider. There are three different strategies, or “appeals,” to achieve this notion: pathos, logos, and ethos. While logos corresponds to the factual sense of rhetoric and pathos brings the emotional and passionate senses to attention, I would argue the most important appeal to keep in mind in regards to audience is ethos. According to Aristotle, the creator of these three ideals, ethos is “the persuasive appeal of one’s character, especially how this character is established by means of the speech or discourse” (“Forest of Rhetoric”) Being able to convince an audience as to why you are passionate about your topic speaks volumes about not only the type of person you are, but what you hope to accomplish. Michael Holleran, the author of “Aristotle’s Concept of Ethos, or If Not His Somebody Else’s” is a great source for further reading about the idea of “ethos” within your own writing and orations. He states that:

“An understanding of ethos or character becomes a source of subject matter for speeches. More importantly, a speaker must understand ethos is order to create in his audience a strong and favorable impression of his own character.” (60) So basically, being able to sell yourself as well as your message is key for swaying audiences.

Whether you know it or not, you’ve probably utilized all of these rhetorical ideals before. But by being aware that your actions have been studied, tested, and been proven successful, your presentation or any rhetorical situation will be enhanced in your favor. By evaluating who your audience is, understanding your constraints, and adapting your words to put yourself in the best light, you can begin the path to persuading and relaying your ideas.

Faigley, Lester.  “Nonacademic Writing: The Social Perspective.” Professional Writing and Rhetoric. Tim Peeples, ed. New York: Addison Wesley Educational, 2003. Print.

“Forest of Rhetoric.” Silva Rhetoricae. Ed. Gideon O. Burton. Brigham Young University, n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2016. <>.

Grant-Davie, Keith. “Rhetorical Situations and Their Constituents”. Rhetoric Review 15.2 (1997): 264–279. Web.

Halloran, S. Michael. “Aristotle’s Concept of Ethos, or If Not His Somebody Else’s.”Rhetoric Review 1.1 (1982): 58–63. Web.

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