The word “rhetoric” is hard to pin down. Often, it’s negatively associated with political speech and dubious agendas. But like magic or “The Force,” rhetoric is merely a tool that can be used for good, evil and neutral purposes to influence the world around us. Rhetoric is how we use language to achieve a goal in any situation, whether that’s to persuade, inform or entertain.
“Very simply, language shapes our world and puts names to objects and behaviors so we can talk about them, and rhetoric is the study of how language shapes behaviors and beliefs,” says Martha Brenckle, professor of writing and rhetoric at the College of Arts and Humanities.
In fifth-century Athens, the study of rhetoric developed alongside democracy and played a central role in the development of Western politics and education. Today, it continues to be taught at universities to train future lawyers, teachers, creative writers, politicians, marketers and effective communicators of all kinds. But even beyond the podium or the courtroom, rhetoric is something we both use and consume every day.
Below, we’ll discuss some basic models of rhetoric and how you can use them to effectively express your ideas in everyday situations.
The Rhetorical Situation
To be effective, a message cannot exist in a vacuum. The rhetorical situation maps out the situational context, genre, purpose and intended audience of your message. This model is also known as kairos, which is ancient Greek for “the right time.” It means choosing the opportune moment to deliver a particular message, or even creating that moment.
Taking the holistic context of a situation into account is essential to create a message that resonates. For example, the way you explain a concept to your boss will be different than how you explain that same concept to your younger nephew.
“We need to use rhetoric to succeed in everyday situations,” says Brenckle. “Understanding the rhetorical situation (when and where you are and what’s at stake), your audience (the attributes of people you want to persuade) and the rhetor (thinking about what you want to happen) can help you call members to action at a club meeting or persuade admissions counselors to give you a scholarship.”
Below are the parts of a rhetorical situation:
- Audience: The intended readers or listeners of a message.
- Purpose: What the writer or speaker wants the message to accomplish, such as influencing an audience’s actions, thoughts or feelings on a subject.
- Genre: What category does your message belong to? Examples include an academic essay, a commencement speech, a cover letter or a social media post. Each category calls for adjustments to style, content and the conventions of the genre.
- Exigency: This answers the question: why is what you’re saying important to say now? Does it address a current issue? What situation sprung you to begin crafting your message?
- Context: This includes factors that affect the creation of the text, such as timing, news or current events.
In 350 B.C., Aristotle wrote On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, where he outlined the three rhetorical appeals that can be used to shape your words into an effective message. Each appeal engages with a different aspect of the human mind. A single message can use all three appeals, or just one or two, depending on the rhetorical situation.
- Logos: This argument speaks to the logical and reasonable side of the brain, building on facts and data to support its message.
- Ethos: This appeal emphasizes the credibility and trustworthiness of the person delivering the argument.
- Pathos: This element relates to your audience using emotion, whether it’s tugging at the heartstrings with an inspiring story or creating a humorous atmosphere.
Five Examples of Rhetoric in Everyday Life
Rhetoric is used in every field of employment, from communicating professionally with coworkers and customers to writing reports. But aside from specific job titles, below are a few examples of situations where anyone can use rhetoric to achieve a goal.
1. Politics and Civic Engagement
Since its ancient inception, the idea of rhetoric has been associated with politics. That’s because, in a democratic society, it’s crucial for politicians to craft timely messages made to complement a deep understanding of their audience’s wants and needs to advance their goal of being elected. As a citizen, analyzing the rhetorical situation and appeals being used in political discourse can help you objectively see the intentions of the speaker and whether you choose to ascribe to their argument.
“When then-Senator Obama gave his ‘Red and Blue’ speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, he thoroughly understood the rhetorical situation; he seized a rhetorical moment (kairos) and his powers of persuasion (logos, ethos and pathos) and gave a compelling speech,” Brenckle says. “Obama used rhetoric and persuaded his audience to think in a certain way. Many historians believe this speech began his ascent to the presidency.”
Rhetorical tools are also necessary for effective activism and civic engagement work. If there’s an issue in your community you feel passionate about, speaking at city council meetings, writing letters to local government or constructing protest materials are all situations where rhetoric must be carefully taken into consideration. Using each rhetorical appeal is needed to rally individuals, groups and local politicians toward your cause.
2. Job interviews
When preparing for a job interview, you are essentially making an argument to your potential employer about why you’re the perfect fit for the job. To effectively argue this, it’s crucial to consider the genre, context, audience, exigency and purpose.
“Understanding rhetoric comes in handy when you start having job interviews,” Brenckle says. “The rhetorical situation is the company you want to work for (what is the mission statement, what do they do and how do they do it, how successful is the company), the audience would be your supervisor, and you as the rhetor know this is a formal situation, so you dress in a suit and don’t chew gum.”
3. Parenting and Family
Using careful language can encourage good behavior and discourage rudeness and tantrums. It is also essential when negotiating with people you’re close with, to avoid misunderstandings and arguments.
“Parents use rhetoric when they try to shape their children’s behavior and uphold certain values,” Brenckle says. “We all know that when a parent calls you by your full legal name instead of your nickname, you are in a world of trouble. Family members use rhetoric when deciding what movie to [watch]; logically laying out an argument for Avengers over Avatar is using rhetoric.”
Knowing how rhetoric works can keep someone from using it against you and allow you to fall under the spell of persuasion. On the other hand, wielding rhetorical appeals effectively can help you convince your friends or loved ones from doing something that might hurt them.
“Understanding rhetoric can help you from succumbing to peer pressure and maybe talk your friends out of doing something dangerous, like skateboarding in the parking garage,” Brenckle says.
Why is Rhetoric Important?
When you’re writing a college essay, negotiating with a significant other or interviewing for your dream job, the rhetoric you use has the power to shape the course of your life. Language constructs the reality we all operate in — knowing how to use it can help us achieve goals in classrooms, careers and relationships while deconstructing messages used by others.
Learning rhetoric builds a foundation for strong communication skills that are highly desired in almost every field. Graduates of UCF’s Department of Writing and Rhetoric programs receive a comprehensive education that enables them to communicate effectively, persuasively, and ethically across a range of civic, professional, and educational contexts. UCF’s Department of Writing and Rhetoric offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as a minor and certificates, in online and in-person.