2 – Rhetorical Situation

Context

Anonymous; Matt McKinney; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt

refers to all the surrounding factors that impact a document’s creation and presentation. These factors include physical considerations, such as the location of a speech or whether a document is electronic or printed. Other surrounding factors could be social, cultural, and political considerations such as political climate, current events, and how different groups of people interact. For example, if you are going to be presenting a speech in class, your context will include the familiar space of your classroom, the time of day you are presenting (8:00 a.m. or after lunch), the time limit of your presentation, whether you can (or must) use visual aids such as slides or handouts, and any current events such as the football team winning a game the night before, or a global pandemic resulting in half the class participating virtually.

Context is also interdependent with the other five elements in the rhetorical situation. The audience, for example, is often central to the context of a rhetorical situation, because their needs and expectations for the deliverer are shaped by social and professional expectations. The deliverer’s ethos and purpose can also be shaped by these same factors or by a different context entirely. For example, a chemical company might own plants in the United States and Japan. If a manager from the U.S. plant plans to conduct a conference call, face-to-face meeting, or presentation with their colleagues in Japan, they likely will not approach these rhetorical situations exactly as they would for an all-American audience. Instead, they will have to be mindful of both cultural contexts in order to adapt their communication effectively to their audience’s expectations.

Genre conventions themselves emerge from specific contexts that change over time. Context can also determine what topics are important to potential audiences and deliverers in a given moment (in rhetoric, this is called , which refers to a particularly favorable moment for an action or decision to occur).

As a functional example of context, you can analyze the rhetorical situation of a recommendation report for a business:

  • First, the context of the report will include the issue that the company wants investigated and addressed (i.e., the topic).
  • The culture and business practices of the company are likely connected to the issue, so they are also contextual factors that shape the audience’s needs and expectations regarding the report, as well as the deliverer and their purpose.
  • Recommendation reports typically follow project proposals, progress reports, and/or forms of correspondence; all of these prior documents and exchanges will shape the report’s context.
  • The roles and responsibilities the audience and deliverer have within the company will contextualize the report as well.
  • Further still, the way the report is structured and formatted will also be influenced by genre conventions, which can be contextualized both by the company and the larger industry in which it participates.

As this example illustrates, the layers of context that shape and influence a rhetorical situation expand widely in scope, with wider layers like industry standards and culture influencing narrower ones like deliverer-audience relationships. Concretizing these dynamics helps writers determine which ones are more important, particularly the ones that may be less obvious at first glance. Whenever you craft technical documents, always take context into account.

This text was derived from

University of Minnesota. Business Communication for Success. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing, 2015. https://open.lib.umn.edu/businesscommunication/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication by Anonymous; Matt McKinney; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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