2 – Rhetorical Situation

Rhetorical Situation: An Overview and Key Terms

Matt McKinney; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; Anonymous; and Kalani Pattison

In the classical tradition, the art of persuasion is called rhetoric. In ancient Greece, this practice referred to spoken communication; now, rhetoric encompasses all forms of communication: written, verbal, and nonverbal. The circumstances in which you write a report, give a presentation, or communicate in any way form the rhetorical situation. “Circumstances” refers to the purpose of the communication, the audience, the writer/speaker’s abilities and expertise, the form of the communication (among many options: PowerPoint presentation, hard copy, double-spaced report, animated visuals), the occasion for which the communication was created, the actual content of the communication, and any surrounding social, political, or geographical contexts that impact communication.

Your understanding of the rhetorical situation will guide you as you employ various strategies that will then guide your listeners as they perceive and interpret your message. Several of the first questions audience members ask themselves are these: “Why should I listen to you?”; “What does what you are saying have to do with me?”; and “How does this help me?” We communicate through the lens of personal experience, and it’s only natural that we would relate what others say to our own needs and wants, but by recognizing that in our humanity we share many of the same basic motivations, we can find common ground based on mutual interest.

The rhetorical situation involves six elements: topic, deliverer, purpose, audience, genre/form, and context[1]:

Topic. The specific focus of a rhetorical situation. Both the deliverer and audience typically have a relationship with the subject, and there are often conventions for discussing them.

Deliverer. Also referred to as the “author,” “writer,” “speaker,” or “creator,” depending on the type or medium of communication. The person composing and sending a message on the subject/topic. May assume a particular identity (ethos) to do so effectively.

Purpose. The deliverer’s goal in relation to the topic and for addressing the audience. In technical and professional communication, the goal is almost always to persuade or inform.

Audience. The person(s), teams, organizations, or departments who may be receiving/consuming the deliverer’s message. The deliverer’s understanding of their audience is crucial.

Genre/Form. How the deliverer is transmitting the message and employing the conventions that accompany that textual form (text can refer to a variety of media, not just written forms).

Context. The broader background information in which this specific rhetorical interaction is situated.

By understanding the rhetorical situation, you can gauge the best ways to reach your readers or listeners and get your points across. In so doing, you’ll make the transition from your viewpoint to that of your audience. Remember that in order for communication to be effective, you require an audience to listen and respond to you. By looking to your audience and addressing their needs, you shift your attention from an internal focus (on yourself) to an external one (on them/others). This “other orientation” is key to your success as an effective communicator.

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.

  1. Charles Kostelnick and David Roberts, Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators (Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 1998).


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Rhetorical Situation: An Overview and Key Terms Copyright © 2022 by Matt McKinney; Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt; Anonymous; and Kalani Pattison is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.