If you’ve ever struggled to share an idea with a friend, family member, or co-worker, then you know that effectively communicating with other people can be challenging. Whether you’re posting to social media or arguing in the comments section of an article, it’s important to understand how to effectively persuade others. Luckily for us, the best tool for solving these problems has been in the public domain for roughly 2500 years: rhetoric.
While rhetoric has a long and complex history, it’s often simplified as something like “the art of bullshit.” I wish I could give you an academic definition that’s more memorable, but like I said, it gets complex. Still, if we move beyond bullshit, rhetoric can be one of the most useful frames for navigating everyday life and interactions with other people.
Aristotle — because, yes, every rhetoric conversation needs to start with him ? — described rhetoric as “the faculty of observing the available means of persuasion in a given situation.” That last part is important. Anytime we’re trying to communicate with someone, we’re doing so in a specific context. And in some contexts, unspoken rules guide our actions. For example, I can’t just walk up to someone in a grocery store and start lecturing them on the evils of capitalism. I mean, I could do that, but I’m probably not going to change their mind — I’m not going to be able to persuade them, because they probably just want to get their shopping done. Long, philosophical debates don’t usually take place in the checkout queue.
Skipping ahead just a bit — in the early 20th-century, I. A. Richards defined rhetoric as the study of “misunderstandings and their remedies.” While Aristotle focused on the analysis of a situation, Richards makes rhetoric more active, granting it the purpose of addressing and working through problems involving communication. And if you’ve spent more than five minutes on social media in the past decade, it’s pretty clear that misunderstandings are common. Instead of bullshit, rhetoric becomes a part of almost every human interaction, and more than a tool to win petty arguments or sell a product.
All of this sounds great, and you might be ready to jump on the team rhetoric bandwagon, but there’s still a problem. How do we actually use rhetoric to become better communicators?
Like most questions worth asking, there’s more than one answer, but to prevent this from becoming a book-length article, I’m going to focus on one solution.
The Rhetorical Situation
In 1968, Lloyd Bitzer wanted to understand how we use language to get things done. So he looked to Classical rhetorical theory to come up with a framework that could be used in everyday contexts. Bitzer identified the problems and situations humans faced as a driving force for the kinds of communication we needed to engage with to make changes in our world. Instead of having a broad, open-ended definition, Bitzer wanted to look at how rhetorical situations come into existence and how we address them. He wanted to make a better toolset.
Rhetoric gets complicated, but Bitzer’s new framework, “The Rhetorical Situation,” can make it more accessible. Because rhetoric is tied specifically to situations, we’re going to need some examples of what counts as a rhetorical situation.
Imagine that your university cycling club is holding a fundraiser at a local restaurant. For each person who orders a meal that night, the restaurant will contribute money to support your organization. Because you know how important that funding is to the club, you want to try to convince your friends to eat with you at the restaurant. In this situation, you’re going to need to use discourse to get your friends to go. It won’t require a lot of formal discourse to get them to come along — you’re not going to be writing them a fifteen page essay on the benefits of eating at the restaurant. More likely you’re going to use in-person or text conversations to persuade them.
Conversely, you might be working with your club to present a proposal in an upcoming local town meeting. You and your club are arguing that the town should invest in more bike lanes along main routes. Unlike the previous example, you’re not going to be able to rely upon informal conversation to get what you want. Instead, you’re going to have to use formal discourse that’s appropriate to the town meeting. You might have to write a lengthy report that discusses the costs and benefits of implementing the additional bike lanes, and you’ll have to abide by the rules about when to speak up in the meeting itself. You can’t just start shouting at the representatives in the middle of debate on a different topic.
Well, you could, but you’re not likely to find much success.
Both of these situations are rhetorical in nature. While you could go to the next town meeting and physically attack the city coordinator, it’s not likely to result in more bike lanes — just your arrest. Likewise, physical threats against your friends aren’t going to persuade them to support your cycling club — you’ll probably just have fewer friends. In these cases, physical action isn’t the answer, and in your academic and professional lives you’re most commonly going to encounter situations that require communication to solve.
These rhetorical situations are everywhere; later scholars argue that it’s almost impossible to catalogue the full number of occasions in our lives that call for discourse as a response. Unless we’re acting entirely alone like an Into the Wild-style hermit, it’s difficult to think of many situations that don’t involve conversation. So, in order to better understand how to navigate rhetorical situations, Bitzer identified and broke them down into three components: Exigence, Audience, and Constraints.
With these three concepts, Bitzer offers a toolkit to help you successfully address both your friends and your local representatives (or respond to any number of situations like wedding toasts, board meetings, policy proposals, eulogies, class presentations, etc.), and these three components are going to be an enormous help.
An exigence is a problem, event, or action that serves as the motivation of a situation. It’s the impetus, or the thing that the writer or speaker wants to change. It’s the prompt that inspires action.
If your cycling club is hosting a fundraiser to collect money for a campaign to get more bike paths built in a city, then that need for funds is the exigence to which you’re responding. You need money. And so you might ask your friends to donate or to participate in the fundraiser. In school, if you’re given a task — let’s say to write a 500 word summary — that is also an exigence. You have a problem that needs to be solved and writing or speaking is the way you’ll address that problem within a rhetorical situation.
But that isn’t the only way that exigencies come to affect us. Let’s say that you’re passionate about the health benefits associated with cycling, and you believe that public bike lanes are a crucial part of fostering public health. Suddenly a plan is introduced into your local legislature that says the expansion of several roads due to increased traffic means they will be removing bike lanes. You decide that you want to write a strong letter to your representative arguing that this plan should be halted and strongly reconsidered. In that situation, you’re also using discourse to address an exigence — a problem — in that you believe this new plan is deeply flawed.
By writing to your representative, you are responding to that exigence and attempting to solve the problem that has prompted your letter. Even taking part in a local protest by wielding signs outside your local legislature building is a rhetorical act to the extent that you are seeking to prompt conversation through the language, images, and references you’re showing.
So you might ask: isn’t exigence just a fancy term for purpose? And…not quite. In the last example, your purpose might be to use discourse to help stop the legislative bill under discussion. But the exigence is the issue that sparks you to intervene in the first place. In the above example, the introduction of the road expansion project is the exigence, and your purpose evolves as a result of you trying to address that exigence. Keith Grant-Davies, in his article, “Rhetorical situations and their constituents,” does a better job of summing this up than I can. If you want to identify an exigence, he argues you should ask the following questions:
- “What values are at stake” in the discussion of the issue?
- “Why is [this] discourse needed?”
- What is it that inspired you to speak or write on this topic?
- “What are the goals of [this] discourse? How is the audience supposed to react”?
Sometimes your main answer might be simply “I was told to do this.” But more frequently you’ll find that it’s an issue that you’ve identified with and want to solve.
Now that we’ve got exigence out of the way, let’s move onto a more familiar concept: audience. And yes, I know, you’ve been told to speak or write for an audience throughout your entire education.
Well, I’d like to ask you to start thinking of audience in a slightly different manner. Understanding an audience is a complex task. And I’m only going to scratch the surface of what rhetoric and communications scholars have suggested.
First, there are several ways in which we might encounter an audience. If we’re speaking directly to our local representatives or having a conversation with a friend in person, then the audience is a very real group of individuals that we’re facing in that moment. We have to do our best to reach out to that group and ideally are trying to persuade them in some way: either to take an action, to believe an idea, or take an interest in something.
When you’re telling your friend, “Hey, it’s getting late, let’s go get something to eat at the restaurant downtown since they’re hosting a fundraiser for my cycling club tonight,” you’re engaging in a kind of persuasion. And persuasion doesn’t have to be nefarious (you’re not trying to get them to invest in a Ponzi scheme, after all). But you’ve started a rhetorical situation, and while the physical exigence might be your hunger, it becomes rhetorical because you’re also trying to solve the problem of getting someone else to support the cycling club fundraiser.
So now you’re trying to make the case that you and your friend should solve these exigencies by going together to the restaurant. Maybe you even proposed the place because you know your friend really likes it. You knew — as an audience — they’d be receptive to the suggestion. In that case, you know you don’t need to make a lot of arguments about how the restaurant’ food is “really good” or “You just need to try the apple crumb cake!”
When it comes to larger groups of individuals, you don’t necessarily have the same level of insight. Have you ever tried to decide where to eat in a group of eight or more people? That probably took a bit more discussion and reasoning (if not flat out arguing), because not everyone might have been in the mood for the same kind of food. Even further removed, how do you make sense of an audience when you’re giving a work presentation to a group of thirty or more people?
Well, this is when you have to do your best to anticipate or “invent” that audience in your mind. This doesn’t mean that you should arbitrarily invent random, quirky characteristics for specific audience members, but you have to think about broader principles, such as
- Why is this group of individuals here together listening to you?
- Why do they care?
- What common goals do they share?
- And — recalling the previous section — how do they relate to the exigence of your discourse?
Based upon the exigence — the problem — you’re trying to solve, what makes that group interested in or able to solve it? Are they members of the same company? Do they share similar professional interests? Are they motivated by a similar political or social interest?
When you’re writing, it’s much the same, except now the audience is even a more abstract concept since it’s possible that you might never meet them in person. You might not know anything about them as individuals, and yet here is how an understanding of rhetorical situations can help.
When we talk about audience in a rhetorical framework, we’re talking about addressing individuals who have some capacity to respond to the situation. Here, a quick example.
If I’m a student on a college campus in Ireland, let’s say I want to organize a new student society devoted to watching, discussing, and studying the Joss Whedon sci-fi Western television series, Firefly. So I make a series of flyers with images from the show and spread them across campus. I start talking to my friends about why they should join and watch this show. Let’s say I’m bold enough to even deliver a public address to people in the student union that gets recorded and shared on social media.
Because I want to get people involved who already like or might like Firefly, I target my posters and speech around certain topics. Maybe I talk about how the show embodies many characteristics of classic science fiction. Or I compare it to other massive sci-fi franchises like Star Trek or Star Wars. Each of these decisions is in some ways already selecting an audience. Not everyone will be interested because not everyone likes the same things, but that’s okay, because you’re looking to get a specific group of people together. So some individuals make up your rhetorical audience while others might not.
Similarly, if I’m a student at a completely different university and come across a YouTube video of one of your public Firefly geek outs, I’m not going to be part of your rhetorical audience. Sure, I might like Firefly, but I’m not a student at your university, so your calls for a Firefly society won’t matter to me directly. I might applaud your efforts, but I’m too distanced from the situation to be part of that specific audience. Perhaps, though, it will inspire me to start a similar club, ultimately growing the fan base for Firefly as a knock-on effect.
So when you’re writing or speaking to a large, general audience, you’ll need to consider what makes that group of individuals part of the situation. What makes them willing or able to respond to the exigence?
This brings us to the final component of the Rhetorical Situation: constraints. Now, going into this, I’m going to ask you to bear with me, because constraints are perhaps the fuzziest of the categories, and I’m going to be oversimplifying them to some extent.
Imagine that conversation from earlier with your friend about going to the restaurant to support the cycling club. It’s easy enough to talk to a person when they’re standing right beside you, but what if you were each separated by a large river? Suddenly there are a few considerations you need to take in order to ensure your message gets across. Instead of speaking in a calm, quiet voice, now you have to shout. You also might use hand gestures to make sure your point gets across. These requirements, quite simply, are constraints.
As a speaker (or writer), any time you have something to say or share with another person or people, there are certain constraints that you’re going to have to face. Sometimes these constraints can be considered limitations. For example, one constraint of a written text is that you can’t adapt it on the fly. If you misunderstood your audience’s values or beliefs, then there might not be any way of salvaging your article (whereas in a speech, you could theoretically modify what you’re saying if you see that your approach isn’t working, or you could be able to directly answer any questions they have).
Likewise, if you’re sending a text message to a friend you can’t always get across the tone effectively, and even with the best emoji use, it’s not a full on replacement for facial expressions or hand gestures. So when you’re trying to be sarcastic, you have to find new ways of ensuring your audience gets the point.
However, constraints work both ways: they can also be affordances, or rather, good things. In the texting example, you’re missing out on tone of voice, but you can make it up with some other possibilities. First, you can communicate over any distance. Second, you can include a nice little animated gif or a link to a website or video; if you’re trying to give directions, it might be easier to send a Google Maps link than give oral directions. Those are things you simply can’t do in a typical face-to-face conversation.
Constraints also connect to expectations. If you’re giving a eulogy at a funeral, there are certain patterns that you’re going to be expected to include. You might be called upon to talk about the virtues of the deceased, or to share a story of personal connection with them. Constraints will even influence the clothes you’re expected to be wearing at a funeral. If you choose to wear joggers and talk about how much you hated the person who passed, you’ve violated those expectations, and the audience might not take anything you say seriously.
So the reason constraints can be so confusing is because they really can refer to two interconnected things:
- The “technological” limitations and affordances on what you can do in a particular medium (speaking in-person vs. writing an essay vs. recording a podcast), and
- the social conventions that you’ll be expected to obey.
First, technological constraints refer to the medium that you’re communicating through. If you’re giving a presentation, then you might ask: do I have a whiteboard to use? A projector to hook up to a computer? Should I use slides? Or should I focus on delivering humorous/engaging content apart from visuals?
The social conventions part comes next. What is expected of me? What does my audience anticipate I will do? What are the benefits of abiding by those expectations? What are the potential benefits of not abiding by them? (For example, will that make the presentation more memorable? More useful?) These are again a deep set of questions to run through, and the hard part is that there’s rarely an objectively correct answer to any of them. The best you can do is look to understand your audience well enough to anticipate the constraints they’re going to place upon you.
While constraints can be broken down even further, I hope this gives you some sense of how they function. Any time we communicate with another person, constraints influence us, regardless of whether we recognize them as disruptive or helpful.
The reason why “The Rhetorical Situation” has stuck around for so long—and has also been heatedly debated—is because it provides a tool for analyzing and creating discourse through speech, writing, or any other communicative medium. It won’t provide all the answers to creating a successful text, but analyzing each of these factors will make you more conscious of the contexts in which your words are circulating. At the very least, it will improve the chances that your ideas are understood by your audience.
Whenever you encounter a rhetorical situation — an instance where dialogue or discourse can be used to address an issue — try to break it down into the three components of exigence, audience, and constraints. You might find that it helps you better recognize how to solve the problem of communicating with and persuading other human beings.
Ultimately, this article is a primer. It describes some of the broadest components of rhetorical situations but by no means is it comprehensive. Use it to help you start mastering rhetorical situations, but also check out the referenced articles at the bottom to give you a more nuanced understanding of how rhetorical situations function.
Now go out there and get some more bike lanes built — or whatever it is you wish to accomplish!
References and Additional Readings
Biesecker, B.A., 1989. Rethinking the rhetorical situation from within the thematic of “Différance.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 22, 110–130.
Bitzer, L.F., 1992. The rhetorical situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 1–14.
Grant‐Davie, K., 1997. Rhetorical situations and their constituents. Rhetoric Review 15, 264–279. https://doi.org/10.1080/07350199709359219
Richards, I.A., 1965. The philosophy of rhetoric. Oxford University Press, London.
Vatz, R.E., 1973. The myth of the rhetorical situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric 154–161.