The rhetorical triangle is a helpful way to visualize the context of any piece of writing. Persuasive writers don’t just put words down for their own sake. Rather, they begin with a position on an issue which they wish to communicate and an audience whom they wish to persuade to accept and act on that position. The notes below address each point on the triangle, and its permeating concept, purpose.
What is the primary purpose of the piece – to inform, to persuade, to entertain, to provoke thought?
Writers have a purpose when they address an audience, and this purpose influences every aspect of their work. Expository essays mainly convey information to entertain and/or provoke thought. Such essays will often have some element of persuasiveness to them – if I tell you a story of a car wreck, I probably hope you will drive more carefully – but the writer allows the information to speak for itself and does not explicitly try to persuade the readers to embrace some belief or follow some course of action. Reports are usually informative, their purpose being to give information to someone else who will use it in a decision-making process (such as managers or CEOs in a business setting), or compare it to information gathered by others (such as scientists studying an issue). News reports are supposed to be informative; how many ways do you see that they are often subtly (or even overtly) persuasive in style?
Persuasive writings have persuasion as their primary purpose. Newspaper editorials and public policy essays argue for a position the writer believes to be best; sermons persuade us to live righteously; advertising screams at us to buy products to make our lives better. Academic essays are often persuasive in nature, though they may at times be reports on information gathered.
Audience: Reader or Listener
Knowing your audience is vital in developing an argument. Of course, we can’t always know a great many details about the people we are writing to, but there’s always something that will help us. Writing doesn’t just appear in a void; it is published in a newspaper, magazine, book, or some such place. There is no publication that is read by “everybody” or “the general public.” Nor is there any publication which reaches “anybody who is interested in my topic.” One of your jobs when preparing an essay is to research an assigned (or chosen if given that option) publication to figure out just who might read your essay if it were published there. Some of the questions you need to consider:
What do they know about the topic already? What do they need to know to understand the message? What is their likely attitude toward the message? What values and worldview do they hold?
Reading some of the articles in a publication, looking at the publisher’s notes on demographics and purpose, paying attention to the advertising: these are ways to begin understanding who the readers are, how much they might already know about your topic, what kind of values they hold, and how those values influence what they think about your position on your topic. Knowing these things helps you decide how much information you need to give, what needs to be explained or defined, and what you can assume them to know already.
What common ground do they have with the rhetor? What values do they not share with the rhetor? What assumptions may they hold about the topic that are/are not the same as the rhetor’s?
It’s also important to consider how much your readers are like you. If you share basic values, it is of course easier to write to them. If they don’t, it means you must work harder to find common ground. If their worldview differs, they may have completely different assumptions about your topic which you will need to recognize and address in some way. How can you win readers who hold very different values and not just rack up points for denigrating or humiliating them? Can you believe that people who disagree with you can be wrong but honest, can be reasonable people of good will? Are you willing to research their position and even concede that they may be, at least in part, right?
Rhetorical appeal related to audience: pathos —the emotions that convince the audience’s heart so they will want to act on the message, but without merely manipulating them. (We will discuss these appeals in more detail a bit later in the course.)
Rhetor: Writer or Speaker
Who is the rhetor in regard to the message? Is he an expert, an explorer, a questioner? What is his point of view in regard to the message – for/against, conservative/liberal, religious/secular, etc.? Does he care deeply about it? Is he fair in his portrayal of it?
These questions will help you in analyzing others’ work, of course, but you should consider them for yourself and your own work as well. How much do you know (and how much do you need to find out to write credibly)? Are you either so uninterested in the subject that you are writing dully or so attached to it that you cannot be fair to and respectful of those who disagree with you? Are you stating your position clearly and confidently without crossing the line into arrogance?
Who is the rhetor in regard to the audience? Is he a peer, an authority? Is he a stranger or known to them? Older or younger? Knows more or less about the topic? etc.
When considering these questions, you are discovering what tone to use and how much information to give your readers. If you are writing to peers, you may be more informal than in writing to people in authority over you; in writing to strangers you’ll want to avoid unnecessary possibilities of offense; if your audience knows less than you, you’ll want to instruct but without being preachy; etc. Do you have the audience’s good in mind and not just a desire to see them proven wrong or to get your own way?
Rhetorical Appeal related to rhetor: ethos – what is the writer’s moral character, as seen in the text itself? Can he be trusted; does he have the audience’s good in mind and not just his own agenda? Does he treat opponents fairly? Does he share common assumptions about the world?
What is the assertion being made about the topic? What is the evidence that supports it? Is the analysis logical? What assumptions underlie the message?
Here is the heart of an argument. Your job as a writer is to find all the ways available to you to persuade your audience that your position is the best one, so that they will embrace and act on it. Therefore, your claim (assertion, controlling idea) must be clear to your readers, it must be backed up by excellent, relevant evidence of various types its analysis of that evidence must be logical, and it must be founded on right assumptions about human nature and the world we live in.
Is the message one which the rhetor is qualified to speak on?
The writer’s knowledge of the topic should of course be clearly demonstrated. When you make obvious errors in information, and even in terminology, your audience rightly distrusts everything else you may say.
Is the message shaped to meet the needs of the audience?
If you write over your audience’s heads, or if you condescend to them, if you assume too much or too little about their knowledge of the topic, you will rightly lose their respect. If you appear to look down on anyone who disagrees with your position, the same is true.
Rhetorical appeal associated with the message: logos – the good reasons which convince the audience’s mind and produce conviction that the message is true.
Audience, writer, message, and purpose: all four work together and influence each other. The more you learn to keep the complete context in mind as you plan and write, the more effectively you will be able to persuade your audience that you have ideas worth considering.