Department of Communication



Message Preparation: Style

Chapter 13

Concern in this chapter is with completing the message started with invention and continued on with disposition or arrangement. In short, putting substance to the format previously established. Stylistic choices; the way language is used to convey meanings.

The Function of Style—

Style is what makes our message come alive. A poorly chosen word can be deadly if trying to persuade an audience. We don’t “pick out a style” per se, but rather it is an outpouring of own personality via the language we use. The more we communicate, the more our style becomes punctuated and recognized. As our book states, “Style determines, to a major extent, the meaning that is stimulated in the mind of the receiver by the message.” Good style will stimulate meaning; poor style will distort meaning. There are many specific characteristics and techniques of style to be discussed:

Characteristics of Good Style—

Accuracy and clarity—this is achieved if the meaning the source intended is transferred to the audience. Were the correct words chosen? If so, the words were accurate. If the audience understands them, the words were also clear. It is very possible that we may be perfectly accurate in our word choice, but not clear at all. If the audience can’t understand the words’ meanings, then our message is not clear (even if accurate). Grammatically words also aid in the clarity and accuracy. We may still understand grammatically incorrect words, but too many of these flaws can damage any speaker’s ethos. We are more tolerant when the speaker has had little time to prepare and makes mistakes. We are far less tolerant when preparation time was available and still grammatical errors occur.

Propriety—the language should be appropriate to the source, the subject being discussed, and to the audience. A style of language appropriate in one setting or with one particular audience may be highly inappropriate in another. We should always adapt to our audience, but never to the point of changing who we are in our language style. In other words, don’t add a certain accent to your language just because others use it; don’t use poor grammar just because your audience may be poorly educated or young, etc. You’ll look like a phony.

Economy—Don’t say anymore than you have to say but be sure to say enough to be understood. Granted, it takes more language (more words) to get a message across orally than it does in print (Tarver’s Law of Conciseness*) but we must always look for ways to economize our use of words. The Ragsdale study found that audience were more favorably predisposed to messages that were shorter than those that went on at greater length.. In short (pun intended), short messages will usually be more effective than longer ones.

Vivacity—the quality of interest or impressiveness that is reflected in the language used in a message. Some messages leave us with lasting images and memories. There are many specific techniques (to be covered later) that can be used to create this sense of vivacity. Typically, considerable thought goes into language that creates this impression. We seldom stumble into such impressiveness. Language that is vibrant will help gain an audience’s selective attention—it will give them a reason to pay attention. It will help gain the audience’s attention and also help them recall the message long after the communication is over.

Differences in Oral and Written Style—

Page 236 offers a list of 12 differences between oral and written style that are likely to be natural ones as opposed to differences employed by individuals on a selective basis. In general, we can see that oral style tends to be less formal; more personal; sometimes less grammatically ideal; more repetitious and more casual in its overall effect than does the written word. *Tarver’s Law of Conciseness argues that we need to be more repetitious with the spoken word since the audience has but one opportunity to hear the message. The written word allows for as many readings as the receiver desires.

Factors of Attention and Interest—

It is vital to gain and maintain your audience’s attention. Simplistic but true; without getting our audience’s attention from the start, we are destined to fail in our message. Never forget the concept of selective attention and play a role as your audience’s guide to your ideas. Interest and attention are not identical but each is necessary for the source to create in the audience. We will pay attention to items we find interesting. And it will have some degree of influence on us. Some subjects will naturally gain our interests. Text cites FDR’s declaration of war speech (page 238) in 1941. We all know President Bush’s speech shortly after September 11. In addition to some subjects being of natural interest, some people naturally draw our interests as well. Yet reality suggests that few subjects are inherently captivating and maybe even fewer individuals draw and keep our attention based merely on who they are. But that is no reason why subjects can’t be made interesting and why all of us can’t be interesting in how we craft and deliver our message. Interest and attention can be generated via the manner we communicate. It is important to consider certain elements of language that can be used to create interesting and attention-getting effects on an audience. Some of them are as follows:

Concreteness—you will usually be served better by making abstract ideas more concrete or tangible to an audience. Use of specific examples and stories help bring abstract ideas to life and allow the audience to fully see or appreciate what we are trying to convey. If we can’t “see” what the speaker is communicating, we are apt to let our selective attention drift to something else.

Conflict—sometimes an aggressive and abrasive style of communicating can generate interest. Of course, there is the potential for a backlash if the audience feels such behavior is inappropriate or unwarranted. We have seen conflict employed by some religious leaders in this country since September 11. Certain uses of language suggest overt a battle between “good and evil.” While this arouses interests and draws attention, its effectiveness and appropriateness lies in the minds of the receivers.

Humor—potentially your best friend or worst enemy. Always best left to those who can incorporate a message into their humor while not insulting an audience. A tricky proposition, at best.

Personal Touch—we attend to; we pay more attention to messages that are aimed at us; at our needs and interests. When a message is “personalized” we feel the speaker is talking to us and addresses issues that affect our lives.

Variety—offering a variety of ways to present a message. Short sentences with longer ones. Various types of support and stylistic devices. Etc. Of course, too much of anything can be bad, but spicing up a message with fresh perspectives will always be plus.

Emphasis—studies indicate that repetition is a good way to create a sense of emphasis in the message. Not just repeating an idea but restating in a new or fresh manner. Other ways to create emphasis include using direct or bold statements….short pauses are often effective at drawing attention….raising your voice or making forceful gestures can work as well.


This is the process by which meanings are generated in the minds of the audience without specific or overt references. An effective rhetorical communicator will use it; not be used by it. It is always present and unavoidable. As we have seen, a powerful speaker ethos can persuade an audience without needing a lot of data in support. This so-called “prestige suggestion” is evident in certain communicators. The communicator must pay careful attention to the connotative meaning of the word; not the denotative. As we have seen in the last year…the word Islamic… generates very different meanings depending on where it is said and to which audience hears it. The power of suggestion sometimes results in an audience accepting the message without critical analysis. Whether this is ethical or not is something to be discussed in the final chapter. Communicators have to decide whether it is wiser to make their point directly or more subtly, through suggestion. Usually, the direct statement will be more effective and long-lasting in the audience’s mind. Two key conclusions: (a) better to be direct if your audience is not well educated, if they are not well informed, or if the issue is complex; and (b) you be either direct or more subtly with equal effectiveness if the audience is well educated, and the subject matter is not overly complex. In short, when in doubt, use direct statements to make your point. When is a suggestion better than a direct statement? One time is when the conclusion has a highly personalized relationship to the individual drawing it. And the second one is when the source of the communication is perceived to be a relatively low in ethos. It is logical to assume that low ethos people would be wise to draw a conclusion based on other evidence; not their own opinions or experience.

Satire and Humor—

In most cases these techniques work best when used via suggestion rather than directly stated. Let the audience draw the conclusion rather than you give it to them directly. However, research strongly suggests to use humor and satire with caution. The potential exists for the audience either failing to see the humor or appreciate the satire; or having the whole process boomerang and generate the opposite effect than was intended. There have been some instances that satire has created positive effects in persuasion, but not enough to be confident in it as a stylistic device for effecting change. In short, a direct statement is almost always more effective in creating a change in attitude in an audience than is the use of satire. The overall results of studies from using humor/satire is that they are not a generally good way to enhance the communication effects.

Controlling Message Discrepancy through Style—

In many communication situations we find ourselves having to express positions or messages than are different from those our audience holds. We know that when the message discrepancy is extreme (see Chapter 4) the chances of us changing attitudes is dubious and in some cases the reverse effect occurs. But the use of style is one way to lessen such discrepancy. Careful selection of language will be most helpful in defusing situations in which the source and audience differ in opinion. “Fear appeals” can be powerful ways to control message discrepancy. Such as asking Americans to give up some freedom to help fight the terrorist threat in this country. We don’t want to give up our freedoms but the fear of what occur if we don’t “bend” a little, might change our attitudes to accepting less freedom if we can feel safer from terrorist attacks. Another example of a fear appeal is shown on page 244. The Miller-Hewgill study (page 244) concludes that if the audience is likely to view as being high-ethos, we can employ a stronger fear appeal and the audience is likely to agree with our position. If, however, the source is of lower ethos in the audience’s eyes, then there is little difference in the effect from using either strong or mild fear appeals. Using strong-fear effect appeals should be used only when essential since over-use can result in a loss of credibility in anyone; even high-ethos communicators. For example: too many terrorist warnings from the FBI can lead to a loss of credibility in the minds of many Americans. How we use language (such as with very intense words) will enhance whatever message discrepancy exists. Perceived message discretion is increased between speaker and audience when the speaker uses militant language and highly opinionate rejection statements of those held by the audience. This is certainly not a surprising conclusion. And if you are going to throw the proverbial “monkey wrench” into the communication mix with your audience (i.e. use inflammatory language), you would be very wise to ensure the audience views you as a communicator is high ethos.

Distortion and Prior Knowledge of Sources’ Attitude--

Through stylistic choices we can influence what our audience perceives (at least to some degree) about our message. We approach most communication situations with a fairly clear idea of what we will encounter. The self-fulfilling prophecy is partly at work here. What the audience expects a speaker to say (or write) will influence them somewhat on whether or not to even avail themselves to the message in the first place. In other words, I’m not likely to go listen to a speaker or read a column if I think it will only anger me or be contrary to my views. The very essence of selective exposure. Sometimes, however, we must communicate to an audience an idea or message that is not what they expect. When they happens, clarity of style is not enough when audience expectations are contrary to the message intent. In short, if you have any hope of getting the audience to agree with you and your message is contrary to what they had anticipated, you need to be very explicit that your position is very different from what they had expected. And it is also wise to tell them why it is different.

Style, Power, and Behavioral Alternation Messages—

How powerful a communicator is perceived is influenced by the words used. Perception of power can be increased or reduced if we use the right or wrong words to particular audiences. Power can be exerted in a variety of ways. Our text lists 22 different techniques that can be use (pages 247-249). Guilt is one technique that is often employed to influence our behavior. While it is a powerful motivating force, if overused it can have detrimental effects on the ethos of the speaker.