Department of Communication



The Nature of Rhetorical Communication

Chapter 2

Rhetorical communication centers on our ability to influence and control others. Without the ability to influence or control our lives in any fashion, we are at risk of being little more than pawns to others. If we can effectively communicate using rhetorical skills then we increase our chances of success in whatever field we work. This could be one of the strongest assets you can acquire while in college—the ability to reason and argument rhetorically.

Rhetorical argument is not blaming someone. Today it is commonly used in a most pejorative way; making rhetoric sound like little more than name-calling and childish arguing. What we want to do with good rhetorical reasoning is to win over an audience—which can be any onlookers, television viewers, an electorate or each other.

Our society tends to admire the straight shooters, the ones who follow their gut regardless of what anyone thinks. Unfortunately, those people rarely get their way in the end. Aggressive loudmouths often win temporary victories through intimidation or simply talking others to exhaustion, it’s the subtler, eloquent approaches that lead to long-term commitment. You succeed in an argument when you persuade your audience. Do not confuse good rhetoric with “argument by the stick.” This is essentially fighting or intimidation. It never persuades; it only inspires revenge. Persuasion tries to change your mood, your mind, or your willingness to do something. So the basic difference between an argument and a fight: an argument when done skillfully, gets people to want to do what you want. You fight to win, you argue to achieve agreement.

The skilled rhetorician relies on desire, understanding, and experience. We first must want (desire) to achieve something. Then we must study or work (understanding) to learn our trade. And finally, only through applications and time (experience) can be refine our understanding and turn it into influence and control.

The Meaning of Rhetorical Communication

Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty (ability) of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” In other words, communicators must consider the widest possible variety of materials for inclusion into the message. The communicator must decide what to leave in and what to leave out. Each audience and each topic have needs and material must be sought to fill those needs. And the “all available means of persuasion” portion of the definition suggests that care has to be given as to how the message is organized, the patterns of reasoning used, the language or style of communicating and the delivery (if done orally). Another definition of rhetoric is described as “the use of common ideas, conventional language, and specific information to change the listeners’ feelings and behaviors.” The story that rhetoric tells is always a story told with a purpose, never told for the sake of its own sake.

Given this last definition of rhetoric, it involves five basic factors:

The speaker ties to exact change by using language rather than non-symbolic forces (like guns or torture).

The speaker must come to be regarded as a helper rather than an exploiter.

The speaker must convince the listener that choices need to be made.

The speaker must narrow the listeners’ options for making these choices.

The speaker must become subtle by not specifying the details of the policies advocated.

Communication, in general, is defined differently by different people. But recurring concepts think of the message as the “sending a communication,” transferring messages from one place to another, or one person stimulating meaning in the minds of others. As our text says, “the process of stimulating meaning in the mind of another by means of a message.”

Types of Communication:

Accidental—no intention to stimulate meaning; but meaning was communicated, nonetheless. Probably through tone of voice and nonverbal communication this most often occurs. This is easy to do this with people from other cultures.

Expressive—emotions and motivations are critical here. There is usually an intention of communicating with another in this case.

Rhetorical—the communicator gives thought to the intended message and stimulates the receiver in a manner designed to achieve a specific result. The use of verbal and nonverbal messages is frequently required.

Rhetorical Communication is goal-oriented; meaning that it seeks to create a specific meaning in the mind of the audience. We typically will continue communicating until we achieve the desired result. But sometimes we don’t get what we want no matter how clear or goal-oriented our communication was. In such cases we give up readjust our goals. A smart communicator recognizes when it’s time to change tactics. Just keeping our heads down and plowing ahead despite evidence to the contrary suggests more stubbornness than intelligence.

Models of the Communication Process

The Shannon & Weaver Model (figure on page 23) is a good starting point to understand the communication process from an element perspective. It lacks in some basic principles of communication, but its value lies in taking a complex act and reducing it to isolated and specific elements. It allows us to see communication in a very basic and fundamental way.

The Rhetorical Communication Model (figure on page 23) centers on the source, the channel and the receiver. It does not occur within a vacuum but rather all communication operates within an environment or context that affects the receiver and sender. Every source has to conceive of the idea to be expressed; must determine the intent toward the receiver; and determine what meaning that is hoped to stimulate in the receiver’s mind. You’ve got to think about those three acts before saying or writing anything. Once you’ve got an idea, whether it’s pro, con, or neutral toward the receiver, and the meaning you want the audience to come away with, you can then move to crafting the actual message through the encoding process.

The Encoding Process--

We must consider our audience and how they will likely react to our message. Take the idea you’ve got and turn it into something that the receiver can understand. What to consider: disposition (arrangement), invention, and style. We arrange the ideas in an order or pattern that will increase our odds of success. We choose our words in a manner that will resonate with the receiver. All audience members have a frame of reference, which is the sum total of their life’s experience. Better we understand that collective frame of reference, the more likely our message will resonate with them. But if we craft our message to suit our needs or interests, we are likely to fail. We must stay focused on the receiver-centered reality of this. Ignoring the receiver is not rhetorical communication. In short, we create the idea, we arrange our ideas, and then select our words to say it.


Primary channel may be written or oral. In some cases, the channel may be visual as well. More on this later so stay tuned!

The Decoding Process

Very subjective; what/how we decode is largely based on our frame of reference; how we see the world. The elements we move through are

Hearing and/or seeing—sometimes one or the other; sometimes both.

Interpretation—receivers determine what they think the sender means. This may be correct or not; no guarantees on accuracy.

Evaluation—we decide how we feel about the message; its personal significance or meaning to us, and frequently influenced by our backgrounds and life experiences (our frames of reference).

Response—any kind of reaction to the message; may be overt (verbal or visual reaction) or covert (how we feel and not observable).

Once the message has been decoded with the response, the rhetorical communication has ended; the process is complete.

Other elements of the Rhetorical Communication Model that affect the success or failure of the message:

Noise—anything that interferes with the message’s intended meaning in the mind of the receiver. There are different types of noise:

“Foggy thinking” (page 26) or poorly prepared; partially familiar; distorted perceptions of the data or improperly analyzed toward audience’s best interest.

Improper encoding occurs when the speaker doesn’t understand how to correctly invent, arrange or use language (style). In short, the intended message will be dramatically different from the actual message. For example, a public speaker who is unprepared, speaks in a monotone, has too many “um’s” “er’s” and such, or in any way presents a poorly organized and delivered message.

Physical noise; loud sounds may be a distraction though seldom occurs and usually can be rectified.

Noise can occur in either the sender or source just as it can in the receiver (internal noise via daydreaming or other mental distractions). The more “noise” the receiver experiences, the less likely the message received will be the one intended.

Feedback Channel—feedback from receiver (page 27) to the source, however, is not an essential part of the rhetorical communication process. It can occur only when the two are in proximity with each other. Published documents provide feedback for readers but only via letters and after time. Public speeches, however, can generate feedback immediately. Feedback-induced adaptation (page 28) allows the speaker to react to and adjust a message based on immediate audience reactions. Because of this option, person-to-person communication has a greater chance for success than does written messages. Caveats: we may misinterpret feedback and thus, adapt improperly and damage our chances for success. Or some people cannot adapt their message regardless of the feedback and are doomed to failure.

Interpersonal Communication Model—(figure on page 29)

A more accurate depiction of what actually occurs in a rhetorical setting between speaker and receiver. Feedback is more accurately reflected as occurring simultaneously between the two parties. A perpetual cycle exists; no ending per se. As the audience grows, the sender must be sensitive to increased feedback from more sources.

Some Important Distinctions—

Intentional v. Accidental Communication: Rhetorical communication is intentional by definition but sometimes we get lucky by making a mistake (accident) and getting what we want. Someone might violate certain rules like failure to analyze their audience; fail to carefully select their words, etc. yet still achieve the desired result. Don’t confuse the fortunate accident with being an effective rhetorical communicator. It’s better to be prepared and skilled than unprepared and lucky.

Expressive v. Rhetorical Communication: Expressive or source-centered versus Rhetorical or receiver-centered. With expressive communication we are more concerned to providing information as clearly as we can. Whether this has an effect on the receiver, we are less concerned. Rhetorical communication seeks to affect change in the receiver; that means that the receiver acquires the meaning that the sender intended. Or at least, that is the goal.

Investigation v. Rhetorical Communication: Key point is that we need to vigorously investigate or seek out information to build our message for our audience. The fact that we research material before we encode our message is not enough to be considered a rhetorical effort. It is important to investigate but investigation is not part of the rhetorical process.

Misconceptions about Communication—

Meanings are in words—meanings exist in our minds; not in the words we choose. Our job is to choose words that hopefully will generate the meaning in the receiver that we want. No two people share exactly the same meaning for a word(s), but by knowing our audience we can better choose words that will resonate positively. How hard is it to communicate effectively with people from other countries, other cultures, different age groups, etc.? We can do it, but it takes thought and skill.

Communication is a verbal process—don’t forget the value or importance of nonverbal communication. More on the importance of this in a later chapter.

Communication will solve all problems—No magic cures; sometimes the best rhetorical communicator in the world will fail. Unless both parties are active and willing; success is unlikely. Sometimes more communication has the opposite effect; creates more problems than solves. Saying the wrong thing; not knowing when to “shut up” might make matters worse than silence would. There’s an old saying that goes something like, “sometimes it best to be thought the fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Communication is a good thing—quality is always more valuable than mere quantity. We may be able to talk a lot but accomplish little (communication overload). When we disagree with someone, the more they say the worse we feel or the madder we get. It is the quality we disagree with and causes the problems.

Telling is Communicating—just saying something, having words come out of your mouth, is not necessary communicating it to your audience. This relates to the audience frame of reference and the care we put into word selection and the organization of our thoughts before they become words.

Communication breakdown—(not to be confused with the Led Zeppelin song of the same title). Easy to blame “communication breakdown as the culprit for poor communication. In reality, it is one or both parties who must share the blame. Even when we stop talking to one another, we still communication “something” by our use of silence. Silence will be interpreted as some kind of message; possibly not what we would intend.

Communication is a natural ability—it is a learned behavior; not a natural or inborn skill. There are not “natural born communicators” but rather individuals who have learned their craft well. Once we acquire the desire to be good…we can gain the knowledge by learning in school settings, and finally hone our skill with experience and practice.

Goals of Rhetorical Communication

Very basically and clearly, the purpose of this course and rhetorical communication is to generate a desired response from an audience or receiver. But we must consider what possible receiver responses exist. They could be ones we had not wanted nor anticipated.

Possible Receiver Responses

The audience needs to evaluate a concept or idea before it can have an attitude. If something is foreign to me, my attitude is neither positive nor negative. Depending on what the audience knows the speaker might want to form an understanding, or strengthen an attitude, or change an attitude. Those are possible responses that might come from an audience. Key: create an understanding….form an attitude…. strengthen an attitude….and change an attitude.