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The Rhetorical Triangle

Page history last edited by David King 12 years, 6 months ago

The Rhetorical Triangle

Making your writing credible, appealing, and logical


Does your heart sink a little when you are asked to prepare a written document or present information to an audience? If so, you’re not alone! Many people struggle with putting their ideas and thoughts on paper and delivering a message. It’s a skill that needs to be learned and practiced. 


Yet with the increase of email and telecommuting, delivering clear and persuasive communication is becoming more and more important. The trend is away from direct, one-on-one communication because people do not have to be face-to-face any more when they work together.


Perhaps the biggest problem with these changing communication methods is that when you write, you often don’t get a second chance to make your point in a different way. You get one shot, and if you lose your reader, it is difficult to get them back. This is why you need to pick and choose your words carefully, and present your points in a style, manner and sequence that best suits the message you are sending.


The Rhetorical Triangle is a useful way of formulating your thoughts and presenting your position. And here we look at how you can use it to improve your writing.



Understanding the Tool: Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the ancient art of using language to persuade. When rhetoric is used well, your audience easily understands what is being said, without noticing the style of presentation.  By taking the time to understand how rhetorical arguments are structured and presented, you can vastly improve your own writing and make your points clearly, efficiently and effectively. (An overview of the term “rhetoric” is explained pretty well in a YouTube video found at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmzu6-XC1SM)


The term “rhetoric” in modern language has been used to refer to arguments that are designed to obscure the truth. The word has therefore taken on a negative connotation (“All that politician does is spew rhetoric.”)

This is not the sense that we're using here when we talk about the Rhetorical Triangle.


Applying the principles of rhetoric helps you structure an argument so the truth becomes immediately apparent to your audience. With the Rhetorical Triangle approach, we focus on the three things that have the greatest impact on an argument:

  • The speaker (or writer);
  • The audience; and
  • The message


These three elements form the points of the Rhetorical Triangle:


According to this approach, these three factors are what determine the persuasiveness of your argument. Your writing – and any other form of communication – needs to take all three into consideration.


The Writer

Whether consciously or subconsciously, your audience wants to know what your motives are for your communication. If you don’t make it clear why you are presenting information, some will assume you are not being totally candid or are hiding something. Members of your audience may ask themselves:

  • Are you providing information?
  • Are you trying to educate?
  • Are you making a call for action?
  • Are you attempting to persuade others to change a perspective or firmly-held belief?
  • Are you presenting ideas for problem solving or analysis? Or
  • Are you just trying to entertain?  


The way in which the identity of the writer (or speaker) affects the argument is known as ethos. The audience wants to know who they are dealing with. So make sure you clarify:

  • Who you are;
  • Why you are competent to speak on the issue; and
  • Where your authority comes from.


Your audience will be trying to figure out what your motives are and what you believe, value, and are assuming. This information helps them determine your credibility and decide whether you are being sincere.


The Audience

When you communicate, in writing or verbally, you need to understand your audience. Knowing who you're speaking to helps you avoid using technical terms when speaking to lay people, or “dumbing down” the content if your message is intended for professionals. Things to consider here include:

  • What are the audience’s expectations?
  • How will they use the information you provide?
  • What is the audience hoping to take away after reading/listening?
  • Why are you communicating to this audience in the first place?


This part of the triangle is concerned with appealing to the emotions of the audience, which is known as pathos. The audience needs to be moved by what you are saying. Ask yourself:

  • What emotion do you want to evoke? Fear, trust, loyalty...?
  • Do you have shared values you want to draw on?
  • How do your audience’s beliefs fit with your message?  


Connecting with your audience through pathos is a strong means of gaining support.


The Message

Finally, your audience analyzes the content and circumstances (context) of your message.

  • What events preceded the communication?
  • What types of arguments are used?
  • Are they logical and well-thought-out?
  • How are they delivered?
  • Where is the document or speech delivered?
  • Is this communication necessary?  


Here the emphasis is on logic and reason, or logos. Your audience needs to be able to follow what you are saying for it to be believable. Ask yourself:

  • Have I presented a logical, well-constructed argument?
  • How do I support my claims?
  • What evidence do I have?
  • What are the counterarguments?  


To be fully effective and persuasive, your communication must appeal to all three of the elements of the Rhetorical Triangle. An argument that is purely based on emotion won’t last for very long. Likewise, if all you do is present facts and figures, you will lose your audience’s interest and they won’t be able to relate to what you are saying. Finally, you can be the most credible person going, but if you don’t make sense or your arguments aren’t logical, you won’t be considered credible for very long. (A brief video describing ethos, pathos, and logos, can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eDFKSqbjbI


Using the Rhetorical Triangle

When preparing a written document, speech or presentation you should first consider the three elements required for effective persuasion. If your communication is lacking in any of the three areas, then you'll decrease the overall impact your message will have on your audience. 


Step One: Fully consider the impact your credibility has on the message. Failing to do so risks leaving your audience unconvinced. Answer the audience’s question, “Is the source credible?”

  • What is the purpose of your communication?
    • A call for action?
    • To provide information?
    • To educate?
    • To persuade or change a perspective?
    • To present ideas?
    • To entertain?
  • Who are you as a person?
    • Establish who you are and reveal your biases, beliefs, values and assumptions as appropriate.
    • Explain where your expertise comes from
    • Use expert testimony
    • Show why you should be considered an authority.


Step Two: Fully consider your audience; otherwise they may feel disconnected and the message will be lost. Appeal to their emotions where this is appropriate and honest. And answer the audience’s question, “Is this person trying to manipulate me?”

  • Who are the members of my audience?
    • What are their expectations?
    • Why are they reading/listening?
    • How will they use this document?
    • What do I want them to take away?
  • How can I connect emotionally?
    • What emotions do I want to evoke?
    • Do I use anecdotes or personal stories?


Step Three: Fully consider the context of your message. And make sure you deliver it with a solid appeal to reason. Answer the audience’s question, “Is the presentation logical?”

  • How will I present the information?
    • What type of reasoning will I use?
    • How will I support my position? With statistics? Observations?
    • What tone will I use, formal or informal?
    • How will I deliver the communication?
  • What events are surrounding this communication?
    • What background information do I need to supply?
    • What do I need to present to make sure my points are clear?
    • Are there counterarguments I should bring up and then dismiss?
    • Does the method or location of my communication fit with its message?


Key Points

Making persuasive arguments is not easy. By applying the principles of rhetoric to your initial planning, you can significantly increase the success of your communication.


Your audience wants to know that: 

  • you are credible (speaker/writer)
  • you understand them  (audience)
  • the argument to be logical (message)


These three cornerstones of the Rhetorical Triangle must all be addressed in order for your argument to be effective.


This information was compiled from information found at: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/RhetoricalTriangle.htm


The three points on the Rhetorical Triangle relate directly to the three classic appeals you should consider when communicating.

  • Ethos – Building trust by establishing your credibility and authority (Writer)
  • Pathos – Appealing to emotion by connecting with your audience through their values and interests (Audience)
  • Logos – Appeal to intelligence with well-constructed and clearly argued ideas (Context).


The goal of argumentative writing is to persuade your audience that your ideas are valid, or more valid than someone else's. The Greek philosopher Aristotle divided the means of persuasion, appeals, into three categories--Ethos, Pathos, Logos.


Ethos (Credibility), or ethical appeal, means convincing by the character of the author. We tend to believe people whom we respect. One of the central problems of argumentation is to project an impression to the reader that you are someone worth listening to, in other words making yourself as author into an authority on the subject of the paper, as well as someone who is likable and worthy of respect.


Pathos (Emotional) means persuading by appealing to the reader's emotions. We can look at texts ranging from classic essays to contemporary advertisements to see how pathos, emotional appeals, is used to persuade. Language choice affects the audience's emotional response, and emotional appeal can effectively be used to enhance an argument.


Logos (Logical) means persuading by the use of reasoning. This will be the most important technique we will study, and Aristotle's favorite. We'll look at deductive and inductive reasoning and discuss what makes an effective, persuasive argument using reason to back up your claims. Giving reasons is the heart of argumentation and cannot be emphasized enough. We'll study the types of support you can use to substantiate your thesis and look at some of the common logical fallacies in order to avoid them in your writing.


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