Analyzing the Rhetorical Situation

When you approach a communication situation, you need to consider several how several variables will affect your strategies of influence. This situation, which Bitzer describes as the “rhetorical situation,” offers many possible means of persuasion which the effective communicator can use to accomplish his or her purpose.

This material is largely taken from Ehninger, Douglas, et al. Principles and Types of Speech Communication. 9th Ed. Glenview, IL: Scott, Forseman and Co., 1986.



A. Analyzing the Occasion

B. Audience Targeting

C. Audience Segmentation


A.    Analyzing the Occasion: Things to Consider

1.     The Nature and Purpose of the Occasion

a.      Is yours a voluntary or a captive audience?

In general, the more “captive” your audience, the less initial interest audience members will show and the greater will be their resistance to accepting your information or point of view.

b.     Why are they here?

c.      Are they here to learn, laugh or heckle?

d.     Are they here to hear a sales pitch?

e.      Do they expect to make a decision?

2.     The Prevailing Rules or Customs

a.      Will there be a regular order of business or a fixed program into which your speech must fit?

b.     Is it the custom of the group to ask questions of the speaker after the address?

c.      Do the listeners expect a formal or informal speaking manner?

d.     Will you, as the speaker, be expected to extend complimentary remarks, or to express respect for some tradition or concept?

e.      Do they expect a particular form of message, like a research report of a pep talk?

3.     The Physical Conditions

a.      Will your speech be given out-of-doors or in an auditorium?

b.     Is the weather likely to be hot or cold?

c.      Will the audience be sitting or standing; if sitting, will the members be crowded together or scattered about?

d.     In how large a room will the speech be presented?

e.      Will an electronic public address system be used?

f.       Will facilities be provided for the audiovisual reinforcements you will use, or must you bring your own?

g.      Will you be seen and heard easily?

h.      Are there likely to be disturbances in the form of noise or interruptions from the outside?

4.     Events Preceding or Following Your Speech

a.      At what time of day or night will your speech be given?

i.       Immediately after a heavy meal or a long program, both of which may induce drowsiness and reduce listener interest?
ii.     Just before the principal address or event of the evening?

b.     By whom and in what manner will you be introduced to the audience?

c.      What other items are on the program?

d.     What are their tone and character?

B.    Audience Targeting: Setting Purposes Realistically (EGM)

1.     Specificity of Purpose

a.      Example:

i.       Suppose you have a part-time job with your college’s Career Planning and Placement Office. You know enough about its operations and have enough personal interest in it to want to speak about career planning and placement to different audiences. What you have discovered about different audiences should help you determine appropriate specific purposes for each audience.
ii.     If you were to talk to a group of incoming freshmen, for example, you’d know that they probably:
1.)   know little or nothing about career planning and placement as a college office (that is, have few beliefs, none of which are fixed);
2.)   are predisposed to look favorably upon career planning and placement (given job anxieties among college graduates);
3.)   are, at their particular stage of life and of educational development, more concerned with such pragmatic concerns as getting an adviser, getting registered, and learning about basic degree requirements than they are with longer-range matters like post-degree placement (and hence may not value your information without motivation);
4.)   are likely to see you as an authoritative speaker and hence are willing to listen to you.
iii.   Given these audience considerations, you probably should keep your talk fairly general. Feed them basic, not detailed, information about career planning and placement; remind them that the office can relieve many of their later anxieties, as graduation nears; show them how thinking about possible careers will help them select majors and particular courses. You might phrase your specific purpose as follows: “To brief incoming freshmen on the range of services offered by the Career Planning and Placement Office.” That orientation would include a basic description of each service and general advice to use the services in making some curricular decisions.
iv.   Were you, instead, to talk about this subject to an incoming group of new faculty, you’d assess the audience differently. You probably would discover that they:
1.)   know quite a bit about career planning and placement offices (having used them themselves and perhaps having worked with them in previous jobs);
2.)   have mixed feelings about career planning and placement (because some faculty think that too much emphasis upon careers turns colleges and universities into “trade” schools rather than centers of humane learning);
3.)   tend to value education “for its own sake” (that is, philosophically), rather than as a route to employment (that is, pragmatically);
4.)   are likely to view you as a mere student or a mere college bureaucrat.
v.     Given these factors, you’d probably have to get a good deal more specific in some areas of your speech. You’d want to describe the particular features of this office’s operations rather than only its general duties; your listeners need to know “how” because they already know the “what. “ You’d have to reassure them that your office is an adjunct to the university’s mission, that you realize not all course selections should be based solely on career choices. And, you probably would want to demonstrate your expertise by talking about career possibilities across a variety of fields (especially if you know what fields are represented in the group of incoming faculty). You might phrase your specific purpose like this: “To inform incoming faculty about Langford College’s philosophy of career planning and placement, about ways ‘faculty members in all fields can help their students use the Career Planning and Placement Office, and about informational assistance the Office provides faculty members.

2.     Areas of Audience Interest.

a.      Both demographic and psychological analyses are most useful to you in deciding what ideas will be of interest to your listeners.

b.     You often are able to infer audience interests—at least potential interests—from knowing something about their demographic and psychological characters.

c.      Sometimes, you will want to create a new set of interests in an audience, especially by connecting the new interests to old ones.

3.     The Audience’s Capacity to Act.

a.      Limit your request to an action lying within your listener’s range of authority.

b.     You determine ranges of authority through analysis of the audience, especially of demographic factors.

4.     Degrees of Change.

a.      Determine how far you can move an audience intellectually, emotionally, and actively.

b.     Audience analysis, in other words, should help you determine how much you can change an audience and what kinds of commitments you can expect from your listeners. You should phrase your specific purposes and central ideas or claims accordingly.


C.    Audience Segmentation: Selecting Dominant Ideas and Appeals for a Typical Mixed Audience

Among advertisers, the approach is called audience segmentation. Audience segmentation is the approaching of a collection of listeners as a series of subgroups, or “differentiated populations. “ Segmenting your audience into subgroups, or reference groups, will help you select your dominant appeals.’

1.     Avoiding Unnecessary Irritation.

a.      Examples

i.       Were a speaker to say, “Because all you girls are interested in efficient cooking, today I want to talk about four ways a food processor will save you time in the kitchen,” he or she probably would alienate two subgroups in the audience: The females probably would be irritated with the stereotyped term girls, while the males who cooked would be offended by having been left out. The appeal would be better phrased: “Because everyone who cooks is interested in. . . .” Here, you are aiming the interest-appeal to the proper audience segment-the culinary masters.
ii.     Similarly, unless you are sure there are no Roman Catholics in your audience, you probably will want to avoid blaming the Catholic religious hierarchy for the anti-abortion movement in this country;
iii.   Because so many people in this country identify with businesses and industries, you probably would not want to blame “the business establishment” alone for inflation;
iv.   You probably would be foolhardy to refer to “dumb jocks,” “artsy-craftsy theatre majors,” and “computer fanatics” in a speech on the goals of college education to your speech class.

b.     This is not to say, of course, that you never confront directly beliefs, attitudes, and values of subgroups represented in your audience—that you always and only say what people “want” to hear. Only be sure that you avoid stereotyped references to people and groups, that you avoid blanket condemnation of groups of people, and that, when possible, you work around touchy subjects and cite ample and unbiased evidence when you must attack a group’s beliefs, attitudes, and sacred values.

2.     Selecting Relevant Belief and Attitude Statements.

a.      Audience analysis, in combination with audience segmentation, is an invaluable tool for selecting your main lines of appeal and argument.

b.     Example

i.       Suppose you were to give a speech to a local Rotary Club about the establishment of a community hospice-a team of medical personnel, psychologists, social workers, and other volunteers who work with terminally-ill people and their families. Suppose in this speech you are trying to raise money to set up the hospice. As a group, a Rotary Club normally is composed of business people, medical professionals, educators, social service personnel, lawyers, bankers, and the like. By thinking of the Rotary audience as segmented into such subgroups, you should be in a position to offer each subgroup some reasons to support the community hospice. For example:
ii.     Claim: A community hospice should be supported by all segments in our town because:
1.)   For doctors, nurses, and hospital workers, a hospice provides help for the dying, and therefore is a complement to your work to save the living.
2.)   For those of you working in social services, a hospice uses a social-team concept, and therefore allows you to work with needy people in a way you can’t now.
3.)   For those of you in education, a hospice provides unequaled opportunities for on the-job training for many different kinds of students because it uses volunteers.
4.)   And, for those of you from the banks and businesses of this community, a hospice is a vital local resource, something which can be used by your employees and their families and which sets this community apart from all the others in our area.
iii.   Each of these appeals, of course, would be expanded in an actual speech

3.     Choosing Among Valuative Appeals.

a.      Select a valuative vocabulary for your speeches.

b.     Even informative messages and reports need to contain appeals to audience interests; you can use a valuative vocabulary to motivate different segments of the audience to listen to and accept your information.

i.       Example
1.)   For a class demonstration speech, you might say: “Today, I want to teach you three basic techniques of Oriental cooking: cutting meats and vegetables, using spices, and quick-cooking your food in a wok. If you learn these techniques, you’ll expand your range of expertise in the kitchen [personal value], you’ll save money on your food and energy bills [economic value], you’ll prepare satisfying meals for your friends [social value], and you’ll prepare nutritious, healthful meals for everyone [pragmatic value].” With that statement, you will have given your audience four different reasons for listening, and hence will have a good chance of appealing to everyone in your speech. (If that’s not enough, tell them the meals will be beautiful, too, thereby adding an aesthetic value.)

c.      Valuative appeals are more important to persuasive and actuative (getting someone to take action) speeches.

i.       Example:
1.)   Claim: The United States should take immediate, concrete steps to improve its relationships with the Republic of China. Why?

a.)   1. Politically, better relations with China will reduce international tensions and allow us to head off potential conflicts before they explode.

b.)   2. Economically, China represents the world’s largest market for U.S. agricultural and industrial goods.

c.)   3. Sociologically, it’s desirable for two cultures as different as ours and theirs to better understand each other, for in understanding lies intercultural cooperation.

d.)   4. Culturally (that is, aesthetically), China and the United States have varied artistic traditions, so both worlds will be richer if we can increase cultural exchanges.

e.)   5. Psychologically, the levels of anxiety and distrust existing among citizens of both countries can be reduced through expanded people-to-people exchanges.

d.     We have not used every conceivable value term in this segmentation of appeals, but the procedure is clear:

i.       Think through possible reasons people might accept your proposition in valuative terms;
ii.     Then, use a valuative vocabulary in phrasing your actual appeals for acceptance.

4.     Basic Tips for Getting Audience Info

a.      Think through your personal experiences with identifiable groups in the audience

b.     Talk with program chairpersons and others who can tell you “who” is in the audience and something about their interests

c.      Ask speakers who’ve addressed these and similar audiences what to expect

d.     Interview some people who’ll be there, to find out more about their beliefs, attitudes, and values-their range of concerns.

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