By understanding the rhetorical situation elements, you can gauge the best ways to reach your readers or listeners and get your points across. In so doing, you’ll make the transition from your viewpoint to that of your audience. By looking to your audience and addressing their needs, you shift your attention from an internal focus (on yourself) to an external one (on them/others).

In the classical tradition, the art of persuasion is called rhetoric. The circumstances in which you write a report, give a presentation or communicate in any way are the rhetorical situation. “Circumstances” refers to the purpose of the communication, the audience, the writer/speaker’s abilities and expertise, the form of the communication, the occasion the communication was created, the actual content of the communication, and any surrounding social, political, or geographical contexts that impact communication.

Rhetorical Situation Elements

The rhetorical situation involves six elements: topic, deliverer, purpose, audience, genre/form, and context.


The specific focus of a rhetorical situation. Both the deliverer and audience typically have a relationship with the subject, and there are often conventions for discussing them. Although a self-evident component of any communication, the topic (or subject) is an important focal point for mapping any rhetorical situation. Specifically, the topic being discussed situates the audience’s and the deliverer’s assessment of one another, as well as the deliverer’s strategies in appealing to the audience.


Also referred to as the “author,” “writer,” “speaker,” or “creator,” depending on the type or medium of communication. The deliverer is the person engaging the audience in communication. Deliverers are an important part of any rhetorical situation for a number of reasons.

First, they initially determine how the topic will be framed and discussed. While effective deliverers typically frame their presentations or texts in response to their audience’s interests and needs, they also try to synthesize those needs with their own interests, strengths, and goals.

The deliverer’s relationship with their audience can affect tone and content, especially if they know the audience personally. For instance, if the deliverer is addressing their boss or supervisor, they may need to be extra sure to have a respectful tone, and if they are addressing friends or coworkers, they may be able to use more informal language and refer to shared experiences and knowledge more freely.


As is true of all six rhetorical situation elements, the purpose is relationally bound to the other five. For instance, a deliverer’s ethos will be tied to purpose. A presentation, report, application, or other documents may be designed to inform, demonstrate, persuade, motivate, or even entertain.

Purposes may also be combined, depending on the topic and aims of the document. For example, your primary purpose may be to persuade, but the audience after lunch may want to be entertained, and your ability to adapt can make use of a little entertainment that leads to persuasion. The purpose of your document is central to its formation.


The person(s) who may be receiving/consuming the deliverer’s message. The deliverer’s understanding of their audience is crucial. The audience of any writing is the intended or potential reader(s) or listener(s). In communication, the audience is the most important consideration in planning, writing, and reviewing a document.

You adapt your writing to meet the needs, interests, and backgrounds of the readers who will be reading your writing. Giving attention to this aspect of the rhetorical situation will allow you to gain insight into how to craft your message before you present it.


How the deliverer is transmitting the message and employing the conventions that accompany that textual form (text can refer to a variety of media, not just written forms). When you hear or read the word genre, what comes to mind? For most of us, the word makes us think of types of music, books, or films.

Typically, we use this word to differentiate between country, rock, classical, or hip-hop music; between science fiction, romance, biography, or self-help books; between comedies, dramas, action/adventure films, or documentaries. However, when researchers and scholars of writing use the term “genre,” they mean something a little different.

For researchers, “genre” refers to a typical way of organizing, presenting, and using language in situations that repeat over time. In order for a document to be part of a particular genre, it usually follows a set of often unspoken rules or expectations.


The broader background information in which this specific rhetorical interaction is situated. Context is also interdependent with the other five rhetorical situation elements. The audience, for example, is often central to the context of a rhetorical situation, because their needs and expectations for the deliverer are shaped by social and professional expectations. The deliverer’s ethos and purpose can also be shaped by these same factors or by a different context entirely.

Context also refers to all the surrounding factors that impact a document’s creation and presentation. These factors include physical considerations, such as the location of a speech or whether a document is electronic or printed. Other surrounding factors could be social, cultural, and political considerations such as political climate, current events, and how different groups of people interact.

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