Understanding rhetorical situations

Did you know that each and every day at work, your day is broken up into a large number of rhetorical situations? When Jeff, your project manager walks by your desk and asks for the update about the Zenith program, you’re involved in a rhetorical situation. When your boss calls you in to discuss your plans for the Paris roll out, you’re involved in a rhetorical situation. When the dental receptionist calls to remind you that you have missed your appointment for the third time, you’re involved in a rhetorical situation.

I think it’s time to define the term ‘rhetorical situation’. Aristotle described rhetoric as ‘the faculty of discovering in any particular case the available means of persuasion.’ Another definition I enjoy is, ‘rhetoric is the art of identifying communication needs and strategically responding to them.’

Rhetorical situations vary in topic, setting, audience, occasion, and credibility. You need to vary your responses to accommodate these dynamic parameters if you want to be perceived as persuasive across multiple channels. A consistent approach to rhetorical situations will derive consistent results.

All communication has a context (as in the first paragraph). Whether we initiate the communication or not, how we respond and react will have a massive impact on how people perceive us. How people perceive us will have a massive impact on our relationships (both personal and professional). How we communicate says a great deal about ourselves (what’s happening in our mind and body) in that moment of time. So the question is – how do you want people to perceive you?

For the last 25 years or so I have been a trainer in IT and 10 years ago, myself and colleagues launched the College of Public Speaking. When you are a classroom trainer, you very quickly become aware of rhetorical situations. If I ran two back to back courses with the same content, one in London and one in Manchester, I was astounded by the difference in my impact on people. But why was that? I was delivering the same material in the same language just two hundred miles apart.

In London, I have always worked with lots of international students and colleagues. When I first moved to London 30 years ago, I was astonished by the ethnocultural diversity of colleagues. In the days when we had company telephone books, you just looked down the pages and observed that traditional UK names were hard to find. Giving presentations to these groups was not easy at first, primarily because I didn’t know who they were or anything about their backgrounds, identities, and cultural norms. English language was the common denominator that made the class possible, but there were other dynamics in play.

I have always loved travel and travel certainly broadens the mind and personal experience. Connecting with students and colleagues at a personal level, respecting their backgrounds and cultural identities, showing a genuine interest in their lives and issues goes a long way to helping create a positive perception.

As a trainer, you are into personal and professional development for the long term. Both your own and your students’ development. You are involved in rhetorical situations all day, every day. I say this because connection with people is the most wonderful aspect of my work. How people perceive you and how you make them feel is all important for a great atmosphere in class, work, and home life.

If you go for a sandwich at lunch time and you shout ‘Soup!’ at the guy behind the counter. That is communication of a basic nature. I suspect he will perceive you in a negative way and you might leave the shop wearing it. How we respond and react to communication is our choice. The tone of our voice when we make requests says a great deal about us.

Rhetorical situations – we want to persuade those with whom we communicate that we are a good person, a genuine person, a caring person. Every communication has a best and a worst outcome. The choices you make are critical. Effectively, we need to tailor our response to each individual situation. Whether we are working with a group in class or with an individual on a helpline, the way we make people feel (about us and the situation is all important). Being too demanding or defensive will not create the correct outcome for you or those with whom you interact.


“I the author have the right to use this image purchased from Dreamtimes.”

Vince Stevenson (The Fear Doctor) – Speaker – Trainer – Author

Vince is a well known speaker/trainer and has won a number of awards for leadership, education and development. He is a founder of the College of Public Speaking and works as Education Director managing all aspects of course delivery and content.

Vince is an avid learner and in recent years has accomplished a number of certificates in Learning and Communication Science with the University of California, San Diego, the University of Amsterdam, and Instructional Design with the Institute of Adult Learning, Singapore.

If you need help with speeches and presentations or the role out of a communications strategy across your organisation, why not give Vince a call on 07731-876304 or email him at vince@collegeofpublicspeaking.co.uk