Courtesy: Boston Museum of Science


Rhetoric of the Internet

Spring 2004

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Rhetorical Sensitivities
Rhetorical Categories


James F. Klumpp

Department of Communication

College of Arts and Humanities

University of Maryland


Rhetorical Categories

Central Categories of Rhetorical Decision


The ordering of material. The way a user is led through the communication. There are two dimensions to organization:

  • Pattern of organization. The arrangement of material in the communication.
  • Transition. How the audience is carried from element to element through the material.

Organizational Problems on the Internet

The decisions on the internet are similar to any communication

  • How will information on the website be arranged?
    • On the home page or linked?
    • What will be the page tree? What pages will link to the home or welcome page? What material will link to the secondary pages?
    • How many clicks will it take to get the user to the material?
  • How will the user be carried through the site?
    • What navigation strategy will move the user?
    • Will the user be free to choose their own path or is a specified path necessary? How will a specified path be constructed?
    • How will the user find their way back to the home or welcome page?
  • How will the information on the webpage be arranged?
    • On the presentation screen or below the scroll?
    • What are the regions of the page and how will they be delimited?
    • What information goes in which region?
  • How will you move the user through the page?
    • What motivates the scroll?
    • Will the user find the information to hold their interest on the page?

Definition and Explanation

Clarifying vocabulary, concepts, and ideas through definition and explication.

Explication on the Internet

  • Identifying problems requiring attention
    • Terminology that part of the audience does not know including technical terminology
    • Concepts or ideas that are novel to the users
    • Complex ideas that are difficult to understand
  • Identifying strategies to meet the problems
    • Hyperlinks to definitions and explications
    • Images and other visual possibilities to illustrate

Argument and Support

Persuasive sites, and promotional sites require attention to support for claims made on the sites.

Identifying issues

The first step is to identify any problems of belief and support

  • What information or claims are key to your achieving your purpose on the site?
  • Which of these will meet with a skeptic response?
  • Do you wish to convince the skeptics or eliminate them from your target users?

Formulating Claims

  • What claims, if accepted by your users, will address the central issues?
  • Which of these claims will your audience accept without further support?
  • What claims require additional support for at least some of your target audience?

Providing Support on the Internet

You need next to identify strategies for supporting your claims with those who might doubt the claims you have isolated.

  • Content Strategies
    • Examples to support your claims
    • Analogies or similar instances to illustrate your claims
    • Expert or ordinary testimony
    • Photographs, film, sound, or other images to support your claim
  • Format Strategies
    • Use of hyperlink and interactive strategies to identify issues
    • Use of hyperlink to provide support for segmented audiences


Internet sites must provide motivation for users to stay at the site and, in some cases, need to provide motivation for users to take specific actions that are integrall to the site purpose.

Identifying Motivational Requirements

  • What are the challenges in holding users to the site?
  • What are the behavioral actions the sponsor wishes to induce in the users?

Identifying Motivational Appeals

Culturally based ways of framing: Are there culturally based patterns that can motivate action. For example, American audiences are motivated toward sympathy for victims.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Prepotency: Abraham Maslow posited that there are five levels of motivation

  • Self actualization: achieve your karma
  • Esteem: Self respect, respect of others
  • Belongingness & Love: love and be loved
  • Security: stability, freedom from worry
  • Physiological: shelter, food, warmth

Maslow contended that beginning with the lower level (physiological) each level of motivation is activated only when the lower one is satisfied. Thus, a rhetor identifies the level active in their audience and appeals to that level. For example, when American life insurance companies express an appeal such as "You don't buy it for you, you buy it for them" when showing a playing family they appeal to the part of their audience that is motivated by belongingness and love needs.

User analysis: One of the questions you should ask when analyzing your user is to identify the motivational appeals that might attract them to your site or move them to respond to your appeals.

Strategies for appeal on the website

  • Content appeals: What verbal strategies can establish the appeal?
  • Visualization step: Are there strategies for using visuals to reinforce the appeal?
  • Response strategy: Are there interactive strategies through which you can achieve your behavior objectives?


Rhetorical analysis is sensitive to how to the response of the users to various design strategies you may use. In addition to generally applicable rhetorical figures, the internet requires other stylistic decisions.

Identify stylistic features you may wish to use in presenting your material

  • Background devices including color and image
  • Typeface and color
  • Layout strategies
  • Special effects: flashing, motion, image
  • Navigation strategies

Analyze your users' response to the devices

  • Are there particular associations with particular images or colors for your users?
  • Are there issues of taste and good judgment?
  • What hardware and software will your users have? How might it influence your strategies?
  • Are there disabilities among your users that require options.
  • What elements of style may turn your user from the site quickly? What elements may hold them to the site?

Character of the Rhetor

Communication projects to the audience a portrayal of the rhetor. Websites should be designed so they portray the character or ethos that the rhetor wishes to project. Sometimes this is called "projecting an image of the sponsor."

Identify the character you may wish to use in presenting your material

  • Friendly or hostile?
  • Pleasant or angry?
  • Exciting or stable and predictable?
  • Embracer of change or attracted to the tried and true?
  • A teacher or a salesman?
  • Whatever other characterizations help to define the character

Design the site to project the character you select

Present your material in ways consistent with your chosen character.

  • Select visuals to portray the mood you wish
  • Construct the persona for your user on the site
  • Choose your style devices consistent with the character you project


  • Categories: Terms that allow us to see phenomena. A category focuses our attention on a particular aspect of observation and decision.
  • Navigation: The strategy for allowing the user to move among the pages of a site. This may include, for example, a bar displaying the linked pages, a left hand column of links, an image with linked regions, and so on.
  • Page tree: An outline or visual depiction of how the pages in a website relate to each other. In the visual depiction, the home or welcome page is at the top, with each secondary page that can be reached directly through hyperlink from that page arrayed below and connected with a line. That procedure is repeated for each page that connects to each secondary page.
James F. Klumpp, Webmaster
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