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 Sensitivities

The Six Sensitivities that Characterize a Sound Rhetorical Analysis

Purpose Audience Strategy Interest Clarity Appeal


Rhetors attempt to accomplish objectives with discourse. Sensitive rhetorical analysts identify purposes of the rhetor and his/her audience.

A Standard Typology of Rhetorical Purposes

  • To provide information
  • To join in, or to induce, some action
  • To change people’s minds
  • To bond or form some cooperative group

In analyzing purpose

  • Look for Multiple Purposes: Any one rhetorical act may have several purposes
  • Look for a Hierarchy of Purposes: Some purposes facilitate more central purposes.
  • Analyze both rhetor or audience purposes

Analyzing Purpose on the Internet

  • Benum organizes her book into chapters that develop a typology of internet purpose
  • Identifying the sponsor’s purpose begins rhetorical analysis
  • Always keep in mind:
  • “What is the sponsor trying to achieve?”

“What is the user trying to achieve in visiting the site?”

Purpose Audience Strategy Interest Clarity Appeal


No notion is more central to rhetorical sensitivity that thinking about communication in terms of the audience. Rhetorical analysis always views decisions from the perspective of an an analysis of the audience.

Questions guiding a rhetorical analysis of audience:

    • Who is the audience?
    • What interests them?
    • What do they value?
    • What do they know?
    • What do they believe?
    • What are their goals?

Methods for answering these questions:

    • Demographics: Generalizations about categories of social affiliation. Demographic analysis is an approach to understanding the character of an audience. Demographic characteristics can be easily observed or inferred. Among the important demographic categories are:

      • Age
      • Educational Level
      • Geographic (including region of the country and urban/rural/suburban)
      • Socio-economic status
      • Sex
      • Religion

    • Cultural Analysis: Begins by identifying the public with whom the audience will engage in discourse. What is their media of communication? Who will they listen to and talk to in response to the situation/topic? This public may constitute a subculture or the more general culture. It may be particular to this topic.

    • Listening: There is no substitute for listening carefully to the users talk.

Audience for the internet are your users

You must know your users, their needs, wants, values, goals. Benum's method of developing persona as a way of summarizing your analysis of the audience seems particularly appropriate.

Purpose Audience Strategy Interest Clarity Appeal


The rhetorical planning of a messages is built around a sensitivity to strategy. One formulates a goal and a strategy to achieve it. All the decisions that go into preparing a message are viewed strategically in a rhetorically sensitive analysis.

    • Rhetorical decisions need not be conscious nor intentional. Strategy refers to viewing them in terms of achieving goals. Decisions are instrumental: microgoals and how to achieve them.
    • Rhetorical strategies relate to modes of presentation. All the decisions that go into forming communication are viewed strategically.
    • A rhetorically sensitive analysis can describe the decisions that shape the message and support those decisions in the purpose and audience of the message.
    • A rhetorically sensitive analysis evaluates the decisions in terms of the analysis of the audience and the purpose.
Purpose Audience Strategy Interest Clarity Appeal


Rhetors always compete with distractions. In a speech, the average human attention span is about 7 seconds. A rhetorically sensitive communicator is always aware of the interest of his audience.

Strategies for holding interest: Strategies for holding interest may be found in:

    • Subject matter
    • Flows without escape. Patterns such as narrative that carry the audience through the communication without a convenient exit.
    • Need to know. Messages may provide a motivation for listening.
    • Drama (conflict or uncertainty of outcome). Audiences are held longer to situations of conflict and uncertainty.
    • Novelty. The different will hold attention longer than the familiar.

Holding Interest on the Internet

    • The problem of interest on the internet begins with its character as a pull rather than push technology. That is, audiences come to websites my requesting them. Therefore, there must be a reason to visit and a path to visit.
    • Once the user has come to the site, surfing away is fast and natural. There must be strategies to hold interest.
    • Rhetorically sensitive design will use some of the strategies above to hold the interest of the user.
    • Audience analysis must reveal strategies for holding interest among users.
Purpose Audience Strategy Interest Clarity Appeal


Rhetorical analysis is sensitive to how to communicate clearly to the audience.

Common obstacles to clarity

  • Terminology. Technical words create distance between the rhetor and the audience and prevent understanding.
  • Unfamiliar ideas. The more novel the ideas the heavier the demands that the ideas be clear.
  • Degree of complexity. The more complex the ideas, the more difficult clarity will be to achieve.

Strategies to achieve clarity

  • Content strategies. Examples are provding definitions, illustrations, or clarifying with a familiar analogy.
  • Format strategies. Examples are the use of visuals, tables, or maps.

Achieving Clarity on Websites

  • You must first understand the obstacles to clarity.
  • What terminology may your users not understand?
  • What ideas central to your presentation of material are unfamiliar to your users?
  • Then you select strategies to clarify.
  • Content strategies. What content can you provide to clarify concepts or information?
  • Format strategies. How can you best present the material visually?

Hyperlinks. What material will be on the page and what linked? Hyperlinks are particularly useful with multiple audiences.

Purpose Audience Strategy Interest Clarity Appeal


Rhetorically sensitive communication always understands how it will modify its content and approach to appeal to its audience.

Constructing Messages with Appeal

  • Knowing your audience: What are the audience’s interests? Beliefs? Values? What is important to them? What do they want to know?
  • Adapt to your audience: How can you better connect your material to your audience? What is the strategy for this particular audience?

Appeal and the Internet

  • Your first question is always: Who are my users?
  • Then you must determine: What will they find appealing?
  • How does my purpose relate to the things they find appealing?
  • How can my page present itself in an appealing way?

Your choices of content and design are always justified by your analysis of audience.

Purpose Audience Strategy Interest Clarity Appeal

James F. Klumpp, Webmaster
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