Rhetoric is the oldest tradition of the Communication field. A good definition of rhetoric is, “any kind of human symbol use that functions in any realm—public, private, and anything in between” (Foss, Foss & Trapp, 7). Remember that one of our definitions for theory is, “a way of framing an experience or event—an effort to understand and account for something and the way it functions in the world” (Foss, Foss, & Griffin, 8). Combining these definitions allows us to understand the Rhetorical Theories Paradigm as, “a way to understand and account for the way any kind of human symbol use functions in any realm.” Scholars have historically used rhetorical theories as a way to produce and evaluate messages.
Theories of Message Production
If you have taken a public speaking course, you were likely exposed to rhetorical theories of message production. In public speaking classes students are taught methods for organizing presentations, building credibility with the audience, and making messages more entertaining, informative, and/or persuasive. You probably intuitively understand that there are effective ways for putting together messages. But, how do you know what is truly effective or ineffective? Whether you are preparing a public presentation, an advertising campaign, or trying to persuade a friend, rhetorical theories guide the ways you produce messages. Companies devote millions of dollars to produce the advertisements we see. You can bet that significant research has gone into what messages will work the best so they do not waste their money on ineffective advertising. Audience analysis, context, goals, etc., are all considered before producing and delivering these messages.
Over the centuries, Communication scholars have devoted entire careers studying what it takes to produce effective messages. Aristotle gave us his ideas of ethos (credibility), logos (logic), and pathos (emotions) as fundamental components for constructing persuasive messages. Cicero gave us the five canons of rhetoric, or the five necessary steps for putting together an effective message. In the modern era, Stephen Toulmin developed the Toulmin model as a means for constructing persuasive arguments. Toulmin’s model of message production includes a claim, grounds, warrant, backing, modal qualifier, and rebuttal. The claim is the conclusion or argument being made. The grounds are the data and facts offered to support the claim. To logically connect the grounds to the claim, a warrant is given. The backing is used to support the warrant and the qualifiers make a statement about the strength of the claim. Words such as “possible,” “certainly,” and “definitely” are examples of qualifiers. Any exception to the claim is the rebuttal. Even if you are unfamiliar with rhetorical theories of message production above, you likely have a good idea of what makes an effective message. For Toulmin, effectiveness was based on issues of practicality — to find a claim that is of interest to people and the ability to justify it. The greater understanding you have of rhetorical theories of message production, the greater potential you have for producing effective messages in a variety of contexts.
Theories of Message Evaluation
Super Bowl Sunday is a day that many people gather together to watch a big football game on television. It is also a day that many people give special attention to watching commercials. It has become a popular pastime for people to evaluate the quality of commercials shown during the Super Bowl. In fact, all of the commercials from the Super Bowl are put on the internet for people to watch and evaluate.
Many people spend a considerable amount of time discussing the effectiveness of commercials. Those who engage in these conversations are, at a basic level, engaging in message evaluation. If you make a comment about these commercials such as, “that was funny” or “that was stupid” you are using some kind of criteria to come to those conclusions. A person approaching these messages using rhetorical theories would ask “why was that funny or stupid?” In other words, what works, or doesn’t work, about certain messages?
There are many ways we can use rhetorical theories to evaluate messages. We might choose to use a feminist, an ideological, or a narrative approach to evaluate message effectiveness. For example, Kenneth Burke argues that we can evaluate messages by understanding them as a dramatic play. He contends that all messages contain acts, scenes, agents, purposes, and agencies. If you were to evaluate your relationships with your friends from this perspective, who are the agents, what is the scene, and what act of the play are you in? Jean Baudrillard states that we can evaluate messages from the perspective that messages are commodities that we exchange. Whereas, Michel Foucault asserts that we can evaluate messages by looking at how power is enacted in them. Rhetorical theories give us different “lenses” for us to understand messages. No interpretation is right or wrong. Instead, each interpretation allows us to have a more comprehensive understanding of communication.
As with message production, we are constantly in the process of evaluating messages that are sent and received by us. The greater understanding you have of rhetorical theories for both putting together and evaluating messages, the greater potential you have to be an effective communicator in a variety of contexts. For rhetorical theorists, the message is the primary focus of inquiry when approaching the study of communication.
The primary strength of the Rhetorical Theories Paradigm is its ability to help us produce and evaluate effective messages. Rhetorical theories provide a way for us to take context into consideration when we examine messages. Unlike empirical laws theories, rhetorical theories highlight the importance of considering context as essential for understanding messages. Finally, rhetorical theories provide a way for us to foster multiple perspectives in the evaluation and construction of messages.
A primary weakness of rhetorical theories comes from one of its strengths. With such an intense focus on messages, it is possible to overlook alternative interpretations of messages. Also, some theories of message evaluation are not critical enough to reveal power dynamics at work in message exchanges. Finally, rhetorical theories are often not generalizable across a variety of communication contexts. While some rhetorical theories can be generalized, rhetorical theories are most often highly contextualized.