10 Rhetorical Situation Examples

rhetorical situation examples and definition, explained below

The term ‘rhetorical situation’ is defined as “the context in which speakers or writers create discourse” (Bitzer, 1999, p. 217)

If a literacy teacher asks you to describe the rhetorical situation, they’re asking you to analyze the context of the discourse.

So, what does this mean?

Usually, it means you need to examine two things:

  1. The rhetorical elements used, and
  2. The rhetorical devices used.

I’ll summarize these below so we can jump straight to our examples, then elaborate on them toward the end of the article. Here’s the TL;DR:

Rhetorical Elements

You’ll need to examine the following elements first and foremost to demonstrate the ‘rhetorical situation’:

  1. Text: e.g. a books, speech, podcast, film, video, etc.
  2. Author: e.g. the speaker, writer, or producer of the text.
  3. Audience: e.g. the listener, reader, viewer, or consumer of the text.
  4. Purpose: e.g. why the text was produced.
  5. A setting: e.g. the time, location, and contextual factors (Gabrielsen, 2010).

Rhetorical Devices

These are the methods of communicating utilized in the text, including:

  1. Logos: the use of logic to communicate.
  2. Ethos: the use of authority or credibility when conveying a message.
  3. Pathos: the use of emotion to communicate.

These devices are based on Aristotle’s philosophy.

By examining rhetorical elements and devices, we can develop a deeper understanding of a rhetorical situation, how it works, and perhaps, why it hasn’t worked so well!

Rhetorical Situation Examples

1. Steve Jobs Stanford Speech (2005)

In 2005, Steve Jobs delivered the commencement address at Stanford University, sharing personal stories of his life and career. The speech, titled “Connecting the Dots,” has since become iconic, offering lessons on life, work, and following one’s passion. Jobs addressed a crowd of graduates, faculty, and family members, leaving a lasting impact on the audience.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text was a commencement address, consisting of anecdotes from Jobs’ life, including dropping out of college, being fired from Apple, and facing a life-threatening illness, to convey broader life lessons.
  • Author: The author was Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple Inc. and Pixar Animation Studios, known for his innovation in the technology and entertainment industries.
  • Audience: The primary audience was the graduating class of Stanford University, along with faculty and families, but the speech has since reached a global audience through various media.
  • Purpose: The purpose of the speech was to inspire and motivate the graduates by encouraging them to pursue their passions, face setbacks with resilience, and see opportunities in life’s challenges.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Jobs employed storytelling as a major rhetorical device, using personal anecdotes to create an emotional connection (pathos) with the audience. He also established ethos through his reputation as a successful entrepreneur and innovator. The use of repetition and parallel structure helped emphasize key points and make the speech memorable.

2. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (1997)

In 1997, J.K. Rowling released “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” the first book in a series that would become a global phenomenon. The novel introduced readers to a magical world filled with complex characters, intricate plots, and a battle between good and evil. The book, and the series it initiated, captivated audiences worldwide, influencing an entire generation and beyond.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text is a fantasy novel, blending elements of magic, adventure, and coming-of-age to explore themes of friendship, courage, and the choice between good and evil.
  • Author: The author, J.K. Rowling, was relatively unknown at the time but has since become one of the most successful and influential writers in modern literature.
  • Audience: Initially aimed at children and young adults, the novel quickly attracted readers of all ages, transcending demographic boundaries.
  • Purpose: The primary purpose was to entertain, but the novel also sought to explore deeper themes and values, such as the importance of choice, the value of friendship, and the nature of courage.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Rowling used vivid imagery and detailed world-building to immerse readers in the magical universe. The use of allegory allowed for the exploration of real-world themes within a fantastical context, and character development served to engage and invest the audience in the narrative.

3. Malala Yousafzai’s UN Speech (2012)

In 2012, Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education, delivered a speech at the United Nations Youth Assembly, advocating for the right to education for every child. This speech came after she survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban for her activism. Her address, titled “Malala Day,” called for worldwide access to education and emphasized the power of youth.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text was a formal speech, rich with personal anecdotes, global examples, and a call to action, focusing on the importance of education and the role of youth in enacting change.
  • Author: The author, Malala Yousafzai, was a young education activist from Pakistan, who became a symbol of resilience and advocacy for girls’ education worldwide.
  • Audience: The primary audience was the United Nations Youth Assembly, but the speech was also broadcast globally, reaching a diverse international audience.
  • Purpose: The purpose was to advocate for universal access to education, particularly for girls, and to inspire young people to take action for change.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Malala used ethos by sharing her personal experiences and challenges, pathos by evoking emotions related to the struggles of children deprived of education, and logos by presenting facts and logical arguments for universal education. The repetition of phrases like “We will continue” emphasized determination and resilience.

4. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

In 2006, former Vice President Al Gore released the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” aiming to educate the public about the reality and dangers of climate change. The film combined data, personal anecdotes, and visual imagery to present a compelling case for urgent action. It played a significant role in raising global awareness about climate change and won two Academy Awards.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text was a documentary film, utilizing a mix of scientific data, visual graphics, personal narratives, and future projections to convey the urgency of addressing climate change.
  • Author: The author and narrator of the documentary was Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States, and a long-time environmental advocate.
  • Audience: The intended audience was the global public, policymakers, and anyone with a stake in the future of the planet.
  • Purpose: The film aimed to raise awareness about the reality of climate change, educate the public on its consequences, and inspire individual and collective action to address it.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Gore effectively used ethos, drawing on his political background and environmental advocacy. Pathos was employed through alarming visual imagery and projections of climate impact, and logos through the presentation of scientific data and facts. The juxtaposition of current realities with future projections served to emphasize the urgency of action.

5. Greta Thunberg’s UN Speech (2019)

In 2019, Greta Thunberg, a young climate activist from Sweden, addressed the United Nations Climate Action Summit, passionately urging world leaders to take immediate action against climate change. Her speech, “How Dare You,” criticized the inaction of political leaders and highlighted the urgent need for substantive change to combat environmental degradation. The address became a rallying cry for environmental activists around the world.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text was a concise yet powerful speech, marked by emotive language, direct criticism, and a clear call for urgent and meaningful action against climate change.
  • Author: The author, Greta Thunberg, was a teenage climate activist from Sweden, who gained international recognition for her Fridays for Future movement and candid advocacy for environmental protection.
  • Audience: The primary audience was the world leaders and delegates at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, but the speech also reached a global audience through extensive media coverage.
  • Purpose: The purpose of the speech was to hold world leaders accountable for their inaction, raise awareness about the climate crisis, and galvanize immediate and substantive action to protect the environment.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Thunberg employed pathos through her passionate and emotive delivery, ethos by referencing her personal sacrifices and commitment to climate activism, and logos by citing scientific data on climate change. The repeated phrase “How dare you” served as a powerful rhetorical device to emphasize her criticism and demand accountability.

6. Facebook (2004-Now)

In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, a social networking platform initially for Harvard students, which quickly expanded to other universities and eventually to the general public. Facebook’s mission was to connect people and build community, but it also raised questions about privacy, data security, and the impact on social dynamics. The platform revolutionized communication and became a subject of scrutiny and debate.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text in this scenario is the platform itself, Facebook, which included user profiles, status updates, friend requests, and various features that allowed for online social interaction and information sharing.
  • Author: The author is, well, anyone with a Facebook profile who wants to make a post!
  • Audience: The initial audience was Harvard students, but it quickly expanded to include a diverse and global user base, ranging from teenagers to older adults.
  • Purpose: The primary purpose of Facebook was to connect people, facilitate communication, and build online communities, but it also aimed to monetize user engagement through targeted advertising.
  • Rhetorical Devices: The platform utilized user-friendly interface and features to appeal to a wide audience (ethos), incorporated real-time notifications and updates to engage users emotionally (pathos), and used algorithms and data analytics to optimize user experience and advertising (logos). The concept of “friends” and “likes” served as rhetorical devices to foster a sense of community and validation.

7. MLK’s I Have a Dream Speech (1963)

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The speech articulated King’s vision of a future where people would not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character. This address became a defining moment in the Civil Rights Movement and a symbol of the ongoing fight for racial equality.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text was a public speech, characterized by its rhythmic cadence, vivid imagery, and references to the American Dream, the Bible, and the U.S. Constitution.
  • Author: The author, Martin Luther King Jr., was a prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement, known for his advocacy for nonviolent resistance and racial equality.
  • Audience: The immediate audience was the over 250,000 civil rights supporters present at the march, but the speech was also broadcast nationwide, reaching a much wider audience.
  • Purpose: The purpose of the speech was to advocate for an end to racism and segregation, inspire hope and solidarity among civil rights supporters, and call for freedom and equality for all.
  • Rhetorical Devices: King employed a range of rhetorical devices including anaphora, through the repetition of the phrase “I have a dream,” metaphors, comparing racial injustice to a “bank of injustice,” and allusions to biblical and historical texts, establishing ethos, pathos, and logos.

8. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1590s)

William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet,” written in the early 1590s, is a tragic tale of two young lovers from feuding families in Verona. The play explores themes of love, fate, conflict, and death, and it has been celebrated for its exploration of the human condition and the consequences of societal discord. The timeless story has been adapted countless times across various mediums.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text is a play, written in iambic pentameter, consisting of dialogue, soliloquies, and stage directions, exploring complex characters and universal themes.
  • Author: The author, William Shakespeare, was an English playwright and poet, widely regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language and world literature.
  • Audience: The original audience was the theatergoers of Elizabethan England, but the play has since reached a global audience and has been studied and performed worldwide.
  • Purpose: The purpose of “Romeo and Juliet” was to entertain, but also to explore and reflect on human nature, societal conflict, love, and fate.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Shakespeare used a variety of rhetorical devices including metaphor, simile, foreshadowing, and dramatic irony. The use of soliloquies provided insight into characters’ thoughts and motivations, and the poetic structure added rhythm and emphasis to the dialogue.

9. Churchill’s We Shall Fight on the Beaches (1944)

In 1940, Winston Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches to the House of Commons of the United Kingdom during World War II, known as the “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech. The speech was a powerful call to arms, aiming to inspire the British people and maintain morale during a particularly challenging time in the war. Churchill’s words became a symbol of British resilience and determination.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text was a wartime speech, characterized by its defiant tone, vivid imagery of defense, and the repeated assurance of Britain’s resolve to fight against Nazi Germany, regardless of the circumstances.
  • Author: The author, Winston Churchill, was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, known for his leadership during World War II and his ability to inspire and unite the British people through his speeches.
  • Audience: The immediate audience was the House of Commons, but the speech was also broadcast over the radio to the British public and the wider world.
  • Purpose: The purpose of the speech was to bolster British morale, assure the public of the government’s commitment to victory, and demonstrate resolve to the international community.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Churchill employed anaphora, with the repetition of the phrase “We shall fight,” to emphasize determination. He used vivid imagery to depict various battle scenarios, and pathos to evoke a sense of national pride and duty.

10. The US Declaration of Independence (1776)

In 1776, Thomas Jefferson penned the United States Declaration of Independence, a document that declared the thirteen American colonies independent from British rule. The text outlined the philosophical justification for independence, listed grievances against King George III, and articulated the fundamental principles that the new nation would embody. The Declaration is a foundational document of the United States and a symbol of the pursuit of liberty.

To determine the rhetorical situation, let’s unpick the key elements and devices in this discourse:

  • Text: The text is a formal political document, characterized by its eloquent prose, philosophical reasoning, and clear enumeration of grievances and principles.
  • Author: The principal author was Thomas Jefferson, a Founding Father and the third President of the United States, with contributions from John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.
  • Audience: The immediate audience was the British Crown, but the document was also addressed to the international community and the American people, both contemporaneous and future.
  • Purpose: The purpose of the Declaration was to formally announce and justify the colonies’ decision to sever ties with Britain and to articulate the foundational principles of the new nation, including equality, liberty, and self-governance.
  • Rhetorical Devices: Jefferson employed a range of rhetorical devices including parallelism, in the listing of grievances; allusion, to philosophical and Enlightenment ideas; and pathos, to evoke a sense of injustice and the desire for liberty. The famous phrase “We hold these truths to be self-evident” exemplifies the use of ethos to establish the moral grounding of the American cause.

Rhetorical Elements

Let’s dive deeper into the five rhetorical elements you’ll want to look at in order to explain a rhetorical istuation:

1. Text

The text is the medium through which the message is conveyed.

It can take various forms, such as books, speeches, podcasts, films, videos, or digital content, each with its unique characteristics and conventions.

The nature of the text influences how the message is received and interpreted by the audience (Gabrielsen, 2010).

For instance, a speech might appeal to the audience’s emotions through tone and delivery, while a written article might rely on structured arguments and evidence (Toye, 2013). Understanding the nuances of the text is crucial for analyzing the effectiveness of the communication.

See More: A List of Text Types

2. Author

The author is the originator of the message, responsible for crafting the content and delivering it to the audience.

This person utilizes their knowledge, experiences, and perspectives to shape the message, whether they are a speaker, writer, filmmaker, or content creator.

The author’s credibility, intentions, and relationship with the audience play a significant role in how the message is received (Toye, 2013). For example, a well-respected expert in a field may have more influence over an audience than an unknown individual.

Analyzing the author’s background, motivations, and biases is essential for a comprehensive understanding of the rhetorical situation.

3. Audience

The audience is the recipient of the message, whose interpretation and response are integral to the communication process.

This group can be diverse, encompassing listeners, readers, viewers, or consumers, each bringing their unique perspectives, values, and expectations to the interaction.

The audience’s background, beliefs, and context significantly influence how they perceive and react to the message (Gabrielsen, 2010; Toye, 2013).

A successful communicator must understand and consider the audience’s needs, expectations, and potential biases to effectively convey their message. The audience’s engagement and response are key indicators of the success or failure of the rhetorical situation.

See More: Examples of Intended Audiences

4. Purpose

The purpose is the driving force behind the creation of the text, answering the question of why the message was produced.

It can range from informing, persuading, entertaining, inspiring, to challenging the audience, and it shapes the content, tone, and structure of the message (Gabrielsen, 2010).

Understanding the purpose is crucial for both the author and the audience, as it guides the creation of the message and influences how the audience interprets and responds to it (Toye, 2013).

A clear and well-defined purpose is more likely to result in effective communication and achieve the desired outcome. Analyzing the purpose provides insight into the goals of the author and the potential impact of the message.

Analyzing purpose is a particularly important media literacy skill.

5. Setting

The setting encompasses the time, location, and contextual factors that frame the rhetorical situation (Toye, 2013).

This includes the historical, cultural, social, and political environment in which the communication occurs.

The setting influences both the creation and reception of the message, shaping the author’s perspective and the audience’s interpretation.

For example, a speech delivered during a time of crisis may be received differently than one given in a period of stability.

Understanding the setting is essential for a holistic analysis of the rhetorical situation, providing context and background that illuminate the motivations, challenges, and implications of the communication (Gabrielsen, 2010).

Rhetorical Devices (Aristotle)

Besides elements of the text, we can also examine the text’s rhetorical devices, which are the methods employed to communicate and persuade.

Generally, we refer to Aristotle’s writings on rhetoric for this.

chrisEditorial Note from Chris: While at the beginning of this article, I highlighted three of Aristotle’s rhetorical concepts (pathos, ethos, and logos), some sources note there are five (adding telos and kairos). Personally, I think for the purposes of separating devices from elements, it’s best to only look at three, as the additional two overlap with ‘elements’ (above). But for the sake of thoroughness, I’ll list all five of Aristotle’s rhetorical concepts below.

Here are Aristotle’s rhetorical devices:

1. Logos (Appeal to Logic)

Logos is a rhetorical device that involves the use of logical reasoning to persuade the audience. It often incorporates facts, statistics, data, and well-structured arguments to appeal to the audience’s sense of reason.

A communicator using logos will aim to present clear, concise, and coherent arguments that are supported by evidence and sound reasoning (Bitzer, 1998).

This approach is particularly effective when discussing topics that require a rational and objective perspective.

By appealing to the audience’s intellect, logos helps to establish the credibility of the argument and the reliability of the speaker or writer.

Read More: Logos Examples

2. Ethos (Appeal to Credibility)

Ethos is a rhetorical device focused on establishing the credibility and moral character of the speaker or writer.

It involves demonstrating knowledge, expertise, and a sense of ethics to gain the trust and respect of the audience.

Ethos can be established through the author’s reputation, professional background, and the way they present themselves and their arguments.

The use of appropriate language, tone, and style, as well as showing respect for differing viewpoints, contributes to building ethos (Bitzer, 1998; Rapp, 2022).

When the audience perceives the communicator as credible and trustworthy, they are more likely to be persuaded by the message.

Read More: Ethos Examples

3. Pathos (Appeal to Emotions)

Pathos appeals to the emotions, values, and desires of the audience to elicit feelings that support the speaker or writer’s argument.

It involves the use of emotive language, vivid imagery, and personal anecdotes to create an emotional response.

Pathos can be particularly effective in persuading the audience by making them feel a certain way, whether it be compassion, anger, joy, or sorrow (Bitzer, 1998).

However, it is important for pathos to be balanced with logos and ethos to ensure the argument does not become overly emotional or manipulative.

When used effectively, pathos can create a strong connection between the audience and the message, making the argument more compelling.

Read More: Pathos Examples

4. Telos (Purpose)

Telos is not traditionally listed as a rhetorical device in the same manner as logos, ethos, and pathos.

However, in a broader sense, telos refers to the purpose or goal of a rhetorical situation or a speaker’s intention in communication (Rapp, 2022). It involves considering the end purpose of the message and how it aligns with the values, expectations, and needs of the audience.

Understanding telos is crucial for both the communicator and the audience, as it provides insight into the motivations behind the message and its intended impact. A clear and well-defined telos is essential for effective communication and achieving the desired outcome.

5. Kairos (Timing)

Kairos refers to the opportune moment or the right timing in which to deliver a message. It involves considering when the audience will be most receptive and when the message will have the greatest impact.

Kairos takes into account external factors such as the cultural, social, and political climate, as well as internal factors like the audience’s mood and level of interest (Rapp, 2022).

Recognizing and seizing the opportune moment can significantly enhance the effectiveness of the message.

Kairos, therefore, emphasizes the importance of context and timing in rhetorical situations, contributing to the persuasiveness and success of the communication.

References

Aristotle. (2014). The Art of Rhetoric. Toronto: HarperCollins.

Bitzer, L. (1998). The Rhetorical Sitaution. In Condit, C. M., Lucaites, J. L., & Caudill, S. (Eds.). Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, First Edition. Guilford Publications.

Gabrielsen, J. (2010). The Power of Speech. Hans Reitzels Forlag.

Rapp, C. (2022). Aristotle’s Rhetoric. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/

Toye, R. (2013). Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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