Is Rhetoric Relevant? Considering the “Message in Context” [Organizing Content #27]

The other day during a boring moment at work I started looking at PhD programs in technical writing and came across the PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech. What struck me was the emphasis on rhetoric. The program description explains that they emphasize “five broad areas of scholarship in its scholarship, coursework, and initiatives: a) Rhetoric, Composition, and Technology, b) Technical Communication, c) Rhetorics of Science and Healthcare, d) Technology, Culture, and Rhetoric, and e) Visual Rhetoric, New Media, and User-Centered Design.”

Rhetoric? With all the emphasis on rhetoric, I started to wonder if I was missing something in my day-to-day activities in the workplace. Once when I was in college my dad sent me Aristotle’s Rhetoric, and during a lazy holiday break I read it. In Aristotle’s sense of the term, rhetoric is the art of persuasion. But not so much political tactics or other underhanded techniques. It’s knowing the right way to communicate for the audience and situation.

When academics teach writing and communication, they like to emphasize rhetoric. But the term rhetoric is never formally used in the workplace. In fact, some critics highlight the emphasis on rhetoric as a distinguishing factor that academics are out of step with the workplace. In Editing at School vs. at the Workplace, Don Bush writes,

I would urge professors to pry open a window in their ivory towers and take a good look at practical technical writing and editing. Most of the jobs in industry are in keyboarding. And today there are fewer and fewer of them. “Technical communication” is going online, where the keyboarding is done by the programmers—who, if they have a college degree, have it in engineering or computer science, not in rhetoric. (Feb 2007 Intercom)

Strangely, Bush scorns the relevance of rhetoric while simultaneously emphasizing “keyboarding,” whatever that is. Keyboarding seems to be writing and editing, I guess. At any rate, Bush clearly attacks the importance of rhetoric in the workplace.

Thomas Barker is the head of the PhD program at Texas Tech. I wanted to better understand Dr. Barker’s use of the term rhetoric, so I wrote to him asking why they chose to use an antiquated term that is almost entirely absent in the workplace.

Dr. Barker replied,

The term rhetoric is meant to evoke the tradition of theory and analysis that underlies academic approaches to communication.  As such, it has lots of explanatory power when someone is trying to say why one design works and another doesn’t.  Besides, isn’t it the academic’s job to articulate the human and humanistic aspects of a discipline. I would think that workplace practitioners would be encouraged to know that their work has ties with a prestigious tradition that goes back to Aristotle.  We do teach the skills you mention, so it’s not like our graduates just learn rhetorical theory.  But we do it within the context of rhetorical effectiveness with users of technology. (The Academic Conversation)

In other words, the foundation of technical communication is the practice of rhetoric. This rhetorical foundation connects the field of technical communication to a humanistic discipline as old as Aristotle.

Dr. Barker also pointed me to a January Intercom 2010 article he wrote called Rhetoric and Technical Communication. In the article, Dr. Barker explains,

Technical communicators think in terms of message, what we convey to administrators, users, customers, employees, and the public. But what if we pause, step back, and think in terms of the reader’s experience with our text? Doing this—thinking about the reader’s experience—is thinking rhetorically. Good writers do it naturally. Put simply, rhetoric means message in context.  (Intercom January 2010)

In other words, when you start thinking about the reader’s experience of your message, that’s rhetoric. Considering how the reader will experience your message, and then delivering the message in a way that maximizes the experience you want the reader to have, is practicing rhetoric.

Rhetoric versus writing

Rhetoric versus writing

In the university setting, it makes perfect sense to use the term rhetoric, since tech comm departments frequently have to justify their existence and relevance. Any time you can ground your department’s purpose with a tradition as old as Aristotle, you have some validity.

Although rhetoric may be the right term in an academic setting, it’s an awkward term in the workplace. The term rhetoric in context of the workplace fails “to evoke the tradition of theory and analysis” and “articulate the human and humanistic aspects of a discipline.” Instead, if you explain that your role of a technical writer involves rhetoric, most people will think you’re in marketing or will simply not understand what you mean.

Instead of rhetoric, the workplace uses other terms, such as user experience, information design, user analysis, engagement, and learning theory, to mean much the same thing. The truth is, regardless of the antiquated nature of the term rhetoric, we professionals would be much better off thinking more about it. To think about rhetoric is to consider your reader’s experience of your help content.

Rhetoric is as broad as there are disciplines, and applies to everything from accessibility to reggae music. But in the context of technical communication, there’s a specific situation. You’re trying to help someone learn a complicated software application or hardware setup. It’s a situation of learning. The reader experience you’re trying to create is one of understanding and confidence, of knowledge and proficiency.

The reader’s experience should be at the forefront of our minds from the beginning of a project. Instead of designing for encyclopedic reference, we should consider how people learn, and integrate learning behavior into the organization, shape, and delivery of help material. We’re not creating “documentation.” We’re creating “communication.” And successful communication is grounded in rhetoric.

In short, a consideration of rhetoric would revamp how we deliver help material. It would make us more inclined to deliver screencasts instead of long help files. With rhetoric on our minds, we would be designing easy-to-read quick reference guides instead of 300 page PDF manuals. We would be drawing visual illustrations of concepts instead of writing out endless strings of words that fail to connect with users. eLearning and learning theory would be integral in the way we organize and think about content.

I’m not sure what this rhetorical component should be called in the workplace. For the most part, when people speak of “training” or “user experience,” this is what they mean. Training helps put the information you create into a learning context so that users can actually understand and implement the information.

Somehow in all the practice of technical communication, we’ve forgotten the foundation of it. It’s no wonder why most users despise help. It’s because the help authors despise and neglect them.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

21 thoughts on “Is Rhetoric Relevant? Considering the “Message in Context” [Organizing Content #27]

  1. Julio Vazquez

    Some interesting thoughts. However, I think that the issue is not with the practice of rhetoric in technical communications; it’s the word. While the academic meaning of rhetoric holds, I think that the word rhetoric has been damaged (at least in this country) by the association the word has with politics. The average person (I assume in the workplace also) abhors the word because of the connotation from the political arena, which is heavier on the persuation than communication. That, I think, is at the heart of Don Bush’s objection.

    Of course, I’m probably all wet. 😀

  2. Patty Blount

    What an interesting discussion… I was 5 courses away from finishing my grad degree in Tech Comm but Rensselear discontinued their distance degree program. I could apply my existing credits to another degree, but what would be the point if not Tech Comm? I didn’t want a creative writing or computer science degree – I wanted Technical Communication.

    Rhetoric does give me alternatives, though Julio makes an interesting point… the word may be too academic.

    1. Tom Johnson

      wow, are they allowed to just cancel a program while students are nearly finished with it? That doesn’t seem fair. I think you should apply our credits to a related degree, if only because a masters (I assume it was a masters) will open more doors for you than not having a masters. Also, is there not a related discipline?

  3. David Johnson


    Technical Communication is to Technical Communicators
    As Rhetoric is to Sophists.

    Sophists were able to disconnect their beliefs from their persuasive skills; they substituted their own beliefs for the client’s belief or benefit, for a price, of course, much as lawyers do today.

  4. Anne Sandstrom

    Timely post, although I don’t love the term “rhetoric.”

    I just got involved in solving a real life customer problem in real time. I had to use our documentation to do it. Talk about eye opening. I’ll be rewriting those topics and rearranging them so that what users pretty much always want (in this case, “What’s Wrong with My Data File?”) is the first thing they see.

    I’ve also been thinking about the difference between what trainers and instructional designers provide and what tech writers should provide. Troubleshooting. Trainers and IDs tell you how to stay healthy. We’re the physician’s assistants in the ER. We can’t actually do the surgery to set your broken bone, but we can tell you what’s wrong with you and that you need surgery. Or maybe that you should treat your apparent sprain with RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation). I think that using this analogy works better than many others. After all, for the most part, people don’t actually read the doc to learn how to use the product, although we do have to provide that info. (They just click around.) But, they do come to us first when something’s wrong. If we do our jobs well, we can ease the pain and possibly reduce the number of support calls. It’s not glamorous or even usually appreciated. So, I’m going to think in terms of ER triage when I rewrite that section of doc. Maybe it will work…

  5. Karen Mulholland

    Julio makes an excellent point – it’s the word “rhetoric”. Very few people know its academic meaning, and Don Bush seems not to be among those few.
    But in a larger sense too, Mr. Bush was mistaken for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Software developers are neither willing nor able to provide the guidance that their customers need. They understand what the code does. We technical communicators understand people’s need for guidance in using the product. We reach our audiences through empathy and persuasion, whether we call it “rhetoric”, “user experience”, or just “good writing”.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks Karen. I agree with you and Julio about the term rhetoric being poisoned. I am leaning more towards user experience as the replacement word, but it doesn’t quite describe the whole situation, and it relates more to usability and design than a learning situation. But still, thinking about the user experience as a whole is probably appropriate if you have content strategy as your intent, which we should.

  6. Richard Rabil, Jr.

    Glad you brought this up, Tom. As a current masters student at Texas Tech, I absolutely love the program’s emphasis on rhetorical theory. I can say from experience that the school’s foundation in this discipline has vastly improved my understanding of human nature and the technical communication work I do every day.

    Like you, though, I struggle with what to call it in the workplace. Julio, Anne, and Karen expressed their concern over the word for its academic connotation and its association with politics. And I recently did some research on what it would take to develop a communications and design group at our company, one which includes rhetorical theory as a core conceptual framework. But I hit a snag. What would the group be called? “Rhetoric and Design Group”? “User-Centered Communications and Design Group”? I want rhetoric to be recognized, but I think it would only scare or confuse the decision makers.

    However, I don’t think this means we should avoid the word. Personally, I think we should try to revitalize it, beginning with ourselves and the writers we work with. And maybe, at first, that’s as far as we go — so that we can speak more efficiently with each other when we’re at conferences or in planning sessions with other writers (or when we’re writing blog posts!). There are a number of ways to do this, such as understanding and/or teaching “rhetoric” more in connection with TC. Then perhaps we can more easily explain its more noble, useful aspects to others who aren’t writers. Of course, this in itself is difficult; we have limited time and money. The only reason I feel I have a strong grasp of rhetoric is that I’ve taken so many classes on it.

    And the question of the term’s use in the workplace remains. If nothing else, I think a good step is to vocally attribute our successes as writers to the principles of rhetoric. That’s what I’ve done where I work (I’ve worked on several winning technical proposals and have gotten positive feedback from clients on help manuals), and so the term has slowly become more acceptable when I talk to my managers.

    I’m still not sure, though. These seem like abstract, less-than-ideal solutions to me, as they involve a lot of uphill battles against negative assumptions about rhetoric. It doesn’t help that there’s so much “bad rhetoric” out there to begin with. You’ve really got me thinking, though. I’m interested in how others will respond here.

    p.s. If you intend to look more deeply into this, a good resource is ‘Central works in technical communication,’ an excellent collection of essays on rhetoric and the field we work in. In particular, Carolyn Miller’s essay “A Humanistic Rationale for Technical Communication” illustrates the need for rhetorical underpinnings in our field. After all, as technical communicators, we try to address the “whole person” — not just users who are rational, but users who are emotional. Rhetoric (in my view) is the best set of methods for doing just that, and is the best word I know of (right now) for describing it.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Rich, thanks for your feedback on this issue. I didn’t you know you were in the Texas Tech program. It was interesting to read your struggles with the name. What do other programs call it? Rensellaer calls it Communication and Rhetoric, which is highly similar. I think revitalizing an old name is not going to happen. Maybe this has morphed into “Content Strategy” now.

    2. Richard Rabil, Jr.

      Sorry I took so long to reply to your reply, Tom. Maybe you’re right that rhetoric won’t be revitalized for popular use in the workplace. “Content strategy” and “user experience,” as you and others have suggested, are more acceptable and user-friendly right now, and they overlap with rhetoric considerably. I’m perfectly okay with those terms and will probably end up using them, in some way, to describe the group I’ve been thinking about.

      It strikes me that we seem to be engaged in an ongoing balancing act. E.g., I wouldn’t want the term “user experience” to emphasize visual communication at the expense of good writing, nor would I want “content strategy” to emphasize good writing at the expense of visual communication. Rhetoric, in my mind, encompasses both written and visual communication (since persuasion is inevitably at work in both), but as we all seem to realize, rhetoric is a slippery word with lots of baggage, and we don’t want to confuse our co-workers in using it. (Ironically, our choice NOT to use it is inherently rhetorical.)

      In terms of what labels other organizations are using for their communications groups, I’ve seen everything from Documentation Group to Information Development and Design Group to User Experience and Design Group to Technical Communication Group. I need to do more reading on this, though, as I’m sure people like Joann Hackos and Ann Rockley have studied it. I also intend to poll my co-workers to get a sense of what would connect with them.

      At any rate, I agree with what Phil said above, that we use rhetoric all the time whether we call it that or not, and so I think us TCers should seek to better understand the concept and use it more frequently amongst each other as a conceptual common ground. The term may fall out of favor at times, but I think it will inevitably keep returning as we realize its usefulness as a body of knowledge and as a method for improving the way we communicate.

  7. robert levy

    I don’t mind the word rhetoric at all to mean what it means, and I’m all for reviving it in the minds of people who think it just means political bombast.

    But this seems like reworking the word to mean something that it hasn’t really meant before. I guess that’s ok, too, but I’m not willing to fight for it.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Rob, I thought I was using a fairly standard definition of rhetoric, but you suggested that I’m reworking the word to mean something it hasn’t meant before. Can you elaborate? How would you define rhetoric?

  8. robert levy

    Sorry, Tom, I wasn’t clear. YOU were using the standard definition. The professor isn’t, when he says that rhetoric means simply “message in context,” or that it just means thinking about the audience rather than just the message.

    Is poetry rhetoric when the poet considers the audience’s emotions upon hearing about the red red rose?

    Maybe that’s what academics studying tech comm mean, but that’s not what most people have meant when they’ve used the word throughout history, or today, in fact, outside the classroom.

    1. Tom Johnson

      I agree that the meaning of the word rhetoric has expanded beyond its usefuless as a word. By many academics, it is taken to mean “human discourse,” which is incredibly vague. Maybe that’s why people hate the term so much. There’s also an irony about the use of the word rhetoric. If rhetoric is finding the right message for the context, then can’t rhetoricians find the right word for this context? The word “rhetoric” no longer works.

  9. Dubious Trenchman

    Call me an arrogant pragmatist, but I honestly don’t see where the academic discipline of Technical Communication has made any impact to the field of practice. I’m getting soft impressions of humanistic and understanding, etc, but nothing that I wouldn’t get from a usability program (like the one at UBalt, a DCD, which is practice oriented), or from an applied Psychology program.

    How many PhD’s in tech comm are out there contributing knowledge we can use in the field? I don’t see how going to the roots of rhetorical theory will help to inform practice moreso than someone who follows career and practice-oriented discourse and has actual experience writing or designing writing in the field.

    1. Tom Johnson

      I think dismissing the work of academics simply because they’re not 100% in the workplace is unfair. What articles have you read by academics that you feel do not add any value to a professional’s situation in the workplace? I’m not saying there aren’t any examples of useless academic articles, but before you make a strong accusation, you might want to check yourself. Are you reading the Tech Comm Journal? Are you reading other publications from academics? Or are you just making a blanket generalization based off of a few experiences?

  10. Dubious Trenchman

    Oh I’m just making generalizations based on my own experience with PhD’s who show up at the workplace and expect consultant salaries and accolades for some bit of theory they’ve dreamed up that has no bearing on reality. Since they’ve never actually implemented a large-scale project, they are ignorant of basic product and project management practices in the field, and generally promise a lot and deliver a lot less when their limited pragmatic experience fails.

    I’m just bitter. Ignore me now.

  11. Phil

    Regardless of the public’s understanding of rhetoric and what the word means, of course it is important to technical communication. When we, as technical communicators, spend an hour discussing the merits of select versus click or how to best spell drop-down, we are engaged in a discussion of rhetoric: how are we going to best communicate to our audience the information we wish to present. We also spend time and effort thinking about how to minimize bothersome areas of a product while emphasizing the positive. These are all rhetorical activities. In every interaction and communication we are using rhetoric. We think about what we want to say and how to best say it to gain the outcome that we wish.

    When Dubious Trenchman talks about the “career and practice-oriented discourse” (note the rhetorical choice of discourse to both show he has been part of the educational establishment and to mock them…) he is speaking of nothing other than rhetoric. We apply rhetorical approaches that have show efficacy in the past and as these are used time and again, they become, for all intents and purposes, standard operating procedures. This, however, does not remove the rhetoric.

    You speak to the issue that this raises, though, when you speak of the industry’s continued push to use long manuals that no one except the technical communicators really read and the help systems that don’t get to the heart of what the user needs in order to successfully engage with the product. We all get caught in the trap of using what has worked in the past (did manuals ever really work?) and continue down that road because we are comfortable with that path. Thinking about rhetoric (User Experience, Information Architecture, Interface Experience, whatever label one wishes to place on the activity of creating tailored messages for a specific audience…) is one way that we can start to move those who are ignorant of effective communication techniques (no disrespect intended by the choice of the word ignorant, just intending to mean those who are not dedicated to and educated in communications.) away from the tried and true methods that we all understand do not really work. By being cognizant of whatever term one wishes to use to denote rhetoric means that that individual will be prepared to make informed choices in the workplace where theory and philosophy are put to the test.

    This message, every word, has been thought about, mulled over, and revised to create the message I wish to communicate with your audience. We all do this, often unconsciously. We will type in a word. Blue, for instance, and then realize that this is not quite right. We then find a different word in our own bank of words or by using a variety of tools. We might come up with Cyan, or Glaucous, or Azure, or Cobolt. We engage in applied rhetoric every time we speak or write. Wouldn’t it enrich the workplace to use the word rhetoric? Wouldn’t it be good to take specific steps on a daily basis to cause ourselves and those around us to engage in thought that falls outside of the standard operating procedures? This activity, thinking, to retread a horribly dated idiom, outside the box, is really where the most creative and useful products come from.

  12. Dubious Trenchman

    Apt discovery that I am a former academic who worked on higher ed in the Northeast; I won’t mention schools here. However, I would like someone to cite 5 studies or academic contributions that have impacted the field in tangible ways.

  13. Scott

    I am a student at a postgrad certificate program in technical communication (in Canada). I found this post while doing a research paper on “Context in Technical Communication”. Having read some of the very dense essays in the book “Central Works in Technical Communication” I became very familiar with the term “rhetoric” as it was used constantly. As anyone who has read that book will know, it was written by academics for academics. Certainly the essays make valid points, but do they actually help me, as a student, become a better technical writer? Does attempting to associate technical communication with rhetoric (and Aristotle) increase the value of what technical communicators do, or does good technical communication stand on its own merit?


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