An Introduction to Communication Theory

The ability to communicate effectively has long been associated with strong leaders. As democracy developed in Greece more than two millenia ago, communication quickly proved to be a vital skill for citizens enjoying newfound acces to the institutions of power. It is no cooincidence that as democracy began to flourish in ancient Greece, so to did instruction in communication. As we explore theories of communication, we will return to the word that these teachers used to describe their craft: rhetoric.

Rhetoric

The meaning of the word "rhetoric" seems to differ depending on how the word is used and who's using it. You've probably heard politicians some time or another dismiss the positions of their opponents as "mere rhetoric." You're probably also familiar with the idea of a rhetorical question—a question that is meant to make a point and not meant to be answered.

But rhetoric, as we use it in this class, means something different. Rhetoric is simply the ways in which we try to persuade a given audience, for a given purpose.

So what does that mean? It's a simple idea, but once you begin to see it, you can find rhetoric acting everywhere there is an audience, and a someone trying to make a point with that audience. Here are some classic (and some would say less-than-reputable) examples of rhetoric:

But rhetoric can be much subtler (and quite positive) as well:

The term rhetoric, as the ancient Greeks used it (and throughout most of history) referred to the arts of speechmaking and oratory. In this class, we will use it to refer to persuasion that occurs through any medium, not just text or speech. In looking at I hope you will begin to see all communication as rhetorical—that is, as a set of deliberate, strategic decisions that someone made to achieve a certain purpose with a certain audience. You will also learn how to develop effective rhetorical strategies for your own communication.

The Rhetorical Triangle

The rhetorical triangle is a way of thinking about what's involved in any communication/persuasion scenario. It involves (no surprise here) three main parts:

A triangle with vertices labeled 'audience,' 'purpose', and 'rhetor'.

An important part of the rhetorical triangle is that these three "variables" are mutually interdependent: in successful rhetoric, each of them must be reconciled and appropriate to the other two. The purpose, for instance, must be appropriate to the rhetor and what that rhetor is capable of achieving with the audience. Similarly the audience must be appropriate to the rhetor and the rhetor's purpose. And finally, the rhetor has to be appropriate for the purpose and the audience.

Perhaps examples would help here. Say I am the rhetor, and my audience is my boss. I want to make more money, so I make it my purpose to get a raise. However, that purpose has to be reconciled between factors regarding who I am as a rhetor (am I credible or well-liked? am I worth the money?) and who my boss is (is she generous and understanding? Does she even have the money to give?). If I make it my purpose to make $1 million a year, I'm not likely to be met with much success. Therefore I must reconcile my purpose to what is possible—given both who I am as a rhetor and who my audience is. I should probably make my purpose more realistic by asking for a more reasonable amount of money.

In the same scenario, I also have to make sure my audience is appropriate to my purpose. It doesn't make any sense, for instance, to address anyone without any control over my salary (like the guy on the bus, the janitor, or some other person's boss). Rather, I need to talk to people with the ability—either directly or indirectly—to effect my purpose.

And of course, the rhetor has to be appropriate to the audience and the purpose. Having my sister ask my boss for a raise for me wouldn't likely work. Or if who I was changed—if I just won the lottery, for instance—I wouldn't likely be successful making the case for more money either.

Now, what if I could go to my boss and say that the vast majority of people in my line of work were making $1 million a year, and I should be making that much as well? Or, by contrast, what if I lived in a culture where it was considered shameful to ask your boss for a raise? These things would go beyond just the immediate players in the rhetorical triangle, and extend to something that surrounds all of it: context.

The same rhetorical triangle surrounded by a large circle labeled 'context'.

Context refers to anything outside of the immediate rhetorical situation that also shapes the rhetoric. This can include:

Three Rhetorical Appeals: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

Some ancient Greeks identified three major tactics that we use when we go about persuading people, what we call rhetorical appeals:

  1. Logos appeals (or logical arguments), which appeal to reason or logic. Logos appeals include appeals to statistics, math, logic, order, and "objectivity." For instance, when advertisements claim that their product is “37% more effective than the competition,” they are making a logos appeal. When a lawyer claims that her client is innocent because they had an alibi, that too is a logos appeal: it's logically inconsistent for her client to have been in two places at once.

    A more general reading of logos can also refer to the ordering and structure of an act of rhetoric, such as the logical ordering of information on a page or the structure of a speech.
  2. Pathos appeals (or pathetic arguments), which appeal to human emotion, desire, or passion. For instance, home security companies appeal to our fears of violent crime, carbon monoxide, fire, etc. in order to convince us to buy their home monitoring systems. Many personal hygiene products appeal to our fears of social rejection and to our desire to fit in with others. Many charities appeal to our emotions by showing us images of people that we will empathize with. Gambling casinos appeal to our sense of greed when they try to get us to gamble. And of course, countless advertisements use sex to convince us to buy their products (this is technically eros, but we'll file it under pathos for the sake of simplicity).

    A more general reading of pathos, however, can include any consideration on behalf of the rhetor for their audience's motivations or state of mind. This includes considerations of the values and beliefs that will ultimately move the audience to action.
  3. Ethos appeals, which refer to the character or authority of the rhetor. As an audience, our perception of the rhetor’s ethos is what leads us to trust them.

    Ethos can be seen as having two parts: authority and character. Authority is what leads us to believe that a rhetor is qualified to talk about the issue that they are addressing. Character refers to the connections that exist between the rhetor and their audience.

    In many cases ethos is pretty transparent: if Rachel Ray wanted to tell us how to make chicken marsala, we would probably just implicitly assume that she knew what she was talking about. After all, she has built her ethos in the sense of authority by demonstrating her cooking abilities every day on nationwide television, in her cookbooks, and through other media. She has also built her ethos in the sense of her character by appearing to be a friendly, savvy, and admirable person.

    However, if a random person on the street wanted to tell us how to make chicken marsala, we would probably first want to know what gave them the authority to do so: did they cook a lot? Do they make chicken marsala often? Why were they qualified to show us? In addition, such a person would lack the the character component of ethos—being a stranger we would have no connection to them and we would have no sense of who they were as a person. In fact, we'd probably be creeped out by their unsolicited cooking lesson. Ultimately, we would have no reason to trust them.

It's important to recognize that ethos, pathos, and logos appeals are rarely found independently of each other, and that complex and effective persuasion usually involves all of them in some combination.

For instance, logos appeals by themselves are rare and seldom effective—they invariably rely on pathos and ethos as well. If I wrote an essay that included the statement "five people die of AIDS every minute," it doesn't just convey a logos appeal in the form of a statistic. It also includes an implicit pathos appeal: a sense of the emotional tragedy that is AIDS and a sense of the ferocity and terribleness of the disease. And it also includes an implicit ethos appeal: it establishes my belief in the moral unacceptability of the disease and it may establish admiration in the eyes of my audience for holding such a stance.

It may be tempting to think that logos trumps all other appeals when it comes to successful rhetoric, and that appeals to authority or character (ethos) or appeals to emotion (pathos) are spurious. It may also be tempting to think that if something is logically correct it must automatically be persuasive.

But the above statement "five people die of AIDS every minute" is a good example of why this doesn't necessarily hold. The statement itself doesn't mean much of anything until it is connected to other ethos and pathos appeals and, ultimately, until it is connected to a purpose (such as promoting AIDS awareness, ridding the world of the disease, etc.). The statement must be tied to beliefs and values common to an audience—such as the undesirability of death and disease—before it becomes persuasive in any meaningful sense.