Even before we learn to crawl, we learn that the sounds we make generate responses from those around us.

Later, we form those sounds into words and learn that the words of others contain meaning. Then, when we learn how to read and write, we understand that written words have meaning, and we struggle to make ourselves understood. Throughout our lives, communicating clearly to others will always be a challenge. [blockquote id="" class=”” style="bold" cite="George Bernard Shaw" type="left"]The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.[/blockquote] Although communication is one of the first skills we learn, too few people take the time to study it with the purpose of becoming an effective communicator. With the digital age, the ability to communicate well across wide divides of technology, experience, and education levels is critical. And with the explosion of mobile applications, audiences are overwhelmed with a constant stream of information that incorporates more visual content than ever before.

Distractions are everywhere.


Which is why our words must count.

Creating content that captures and holds an audience's attention is hard. But, it can be easier if we bring rhetoric out of dusty, old textbooks and into our online content.

When I taught English 1101, only a few of my students had ever encountered the study of persuasive communication, or rhetoric, in their previous courses. In fact, the only ones familiar with rhetoric were those who had studied debate. Unfortunately, this once common classroom subject is becoming a lost art. And with its loss come generations of ineffective writers and communicators.

[custom_headline type="left" level="h3" looks_like="h3" accent="true"]What is Rhetoric?[/custom_headline]

In Ancient Greece, rhetoric was commonly practiced among philosophers and politicians because it was important for public figures to engage and win over audiences. Prior to tutoring Alexander the Great, Aristotle wrote Rhetoric in 350 B.C.E. In its simplest form, rhetoric is the study of persuasive communication. And in order to persuade, we must engage our audiences by incorporating elements of ethos (reputation), pathos (emotion), and logos (reason).

But, before we get into ethos, pathos, and logos, it's important to understand how communication works between the writer and the audience. [custom_headline type="left" level="h3" looks_like="h3" accent="true"]How Communication Works[/custom_headline]

Communication is the sending of a message to an audience. The process for communication follows a pathway depicted in the figure below:

encoding decoding message
encoding decoding message

In this figure, the message sender (encoder) has an idea that he wants to get across. But, the message changes based upon the experiences and comprehension of the message recipient (decoder). The encoder tries to be as clear as he can to facilitate understanding, but there is no way to know how the message will be decoded. We just try the best we can.

Which is where all our communication problems occur.

[custom_headline type="left" level="h3" looks_like="h3" accent="true"]When Communication Goes Wrong[/custom_headline]

Many years ago, I taught English to high school students in Saumur, France. It was an exchange/internship program with my university, and it was an eye-opening experience for me to see how students (who loved American films, television shows, and music) struggled with slang. One student, Guillaume, was particularly fascinated with American culture, and he took every opportunity possible to use slang. On our last day of class, Guillaume was trying to convince his professor to teach him how to swear fluently in English.

His argument kept escalating with all the various situations that could arise for which he would need to know American profanity. Finally, he said, "What if I'm in a taxi, and the driver cusses at me? What do I say back?" At this the professor said in a complete dead-pan voice, "Shut the hell up."

And although I busted out laughing, not one of the students, not even Guillaume, reacted. Why?

Because the professor said, "Shut the hell up," in the same way off-handed way a person might say, "This is boring." And because the non-native English speakers were so intent on watching the professor's gestures and listening to his tone, not one of them noticed what he actually said. But I had, so both the professor and I were laughing.

At this point,  the student, frustrated and slightly embarrassed because we were laughing said, "Stop it, or you'll piss on me!"

I lost it. I actually fell out of my chair and onto the floor. The professor and I were in tears, and not one of our almost 20 students had any idea why we were laughing. When class ended, Guillaume approached me and said, "Crystal, what did I say? Did I not say it right?"

I explained to him that the phrase was "You're pissing me off," and then I explained what he actually said. His eyes widened. Then, his cheeks pinked. And then, like me and his professor, he had a good, long laugh.

The initial part of Guillaume's misunderstanding was that he was paying more attention to his professor's body language and casual tone than he was to what the professor was actually saying. When we speak to one another, the majority of our understanding as an audience comes from non-verbal cues, as much as 65% of our understanding comes from visual cues (like gestures and facial expressions).

If so much can be misconstrued when we're face-to-face with our audience, think of how much context is lost when we write. By paying attention to the needs of our audience, we can be stronger writers and communicators.

By employing rhetorical strategies, we can communicate more effectively. This is why attention to ethos, pathos, and logos is important. To start learning how to do a better job of hooking and holding your audience, start with our post, "Building Audience Confidence."