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Analyzing Context, Purpose & Audience in Texts

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Persuasive texts, whether written, oral, or visual, need to be aware of their context, purpose, and audience in order to truly be effective. Analyzing these three factors is the best way to evaluate a persuasive text and decide if it is 'good' or not.

It's All Relative

We are all familiar with persuasive texts, texts that exist to convince us of a certain point of view. We see them on TV and online ads everyday. We read opinion pieces on controversial issues like immigration and abortion. And, we hear politicians giving speeches trying to convince the public that they are the only hope for the future of a country.

But, what makes a persuasive text, whether written, oral, or visual, 'good'? How do we evaluate a persuasive text and determine whether or not it's effective? There are no set standards for a 'good' persuasive text, but that doesn't mean that all persuasive texts are created equal.

An effective persuasive text is aware of its context, purpose, and audience and uses this awareness to craft a convincing message.

Context

Context refers to the world in which the persuasive text exists and everything that surrounds it. Persuasive texts don't exist in a vacuum, or at least they shouldn't. And, the context can have a great impact on how persuasive the text is.

For example, let's consider cigarette advertisements. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, cigarette ads often highlighted the health benefits of cigarettes, and even featured endorsements from doctors. At the time, these ads were effective because the dangers of smoking were not widely known.

But, if a cigarette company tried to run the same ad today, when the dangers of smoking are widely known, it would probably not be effective. Not to mention, they wouldn't even be allowed to run the ad because the federal government bans these ads because the dangers of smoking are so widely recognized.

This is an extreme example of how context affects a persuasive text, and the exact same text has gone from effective to ineffective because the context changed. So when analyzing a persuasive text, consider the context in which it was created. How did the creator of the text adapt, or fail to adapt, their message to the context?

Purpose

All persuasive texts may seem to have the same purpose: to persuade, obviously. But not all types of persuasion are created equal. To be effective, writers have to ask themselves, what am I persuading my audience to do?

Let's look at the example of former President George W. Bush and his education program, No Child Left Behind. When Bush ran for president in 2000, No Child Left Behind, a sweeping overhaul of education policy, was one of his signature issues and he talked about it frequently. At this point, when he talked about changing education, he did so with a specific goal in mind: to get elected. He needed to convince his audience to vote for him so he could have the chance to implement his plan. So, he focused a lot on emotional appeals, called pathos, which concentrated on individual students who would benefit from his program.

After getting elected, Bush now had to convince Congress to actually pass No Child Left Behind, so his persuasive strategies changed. His arguments focused a lot more on data and logical arguments, called logos, that showed the program would actually work.

While President Bush had one large purpose, passing No Child Left Behind, he had to adapt his argument to the smaller persuasive purposes along the way: getting elected and getting Congress to pass the bill. So when analyzing a persuasive text, consider what the speaker is specifically hoping to accomplish. What techniques do they use to accomplish these specific goals?

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