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Rhetorical Awareness in Technical Communication

Rhetorical Awareness in Technical Communication
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Instructor: Suzanne Sweat

Suzanne has taught 12 years in the NC Public School System and three years at Campbell University. She has a master's degree in English Education.

When writing technical communications, it is important to take into account the goal, audience, and context of the document you are creating. This video explains how having rhetorical awareness will help improve your communication.

An Example of Rhetorical Unawareness

I remember my first day on the job as a teacher. It was a week before students arrived, and the teachers were handed a staff manual full of information from bell schedules to discipline policies. The 50-page notebook was typed in 10-point font, with no graphics and very few headings. Instead of numbering each page 1 to 50, the creator decided to number each section. So to find out what to do for a fire drill, we had to turn to Section III, page 5. To learn the procedure for late arrivals, we had to look in Section V, page 8. Of course, nowhere in the binder was there a list for which section each policy was located. The document writer clearly had a plan for how to find each policy and procedure. Unfortunately, that information was not communicated to the user. The manual sat on my shelf, untouched the rest of the year.

What Is Rhetorical Awareness?

The problem with the staff manual is the problem we often face with documents created in the workplace: the writer was focused more on the subject than the audience. In order to improve our technical communication, we must be rhetorically aware. Rhetorical awareness is understanding that successfully fulfilling the purpose of your writing is dependent on your ability to anticipate and address the needs of your audience.

In high school, you were probably taught that rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and that is true. But rhetoric is about more than just using logical, ethical, and emotional appeals to get your audience to support your argument. In documents where the purpose is to inform rather than persuade, a writer must think beyond just using rhetorical devices. The writer must think about his audience and how he can provide a positive experience for the reader. Moving the focus from the subject to the audience shifts the way you write so that your concern is making sure the audience is able to understand the information quickly and apply the information easily.

Instead of focusing just on what you're writing (the subject), you must also consider the following:

  • The Purpose - What is the goal of the document?
  • The Audience - Who will read and use the document?
  • The Context - Why is the document needed?

These factors make up what is known as the rhetorical situation, or factors that affect the development of the document. By examining the rhetorical situation of a document, a writer can more effectively communicate his or her message.

An Example of Rhetorical Awareness

Let's examine the rhetorical situation for a user manual to be included with the latest cell phone, the My Phone 9. The goal of the document is to help users know how to set up and use their new phone. This means the document creator must consider potential problems or questions the user might have and include a Frequently Asked Questions section, or a trouble-shooting guide, or a visual aid as part of the document.

The intended audience is the purchaser of the phone. Since the audience is the general public and not someone with a technical background, the writer must stay away from technical jargon and instead use layman's terms to explain how to set up the phone to prevent confusion.

The document is needed because the product is new. However, since many customers already have other versions of the My Phone, it may be helpful for the document creator to highlight specific areas where the new version of the phone is different from the old version, so returning customers can quickly identify the parts of the document they need to read.

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