Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means
of persuasion.

Aristotle believed that from the world around them, speakers could observe how communication happens and use that understanding to develop sound and convincing arguments. In order to do that, speakers needed to look at three elements, graphically represented by what we now call the rhetorical triangle:

Aristotle said that when a rhetor or speaker begins to consider how to compose a speech— that is, begins the process of invention—the speaker must take into account three elements: the subject, the audience, and the speaker. The three elements are connected and interdependent; hence, the triangle.

Considering the subject means that the writer/speaker evaluates what he or she knows already and needs to know, investigates perspectives, and determines kinds of evidence or proofs that seem most useful. Students are often taught how to conduct research into a subject and how to support claims with appropriate evidence, and it is the subject point of the triangle that students are most aware of and feel most confident about. But, as Aristotle shows, knowing a subject—the theme of a novel, literary or rhetorical terms, reasons for the Civil War—is only one facet of composing.

Considering the audience means speculating about the reader’s expectations, knowledge, and disposition with regard to the subject writers explore. When students respond to an assignment given by a teacher, they have the advantage of knowing a bit of what their audience expects from them because it is often spelled out. “Five to seven pages of error free prose.” “State your thesis clearly and early.” “Use two outside sources.” “Have fun.” All of these instructions suggest to a student writer what the reader expects and will look for; in fact, pointing out directly the rhetoric of assignments we make as teachers is a good way to develop students’ rhetorical understanding. When there is no assignment, writers imagine their readers, and if they follow Aristotle’s definition, they will use their own experience and observation to help them decide on how to communicate with readers.

The use of experience and observation brings Aristotle to the speaker point of the triangle. Writers use who they are, what they know and feel, and what they’ve seen and done to find their attitudes toward a subject and their understanding of a reader. Decisions about formal and informal language, the use of narrative or quotations, the tone of familiarity or objectivity, come as a result of writers considering their speaking voices on the page. My opening paragraph, the exordium, attempts to give readers insight into me as well as into the subject, and it comes from my experience as a reader who responds to the personal voice. The creation of that voice Aristotle called the persona, the character the speaker creates as he or she writes.

Aristotle saw these rhetorical elements coming from lived experience. Speakers knew how to communicate because they spoke and listened, studied, and conversed in the world. Exercises that ask students to observe carefully and comment on rhetorical situations in action—the cover of a magazine, a conversation in the lunchroom, the principal’s address to the student body—reinforce observation and experience as crucial skills for budding rhetoricians as well as help students transfer skills to their writing and interpreting of literary and other texts.

move onto Appeals to Logos, Pathos, and Ethos