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6.03: Chapter 25: Using Rhetorical Theory to Write Your Report

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    Chapter 25: Using Rhetorical Theory to Write Your Report

    Rebekah Bennetch, Corey Owen, and Zachary Keesey

    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

    • Design the message of your report by applying the rhetorical theory of Bitzer and Aristotle

    Key Terms and Concepts

    • rhetorical exigence
    • rhetorical audience
    • constraints
    • pathos
    • ethos
    • logos

    By now, you should already have a focused topic and research question for your report. Now it’s time to craft your message.

    As we said in a previous chapters, rhetorical theory will help you craft a persuasive message for your audience. This chapter will show you how to do that. Specifically, you will be using Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” and the Aristotle’s “Modes of Appeal” to help form a message around you focused topic and research question. Before we connect the theories to your report, we will briefly review the content in both. While both theories are distinct in the rhetorical issues they consider, when combined you will have a much stronger message. You will also notice that there is some overlap between the two in terms of what you need to consider. To help you see this in practice, you will continue to see how Mei and Hamid apply the theory to their own reports.

    Please keep in mind that you are by no means locked into your focused topic and research question at this point. As you go through the theory below, you might realize that your topic is too broad or that you don’t actually want to write about it. If you need to change or refine it, that’s completely fine. What matters is that you go through this process early enough so you are realize these issues now instead of the night before the report is due.

    “The Rhetorical Situation” (Bitzer)

    We will start with Bitzer. In those chapters we mentioned that his theory was good for assessing the situation. This is because “The Rhetorical Situation” is essentially a planning document. Before you even begin writing your message—that is, your written report or presentation—you need to consider the situation you are building your message for. This is done by reviewing Bitzer’s three constituents.

    1. Rhetorical Exigence: What is the problem that your message will solve?
    2. Rhetorical Audience: Who is your audience and how do they need to receive the information?
    3. Constraints: What challenges will your message face (constraints)?

    By considering Bitzer’sthree constituents of the rhetorical situation, you will analyze the situation before you begin to design your message and, as a result, start from a much stronger position. Let’s look at how you might do that now.

    Rhetorical Exigence

    The first constituent is rhetorical exigence. This is something needing to be done (or a problem to be solved) that can be fixed, to some degree, with the cooperation of others.

    In terms of reports, if you have to write an informative report it means you have an audience that needs information (which is something that needs to be done). An informative report answers that problem, but it also needs to provide information in such a way that the audience is persuaded to believe the information as credible. Keep in mind that it is not enough to just give them information; it must also be understandable. When analyzing rhetorical exigence for your topic, do not stop at “the audience needs information.” Go deeper! Think about the relational issues that go on with persuading an audience.

    Mei – Rhetorical Exigence

    When thinking about her report, Mei knows she should start with rhetorical exigence (the problem she wishes to solve). She thinks about her past conversations with people about nuclear energy, which she knows rarely go well.

    But why? After some thought, she realizes it’s because they already have negative ideas of what nuclear energy involves. Their preconceived notions of nuclear energy is what stops them from seeing it as a safe, reliable energy source.

    Therefore, the problem she needs to solve is to change their opinion and have them understand that nuclear energy is safe and reliable. However, she knows she needs to go deeper than that.

    • What preconceived ideas will she be going up against in her report?
    • How will people be hesitant when reading her report?

    She will need to keep these issues in mind if she is going to change her audience’s opinion.

    Hamid – Rhetorical Exigence

    Hamid is struggling with his topic. On the one hand, the problem is that Lyme disease is a medical issue that is becoming more prevalent in Canada; however, how does that help his audience? What can they do about it?

    After some thought, he realizes that if he can get the audience to be more knowledgeable and take the disease seriously, then they could save their lives. He decides that the problem he needs to solve is helping his audience know what to look out for with Lyme disease, and the steps they can take to protect themselves.

    Rhetorical Audience


    The second constituent is rhetorical audience . This isn’t just any audience who hears the message though. Instead, a rhetorical audience must meet two criteria. They must be:

    1. able to make the needed change

    2. open to being persuaded

    In terms of a report, then, your rhetorical audience is the one who requires the information, and is open to being persuaded that the report is credible. However, when analyzing rhetorical audience, do not stop at just identifying who needs information. Go deeper! Ask yourself the question, “How does the audience need to receive the information so they can assess it as credible?”

    Mei – Rhetorical Audience

    Next, Mei considers her rhetorical audience. Since her formal written report is for class, Mei knows only a few people will read it (like her instructor and some of her peers). However, she also knows that she should take the assignment seriously. She considers the two criteria:

    1. Can her audience make the needed change?
      • While this group may not be able to directly impact environmental energy policy and shift it towards a greater reliance on nuclear energy, she knows that she can at least change their opinion of it’s safety and viability as an alternative to burning coal and fossil fuels.
    2. Is her audience open to being persuaded?
      • She believes they are. She knows that a lot of people in her program are concerned about climate change and are open to discussing alternative means of energy production.

    After going through those two questions, Mei is feeling pretty good. But she also must consider how the audience will receive her information so they can assess it as credible. Mei decides the best way to do this is by using reputable institutions that study nuclear energy to lay out a case for why it is safe and viable. She will also need to address concerns the audience has about reactor overloads and nuclear waste.

    Hamid – Rhetorical Audience

    Hamid thinks about his audience. Unlike the formal report he wrote earlier in the term, his presentation will be in front of his entire class. That means a lot of people will see his presentation.

    1. Can his audience make the needed change?
      • He believes so. As long as his list of strategies are simple and easy to do, Hamid believes his audience will be able to protect themselves from Lyme Disease.
    2. Is her audience open to being persuaded?
      • This will be tricky. Most people he has talked to think of Lyme Disease as an American problem that doesn’t affect Canadians. To combat this issue, he will need to show in his speech how prevalent Lyme Disease is becoming in Canada. Otherwise, his audience may not take him seriously.

    In order to show he is credible, Hamid knows that all of his sources will need to come from medical organizations and medical journals. Additionally, he realizes it may help if he also shares his own personal experience with the disease.


    The final constituent is constraints. Constraints always exist in any rhetorical situation. They are those elements that limit what the writer or speaker can effectively say.

    As a result, when constructing your report, you need to consider what will limit how you present your information. Ask yourself these questions:

    • How much background information does the audience need?
      • Is your audience new to the topic or are they very well-read in this area? If they are knowledgeable, then you would only have to present the bare minimum.
    • How long is the report or presentation expected to be?
      • Are you sending a paragraph-long email or submitting a 200 page research report? This will determine how much time and/or space you have to discuss your topic.
    • Are credible sources of evidence available?
      • We will go into more detail about this in a future chapter, but we will briefly discuss it now. By “credible” we mean are the resources peer-reviewed? Can you find them in academic literature? Or at the very least, will the sources be seen as credible in the eyes of your audience? For example, if you are presenting to a group of high school students, and you only use information from Wikipedia, they may find that credible. However, if you are presenting to a group of scholars who are experts in their fields, they most certainly will not find Wikipedia credible.
    • What are the design conventions (i.e. rules) for the style of report?
      • Conventions differ for each type of report. For example, the rules for writing an email are different from writing a report. If you have a 200 page report, what kind of graphics do you need to create, and how should you format them to meet the conventions of that report?
      • Also, keep in mind that conventions change from class to class, field to field and, sometimes, position to position. For example, for this course, we want you to use the American Psychology Association (APA) format when writing your report. This will affect how you format your citations, references and graphics. However, if you’re an engineer, your field may have their own set of formatting conventions than another. One example of this is mechanical engineering versus electrical engineering, each of which have their own style guides.

    Mei – Constraints

    Mei considers all the constraints that will limit her formal report.

    1. How much background information does the audience need?
      • Mei assumes that her audience has an idea what nuclear energy is, though they may not know the specifics of how it works. Since Mei is trying to convince her audience that nuclear energy is a safe and reliable source of energy, she decides to avoid going too deep into the technical process of fusion reactions. Instead, she wants to compare the energy outputs between coal/fossil fuel-fired power plants and nuclear power plants as well as show how both impact climate change. This means she will need to find data for both methods so she can compare them for the audience.
    2. How long is the report expected to be?
      • Mei reviews the class handout for the formal report and finds that it should be between 1800 – 2400 words, double spaced. She knows that a double spaced page is roughly 500 words, so that means her paper will be roughly 5 pages of written text. However, she also needs to include other elements like a title page and a graphic, so this means her report will be somewhere between 6-8 pages long.
    3. Are credible sources of evidence available?
      • From her courses, Mei already knows a couple of organizations that focus on nuclear energy specifically. She makes a list of the ones she already knows, and searches online for some that focus on the environment generally. Her list includes the Canadian Nuclear Association and the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. She doesn’t know how to find peer-reviewed articles , so she stops by the Murray Library on campus and asks a librarian for help. The librarian directs her to articles in the peer-reviewed journals Popular Science, Fusion Science and Technology, and Energy Policy.
    4. What are the design conventions (i.e. rules) for the style of report?
      • Mei pays close attention to format requirements for the assignment because she knows she’ll lose points if she forgets any of them. In the written report, she will need to include at least one graphic (like a table, chart, or photograph). That seems easy enough. However, for the entire assignment, she also needs to include a cover page, transmittal document, title page, table of contents, list of tables and figures, reference page, and appendices. She must also use APA format for all of her references and citations. That’s a lot of content! She makes a checklist for herself so she doesn’t forget anything.

    Hamid – Constraints

    Hamid considers all the constraints for his persuasive speech.

    1. How much background information does the audience need?
      • Quite a bit, probably. While Hamid is sure that most of his audience has heard of Lyme disease, he doubts that most of them will know it’s effects and just how serious it can become if untreated. He decides to break break up his speech into three parts: (1) an overview of Lyme Disease, (2) the challenges of testing for the disease, and (3) how the disease is becoming more common in Canada. Each section should provide enough information to help his audience better understand the disease.
    2. How long is the presentation expected to be?
      • Hamid reviews the class handout for the persuasive speech. The speech will only be 5 minutes long, which doesn’t leave him a lot of time. If he assumes his introduction and conclusion will be about 30 seconds total, that leaves him only 4 and half minutes to discuss the three sections he came up with. This means he will need to make sure he doesn’t have too much information. He also sees that his speech must be within a ten second window. This means it must not be shorter than 4:50, or longer than 5:10. Hamid will need to make sure he practices a lot to ensure his speech is just long enough.
    3. Are credible sources of evidence available?
      • Hamid does a quick web search and finds a number of medical organizations that discuss Lyme Disease such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. He also searches for academic articles on the USask Library website and finds several. However, he is unable to find any articles specifically about the disease in Canada. He can’t make it to campus, so he uses the USask Library Ask Us online chat service so he can talk to a librarian from his home. The librarian finds three articles for him, one of which is about Lyme Disease spreading in the prairies. This is great news, because that article will help him better connect the disease to the lives of his audience in Saskatchewan.
    4. What are the design conventions (i.e. rules) for the presentation?
      • After reading the assignment handout, Hamid sees that his speech needs to be in an extemporaneous style. The speech must also be based on an outline that he will create from the persuasive speech evaluation form that his instructor gave him. Additionally, he needs to ensure his speech is grounded in research, which shouldn’t be too difficult to do since he has already found so many great sources. Unfortunately for Hamid though, he is not allowed to use PowerPoint or any kinds of slides to help him. Instead, he will only be able to use a single note-card.

    “The Modes of Appeal” (Aristotle)

    By now, you should have used Bitzer to determine the problem you are trying to solve, who is the audience that needs the information, and how you are going to get that information to them. Now it’s time to put that message together. We can do so by considering Aristotle’s Modes of Appeal. As a reminder, these are the strategies you can use to create a persuasive message (ethos, pathos, and logos), which requires an assessment of:

    1. the credibility of the speaker (ethos)
    2. the needs and values of the audience (pathos)
    3. the available arguments and evidence to decide how to present the most persuasive message possible. (logos)

    All together, the modes of appeal work together to build a message that shows the credibility of both the speaker and their message to the audience. In this section, you’ll notice discussion on sources and finding evidence. Again, we will go into more detail on that in next chapter.


    Ethos is defined as the credibility of the speaker as established in the message by demonstrating good will, good judgement, and good character. This means taking stock of yourself, your position, and understanding how that may affect your message either positively or negatively.

    As you start designing your message, ask yourself the following questions:

    1. Does my content show awareness of the needs of the audience?
    2. Am I meeting the conventions of the report or presentation?
    3. Is the information presented fair and complete?

    Mei – Ethos

    Mei walks through the three questions to determine her ethos.

    1. Does my content show awareness of the needs of the audience?
      • Mei believes it does. Climate change is a very important topic right now that has a lot of people worried. However, she also knows that people are often worried about the safety of nuclear energy. Therefore, she will need to address those concerns in her report by discussing recent nuclear crises like the Fukushima reactor in Japan. She knows that she could lose her credibility if she ignores the risks involved with nuclear energy because it will look like she didn’t take her audiences concerns into consideration.
    2. Am I meeting the conventions of the report?
      • This one is easy, since Mei already considered this while going over Bitzer’s constraints. She already knows her audience (her instructor) will expect her report to have all of the required elements (table of contents, references, etc.). If she includes all of them, it will show the instructor that she took the assignment seriously.
    3. Is the information presented fair and complete?
      • Mei is unsure what to do here. She knows that ethos is about showing her credibility, but she also knows that she should not include her personal opinions in the report. Instead, the facts should do the talking. She asks her instructor for advice, and they explain to her that credibility will be shown by the types of information she selects. As long as she is picking from reputable organizations on both sides of the issue, and addresses the audience’s concerns with that information, she will come off as credible. Mei is relieved, because that was already her plan after going through Bitzer!

    Hamid – Ethos

    Hamid walks through three questions to determine his ethos.

    1. Does my content show awareness of the needs of the audience?
      • In general, Hamid’s presentation is about personal health and safety. From his research, he knows that Lyme disease can have a serious, negative impact on people’s lives. In order to establish his credibility, he will need to show that concern through his tone, body language, and use of detail. He realizes that one way he can establish his credibility is by discussing his own close call with disease. This tactic will help him create a personal connection with his audience and help show why he thinks it is an important topic for them to be aware of.
    2. Am I meeting the conventions of the presentation?
      • The main purpose of the presentation is to persuade the audience, but Hamid knows he will have to do more than persuade them that “Lyme Disease is a serious disease.” That is too easy, and the professor will probably say he didn’t go deep enough. That is why he will end his speech by discussing how his audience can take protective measures to stop themselves from catching the disease. If he can give them a list of actions to take, like checking for ticks when they go hiking, that will be much more actionable.
    3. Is the information presented fair and complete?
      • After thinking about his topic for some time, Hamid realizes he could easily use scare tactics to persuade his audience. He could do this by focusing only on the most severe consequences of Lyme Disease, like how it affects your central nervous system and can lead to paralysis. However, he also realizes that this is a pretty transparent tactic, and may turn his audience off his message. Instead, he decides to use a more balanced approach when describing the diseases impact. By explaining the range of health effects the disease can have, he will show his audience that he has done his research (making him appear more credible), and allow them to come to the conclusion that the disease is serious on their own.


    Pathos is defined as a connection of the message to the needs, values, expectations, and wants of the audience. Put another way, does your message help the audience understand why the content is important to them?

    As you start designing your message, ask yourself the following questions:

    1. Does the quality of my research meet the expectations of the audience?
    2. Is the report designed to make it easy for the audience to understand?
    3. Are claims supported by credible evidence?

    Mei – Pathos

    Mei walks through the three questions to determine her pathos. It should be easy; she’s already determined her audience’s needs by considering her rhetorical audience with Bitzer. However, she still goes through the questions just to be sure.

    1. Does the quality of my research meet the expectations of the audience?
      • Mei is confident that it will. She’s already found several reputable sources that she can integrate into her report, and there is a lot of strong, persuasive content. However, she knows that this will be only part of it. Yes, it’s good to have strong sources, but she’ll also need to make sure the writing itself is clear and well presented. The formatting will also be need to meet the audiences need, since they (the instructor) will be looking very closely at that.
    2. Is the report designed to make it easy for the audience to understand?
      • This goes back to formatting. Once Mei has written her report, she starts adjusting the formatting to meet the criteria for the class. She checks for consistency first. Are all the headings the same size? Is the font the same? She also checks to make sure that her page numbers and headings line up with the table of contents and list of tables. She also prints out a copy of her report so she can make sure the graphics and tables are easy to read.
    3. Are claims supported by credible evidence?
      • While going through Bitzer’s constraints, Mei found over 50 resources for her formal report. That’s quite a lot, and definitely more than she needs. She starts evaluating the sources she found to ensure they are credible. Some of the resources are quite old, like from the 1980s, and she is not sure if that evidence is still valid today. Therefore, she decides to try and stick with evidence from this century. She also decides to only use with academic journals with peer-reviewed articles. This means getting rid of websites generated by the general public, not organizations. There are more steps she needs to take to evaluate her sources, but she’ll get there in time.

    Hamid – Pathos

    Hamid walks through the three questions to determine his pathos. It should be easy, since he has already determined her audience’s needs by considering her rhetorical audience with Bitzer and how he will establish his credibility with ethos. Regardless, he still goes through the questions just to be sure.

    1. Does the quality of my research meet the expectations of the audience?
      • Hamid is already planning to use his first-hand experience with Lyme Disease as his hook to get his audience’s attention. However, he doesn’t want to focus solely on personal experience. He knows his audience will want to hear data about how Lyme Disease is spreading in Canada. Since he already has information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and several articles from medical journals, Hamid feels confident he will meet his audience’s expectations.
    2. Is the presentation designed to make it easy for the reader to understand?
      • After reviewing some of his resources, Hamid starts to feel a little overwhelmed. Several of his sources, especially the ones from medical journals, have really detailed information about the disease and use terminology that he doesn’t fully understand. He could definitely get really detailed in his speech but then realizes he doesn’t have that kind of time. His speech is only 5 minutes long, after all. Also, if he doesn’t understand that level of detail, how will he be able to explain it to his audience? Hamid decides to focus just on the most basic information like where the disease comes from, how it impacts the body, and how the audience can protect themselves against it.
    3. Are claims supported by credible evidence?
      • All of Hamid’s evidence will come from reputable medical organizations and medical journals, so he’s good there. However, how will he show this in his speech? Unlike a written report, there won’t be a list of references at the end for his audience to see. This means he will have to mention the names of his sources his in speech. For example, he might say “The Public Health Agency of Canada provides the criteria for diagnosing and treating Lyme Disease.” Mention the organizations or journals directly will help here. However, Hamid knows he’ll have a hard time keeping all those names straight, so he makes sure to write them down on his notecard so he doesn’t forget.


    Logos is defined as a well-organized, well-supported, and well-positioned argument.

    As you start designing your message, ask yourself the following questions:

    1. Is the issue presented in a complete and balanced way?
    2. Does the report or presentation organize sections in a logical way?
    3. Is the argument positioned to recognize the audience’s concerns?

    When we talk about the “positioning of an argument,” we are pointing to the importance of approaching the problem in a way that shows you understand why the audience should care. In other words, you must describe the problem and the solution in terms that are connected to the audience’s concerns.

    Mei – Logos

    Mei is almost done, and she’s feeling pretty confident. She goes through the final three questions.

    1. Is the issue presented in a complete and balanced way?
      • When evaluating her resources, Mei pays close attention to ones she will use to address her audience’s concerns. She wants to make sure she is using the same types of resources (organizations, peer-reviewed academic journals, etc.) for her anti-nuclear energy information as her resources that are pro-nuclear energy, otherwise they will feel unbalanced. However, she also knows that this is still an argumentative report. This means that she should not have an equal number of resources that argue against her point. Otherwise, her report will be unclear and lack focus. What matters is that she uses the same quality of resources, even if that anti-argument will only take up a paragraph or two of her entire report.
    2. Does the report organize sections in a logical way?
      • Mei thinks long and hard about this. She knows she is working against her audience’s negative notions of what “nuclear power” entails, so her structure will be important if she is going to change their minds. After some outlining, she decides on five sections: Introduction, Nuclear Energy and the Environment, Safety, Viability, and Conclusion. With this structure, she can start by discussing the topic broadly and get more and more specific with each section. After she gets a draft together though, she’s feeling less confident. She decides to send her report over the USask Writing Centre for feedback. She’s used the service before, and even though the report isn’t done, she knows the tutors will let her know if she’s on the right track.
    3. Is the argument positioned to recognize the audience’s concerns?
      • Mei is confident that it does. Each section poses a relevant concern that address the audience’s concern and then provides a solution. For example, in the Safety section she acknowledges the three main nuclear disasters that people are aware of, but then counters that by discussing how newer, more modern nuclear technology fixes the problems that caused the three disasters in the first place. She doesn’t want to concede any points, but she also wants to make sure she address her audience’s concern.

    Hamid – Logos

    Hamid is almost done. He feels like his speech is really coming together. He goes through the final three questions to ensure his Logos appeal is strong enough.

    1. Is the issue presented in a complete and balanced way?
      • Obviously, nobody is going to say that Hamid should include an argument that is pro-Lyme Disease. That doesn’t make sense. What matters here is that Hamid is neither diminishing the severity of the disease or overstating its effects. He also needs to make sure that he will be providing his audience with just enough information so that are knowledgeable, but not overwhelmed by the content.
    2. Does the presentation organize sections in a logical way?
      • After considering Bitzer’s constraints and using the speech outline provided by his instructor, Hamid feels he has a good structure for his speech. He knows he will open by briefly talking about his own close call with disease, then he will provide of an overview of the disease. He will follow this with explaining why testing for Lyme Disease is challenging, how the disease is spreading in Canada, and then provide his audience with a list of strategies for fighting the disease. It’s a lot to fit into five minutes, so Hamid is aware he will have to be very selective of what information he includes.
    3. Is the argument positioned to recognize the audience’s concerns?
      • Hamid knows from personal experience that medical issues can be pretty daunting. He doesn’t want to scare his audience, and he also doesn’t want them to be self-defeated by the end of his presentation. That is why his speech will end with a list of strategies they can take to protect themselves from the disease. By including that content, he will empower his audience.

    Using Theory to Establish Credibility

    Now, with both Bitzer and Aristotle at your side, you can begin to write a report that understands the rhetorical problem you are trying to solve, the audience that you are speaking to, and the message you need to design in a way that is persuasive to that particular audience (just like Mei and Hamid did). Below you have two ways to try this out on your own. The first is a tool that will walk you through the process. By the end, you will be able to export your file to your computer. If you would rather take your time, you can download the Microsoft Word file and fill out

    The original version of this chapter contained H5P content. You may want to remove or replace this element.
    Microsoft Word File: Rhetorical Outline For Reports

    When creating that rhetorical message, either in writing of for a speech, start with Bitzer. Use his work to analyze why the audience needs the information, what the audience already knows, and what form the report—or message—should take.

    Follow up with Aristotle to establish your credibility in the report by designing a well-structured message that meets the audience’s needs in a clear and complete way.

    By using your knowledge of rhetoric to develop a message, you will be able to craft an effective message because you will know what its purpose is.

    Key Takeaways

    • Now that you have your focused topic and research question you can begin crafting your message.
    • To do this, you will apply the theory found in Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” and Aristotle’s Modes of Appeal.
    • Bitzer’s three constituents (rhetorical exigence, rhetorical audience, and constraints) will help you assess the situation where you are presenting your report. This will start you off on much stronger footing.
    • Once you have evaluated the Bitzer’s constituents, you can move on to Aristotle’s Modes of Appeal (ethos, pathos, and logos). The three modes will help you craft a much more persuasive message.


    Bitzer, L. F. (2009). The rhetorical situation. In J. MacLennan, Effective communication for the technical professions (2nd ed.) (pp.18-21). Oxford University Press. (Abridged from Bitzer, L.F. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1(1), 1-14.)

    Kennedy, G. A. (1991). Aristotle on rhetoric: A theory of civic discourse. Oxford University Press, USA.

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