All About Audience

The Art of Persuasion



Which of the arguments below is the most persuasive?

Ex. 1: I should be exempt from the English requirement because I will not need to write in my chosen profession of carpentry. 

Ex. 2: I should be exempt from the English requirement because my experience as an office assistant and apprentice has already provided me with equivalent writing knowledge.

To answer which argument is most persuasive, you have to understand what it means to consider audience.

Rhetorical Awareness

When composing a persuasive essay, beginning students often spend most of their time emotionally arguing their own position, accumulating research in support of their position, and negating opposition to their argument. However, these methods of argument are often counterproductive. By taking the time to consider who you are trying to persuade – and exactly what you need to convince them of – you will improve your chances of composing a successful argument.

So who exactly is your audience? Your instructor, right? WRONG! Many beginning writers mistakenly believe their instructor is their audience, but this is only partly true, according to Brett Mertins, English and Literature instructor at MCC, who explains the importance of rhetorical awareness:

“Certainly students are writing to demonstrate knowledge, skills, and application for their instructor; however, a key criterion for many instructors is rhetorical awareness, or how well the writing has been tailored for a specific or “target” audience.  Put simply, a writer may effectively entertain, inform, and/or persuade one audience with a particular piece of writing, but that same piece of writing, when presented to a different audience, may fall flat.”

Most instructors agree that fully considering audience is one of the most important elements in successful writing, but often the most overlooked.

Underlying Assumptions and Appeals

The underlying assumption in Ex. 1 above is that education should only be based on career utility – I won’t write much when I am a carpenter, so I don’t need to take an English class. The first argument might make sense to your college buddies, but what if your audience was an academic council voting on this issue? You might very well insult academics who believe general education requirements are necessary to form a well-rounded person.

Ex. 2 argues for the same thing, but with a different appeal – that the writer already has sufficient life experience that should preclude him from taking a class he is proficient in. He would then appeal to the values of his academic audience; instead of insulting their system, he could present his background and acquired knowledge to show he doesn’t need English.

These two very different appeals for the same outcome are what are called “writer-based reasons” and “audience-based reasons.” A writer-based reason may sound perfectly logical to you, but you aren’t trying to persuade yourself, right? An audience-based reason takes the values and beliefs of those you are trying to persuade (or inform, or entertain) and attempts to think like they do.

Level of Resistance

You may not always need to appeal to a hostile or resistant audience. Some audiences may be very supportive – but for different reasons. With this audience, you might have agreement but want to incite some type of action, and including a dose of emotion might incite them to act. Other audiences may be neutral – they’re not sure where they stand on your issue. This type of audience is tricky: they might distrust one-sided arguments and would be more motivated to support an issue when they have heard fair summaries of opposing viewpoints. The more emotional you sound in your appeal, the more a neutral audience might turn away from you.

Play to your Audience

Take some time to analyze your audience. Writing a successful persuasive paper isn’t difficult as long as you remember to first consider who your audience is and how they feel about your issue. Here is a handy acronym to help you analyze your audience.

Analysis- Who is the audience?
Understanding- What does the audience know about your subject? What is their attitude?
Demographics- What is their age, gender, socio-economic status, education background?
Interest- Why are they considering your argument? Why should they care?
Environment- Will this argument be presented in a hostile or friendly environment?
Needs- What are the audience’s needs?
Customization- What specific values, beliefs and assumptions should you address? What will be their objections?
xpectations- What does the audience expect to gain or learn? The audience should have all of the information they need to make an informed decision.


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