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Doogie Howser, C.S.

by Lee Thomas on May 10th, 2012

Content strategy is a pretty young field. As a result, it gets carded in bars and has trouble renting a car. Occasionally, content strategy looks so young it has to work hard to convince people it deserves to be taken seriously.

Doogie Howser, M.D.

Too young to know what he's doing?

Image courtesy of sharetv.org

Youthful as it may appear, content strategy is descended from a very established family tree with some very old roots. Among content strategy’s respected ancestors: the art of rhetoric.

I know it’s an election year, but bear with me

Over the years, the word “rhetoric” has gotten a bad rap. It stood too close to the political arena for too long and picked up the stench of something manipulative, scheming, and unscrupulous. While it’s true that rhetoric can be defined as “pretentious words” or “insincere or empty language,” those aren’t the only definitions. Rhetoric is also defined as:

  • “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion”1
  • "Instrumental communication" that seeks change by using appeals to affect people’s conduct2

Content strategists do both of those things: We study how content (written, spoken, or otherwise presented) functions “as a means of communication or persuasion.” And we use content as an instrument to effect change. Rhetoric is not only relevant to content strategy, it’s at the heart of the matter3.

The change we seek

With limited exceptions, the companies and organizations that employ content strategists aren’t producing content for the heck of it, or for artistic expression alone. They produce content as a means to achieve specific business goals (or organizational goals). Those goals are expressions of the kind of change they want to see. For example, an organization may want to change:

  • The number of products sold
  • The number of new subscribers or online registrations
  • The number of calls to the support center
  • A brand’s reputation among certain people
  • The level of support for a particular idea
  • The rate of adoption of a particular activity

For desirable changes like these to become a reality, people’s behavior must change. They need to buy, sign up, believe, participate, donate, take action, or otherwise behave in ways they don’t right now. As content strategists, we aim to shape an organization’s content so that it will influence audiences to behave in those beneficial ways. In so doing, we practice what Aristotle, father or rhetoric, called "the art of discovering the available means of persuasion in the given case." We practice rhetoric.

The rhetorical situation: then and now

“Discovering the available means of persuasion in the given case” means examining the particular situation at hand. This is referred to as the rhetorical situation, and it includes some key components:

  • A rhetor (i.e., a speaker, agent, or originator of the content or communication)
  • An audience
  • An exigence (i.e., a problem, issue, or objective to address)
  • Constraints (anything that limits the options or gets in the way)

Back in Aristotle’s day, a typical situation involved in-person, oral communication. A rhetor gave a speech in an attempt to persuade audience members to believe or behave in a particular way. These speeches contained various arguments and means of persuasion to make a case. In so doing, the rhetor used what he knew of the audience (pretty much other privileged, educated men) to shape the content of his speech in ways he believed would be effective. The rhetorical situation looked something like this:

Rhetorical situation in Aristotle's day

Here in the 21st century, content strategists work within different conditions. Our typical situation looks something like the picture below:

Rhetorical situation in the 21st century

There are some obvious differences between the two illustrations: number of players, makeup of the audience, distance between rhetor and audience, reach and speed of the communication, technology and medium, etc.

But as the adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same: Both situations have a rhetor, an audience, exigencies, and constraints. Both rhetors use what’s known about the audience to craft persuasive content in an attempt to influence behavior and achieve goals.

Out of the Ivory Tower

At this point, at least some of you reading this are thinking, “This is just an academic way of describing what content strategists—and many other communications professionals—do every day. We think about business goals, study target audiences, consider myriad internal and external factors, and strive to craft content that works in a given situation. We do this all the time, day in and day out.”

Exactly. Content strategy isn’t so young after all; it’s built on centuries-old theories about fundamental elements of human communication. That’s useful to today’s content strategists in a number of ways.

For starters, there’s a lot to learn from rhetoric. For example, using logos (logic and reason), ethos (credibility and reputation), and pathos (emotion) as means of persuasion4.

In addition, there’s something powerful and incisive about approaching content strategy work with a rhetorical mindset. It helps cut through the circumstantial to get at more fundamental elements of human communication. Shifting organizational politics, rival projects, new media, limiting tools, incompatible technologies, style choices, fleeting trends, noisy competition, tapped-out resources —these circumstances surround CS projects and bombard the people who work on them. These things are often noisy and demand a lot of attention.

But at the core of content work, a few fundamentals remain: rhetor, audience, exigencies, and constraints. Sharpening the focus on these fundamentals can be very useful when working on a project. This is not to say that the circumstances listed in the above paragraph are unimportant or shouldn’t be addressed; they are real and often must be addressed. But refocusing on the fundamentals of the rhetorical situation tackles the core of the issue and moves the circumstances to the periphery.

This is useful when conversations about an organization’s content get mired in whatever circumstances have recently flared up:

  • “We don’t really know what the audience needs or wants, so let’s just put everything on the site and see what sticks.”
  • “eBooks are hot, we need to publish one.”
  • “The sales team wants to run promotions for the new product suite inside the Help content.”

Looking at the rhetorical situation in each of these cases can provide a useful framework for combatting crazy ideas while simultaneously elevating the good ones. And then help us craft those good ideas into content strategies that are as effective as they can be.

You all look great (for your age)

Content strategy, as we know and describe it today, is changing fast—as demand grows, as media and devices are invented and reinvented, and as the ways people engage content evolve. All this shifting can sometimes make content strategy feel like trying to build a house on sand piles. In the face of that, it’s useful, even reassuring, to remember that this is still human communication, and that there are centuries-old models to describe and think about that endeavor. They still apply today, even if they go by different names.


1 Merriam Webster Dictionary

2 Hauser, Gerard. Introduction to Rhetoric. 1986. Page 45.

3 Others have pointed this out, including Colleen Jones in Clout and Erin Kissane in The Elements of Content Strategy. As well as James Mathewson.

4 By the way, I don’t necessarily recommend throwing these terms around while in a meeting with clients, stakeholders, or project teams. Words like “exigence” aren’t likely to persuade those audiences.

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