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A Rhetoric of Objects

by Jonathan Price

Draft of talk for SIGDOC01, the Association for Computing Machinery, Special Interest Group in Documentation Conference, Santa Fe, NM, October 23, 2001.

Abstract: The Web demands a new rhetoric for communicators, transforming traditional modern and classical ideas of audience, invention, arrangement, style, delivery, memory, and ethos. This paper sketches a rhetoric that analyzes customized, personalized object-oriented content, delivered in many formats and media, as part of a continuous conversation.

Keywords: Rhetoric, documentation, object, customization, personalization, technical communication, audience analysis, style, ethos, memory, delivery, arrangement, structure, XML, personas.


When we first started moving text onto the Web, styleguides appeared like mushrooms after rain [1-3, 5, 12, 22, 23, 26, 33, 36, 40, 55, 57].  Now, after a dozen years, the Web demands a full-scale rhetoric-a theoretical and practical analysis of what it means to communicate over the Internet, and through the Web [61].

A rhetoric endeavors to answer questions often asked by people who are preparing to communicate in public. For instance:

  • Who exactly is my audience, and when I have discovered that, how should what I have learned affect the way I communicate to them? 

  • How can I come up with something to say?

  • How should I organize my material?

  • What style should I use in this context?

  • How should I deliver my ideas?

  • How can I remember all of them?

  • What is my role, here?  How should I portray myself, in relation to the audience?

The Web transforms the traditional answers to these questions. In this little talk, I sketch out a rhetoric for the age of customized, personalized, object-oriented content, delivered in many formats and media, as part of a continuous conversation between customers, subject matter experts, marketing honchos, support personnel, and-getting in an occasional word or two-technical writers.

I build my mini-rhetoric around a dialog with Aristotle, the twentieth century's nominee for most influential theorist of rhetoric [4, 7, 9, 11, 35, 59].  He's so modern, and I'm not.  Compared to Plato, the other leading candidate for Lead Rhetor, Aristotle has the techie tone, the absence of charm, and a completeness lacking in the more inspirational, loving, and metaphysical dialoguer [43, 44]. I am setting up Aristotle as a straw man, to represent commonly held "modern classical" opinions about audience, invention, arrangement, style, emotional appeal, delivery, memory, and ethos. If you find my presentation of Aristotle's positions a bit simplistic, blame me, not him; to demonstrate how different our rhetorical situation is today, I may at times tilt toward caricature when I quote him.

1. What is rhetoric?

Aristotle: "Rhetoric is the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion" [4, p. 2155].

Jonathan: "But in the Rhetoric you focus on only one purpose for communication-persuasion-in a limited number of contexts (trials, political debates, and eulogies), in only one medium-speech.  Also, you tend to assume a coherent audience.  Yes, you recognize that one audience may be made up of rich old men, and another audience may be composed of restless young men (no women, of course), but you do not address the problem we face today, where we have to communicate with half a dozen different demographic groups through a single Web site.  Also, you tend to view the audience as fairly passive, a crowd to be manipulated, not an active participant driving the exchange.  In your view, the audience makeup may give a speech writer some ideas, some tactics, some stylistic strategies, but then the writer takes over, and prepares the speech, and delivers it.  Overall, you see the communication itself as a single speech-a live event that ends-rather than an ongoing conversation."

Aristotle: "So how do you define rhetoric?"

Jonathan: "The craft of communicating through one or more media with a particular set of audiences for specific purposes."

Aristotle: "So you call rhetoric a craft, rather than a science or art."

Jonathan: "Yes. By craft I mean a skill that has measurable objectives and aims at being functional, so it is not a pure art, and yet depends on intuition, imagination, and guesswork, so it is not a real science."  

Aristotle: "And you mention multiple purposes?"

Jonathan: "Yes, I argue that people communicate for many different purposes-not just to persuade, but to entertain, to instruct, to sell, to spread awareness, heck, just to participate in a group."

Aristotle: "And what medium is there, other than written and spoken language?"

Jonathan: "Well, first off, we don't speak very often to our audiences any more.  We may occasionally talk on the phone, but mostly we post electronic text, with accompanying images, sound bytes, animations, and video clips. Content, for us, derives from what used to be, in the modern period, different media. Everything we do must seem very indirect to you, very mediated [29-31, 61].

"Our rhetoric, then, assumes we communicate for many different purposes, in many different media, to many different audiences-and they talk back.

"In fact, our audiences often start the conversation; they rarely sit still, awaiting our speech.  Our audiences proactively raise issues, send in questions, complain. On the Web, they drive the discussion, and if we don't give them the answers they want, they turn to each other, in their own forums, and publicly chastise us."

2.  Who's my Audience?

Aristotle: "Let us now consider the various types of human character, in relation to the emotions, states of character, ages, and fortunes. ... People always think well of speeches adapted to, and reflecting, their own character: and we can now see how to compose our speeches so as to adapt both them and ourselves to our audiences" [4, pp. 2213-2215].

Jonathan: "Well, we follow your lead when we perform demographic analyses, sorting out our market segments according to common characteristics.  And, with user and task analysis, we investigate the people who make up our audiences, in depth [10,16]. But, increasingly, we define these groups using Alan Cooper's personas, preparing individual character descriptions that focus on their main goals, to help us respond with an offering of informative objects (text, art, and so on) [8]. We create customized content for each audience, catching each visitor upon arrival, typecasting him or her, then displaying the information we think will be most relevant.  No more mass audience, then; we are customizing for the members of distinct groups, one by one [53, 54, 56]. 

"And we are moving toward allowing visitors to personalize our content, picking the information they want, grouping it their own way, sequencing it so it makes sense to them, individually.  Through software we allow each visitor to create a more personal experience of content we provide; we no longer have total control over the organization of the material, because our uppity audiences are taking charge" [17, 18, 24, 25, 37, 38, 41, 42, 62].

3.  How can I Invent Content?

Aristotle: "The thought element is the way to invent and refute arguments.  We have next to discuss language and arrangement" [4, p. 2237].

Jonathan: "Getting ready to move content onto the Web, our team invents a series of standard objects-procedures, conceptual overviews, reference sections-in response to hundreds or thousands of people all asking the same kind of question, such as "How do I ... ?" or "What is ... ?"  We invent a class of object, such as the abstract, generic procedure or concept (Plato would enjoy this), and then, when we are writing about a particular situation, we create an instance of that class, that is, a particular object answering a particular question of that type, such as "How do I install this version of your software?" or "What exactly is a checkpoint?"  We come up with text in response to the needs, tasks, dreams, and wishes of our many audiences. [45-47, 49, 51].

"We are less interested in arguments than you were, and much more interested in answering questions, resolving problems, and assisting people in carrying out tasks.  So user and task analysis underlie the process by which we develop a set of topics to discuss, and objects to create.

"And, as we investigate the topic, we sort what we learn into a set of predefined structures.  That process-thinking structurally-enables us to get a better hold on the material, and as we learn it, we can improve the organization and clarify the style [48, 50]. To us, invention can no longer be considered an activity that is separate from arranging and styling the text; we do all three activities iteratively, continuously."

4.  How should I arrange my material, then?

Aristotle: "A speech has two parts.  You must state your case, and you must prove it. ... These are the essential features of a speech; and it cannot in any case have more than introduction, statement, argument, and epilog"  [4, pp. 2257-8].

Jonathan: "Well, we used to arrange our material in documents, such as books, white papers, job aids, and then we organized the documents into larger collections, such as help systems, libraries of documentation, long lists of PDF files.

"Now, as we move documentation onto the Web, we are beginning to carve up the original documents into smaller pieces identified with tags created in XML, then to put together various sets of those little chunks, assembling pages on the fly with content tailored differently for particular groups or individuals [15, 19, 28, 32, 34, 63]. In this situation, our old ideas about documents (or speeches) no longer hold. We are creating discrete units of information that can be reused in many contexts, sending messages to each other, appearing and disappearing, fitting together into multiple structures.

"Now, instead of thinking about a speech having a natural sequence of parts, or a book having an introduction, chapters, and appendices, we are contemplating an array of meaningful objects.  Instead of making a book, we are discovering classes of information, building information structures, populating databases, and issuing answers to queries. But unlike a database developer, our goal is to communicate with other people-and, increasingly, with software agents acting on behalf of those people. Because we still care about "talking" with other people in this new environment, we need to come up with a new way of describing the things that we arrange.

"The thinking is a bit abstract.  First we define a class of rhetorical objects-a pure form as Plato might say, a concept, a category of information. Then we write a particular instance of that class.  So we start with the idea of a class called Procedure, and then write many specific procedures, throughout our user guide. An instance of the class, then, is an actual, tangible chunk of content.

"The informative object's class defines the responsibility, relationships, structure, attributes, and messages [6, 13, 14, 20, 21, 27, 39, 46, 51, 52, 58, 60, 64].

  • Every object of that type has a fixed responsibility, which is to answer a particular type of question from users. For instance, a step answers the question, "What do I do next?"

  • Each object has predefined relationships with other objects. For instance, a step is contained by a procedure. In turn, a step may contain subcomponents such as an illustration.

  • Each object has a preset internal structure.  For instance, a procedure contains components such as an introduction, followed by one or more steps, each of which may or may not contain explanations, warnings, illustrations, and definitions.

  • Each type of object has certain attributes, which give information about the information (meta data).  For instance, in the abstract, a procedure may have attributes such as the date created, date modified, subject, and author. Each instance of a procedure, then, might have different values for these attributes.

  • An object can send out, or receive messages.  With objects that contain content-informative objects-these messages tend to be simple links, requesting another object to show itself.

"In this environment, then, we are trying to sort what we learn about a topic into a predefined structure, such as a procedure, a conceptual overview, or a reference section.  While this process seems constricting, it actually forces us to learn our subject better than before, and makes us more expert in the topic."

5.  What style should I use?

Aristotle: "It is not enough to know what we ought to say; we must also say it as we ought.  ...  Give everyday speech an unfamiliar air; people like what strikes them, and are struck by what is out of the way.... But you must disguise your art, and give the impression of speaking naturally, and not artificially" [4, p. 2238].

Jonathan: "Many of us follow your advice, as best we can, though we try to avoid the grander style.  But now our content includes more than words.  When we include art, video, and sound, whoever creates that content draws on the traditions of photography, graphic design, TV and video, music and radio-each of which comes with its own conventions about style.  We have a styleguide for each medium.  And in each of these areas, through usability testing, we are beginning to get more reliable evidence about what kind of stylistic strategies work best, for particular purposes [36].  Where you used to test out a trope on a live audience, to get instant feedback, we watch click streams, customer service call volumes, discussion lists, and testing data."

6.  How should I deliver my information?

Aristotle: "It is essentially a matter of the right management of the voice to express the various emotions-of speaking loudly, softly, or between the two; of high, low, or intermediate pitch; of the various rhythms that suit various subjects"  [4, p. 2238]

Jonathan: "For us, delivery is mostly electronic, so we don't have to do voice exercises to warm up.  Instead, we upgrade our infrastructure, tweak software, publish objects, build business rules that respond to the user's profile with customized content, or draw inferences from user behavior, concluding what content the user might now find relevant.  We do not lecture; we make the conversation possible, and we participate.  We are not the only ones delivering content; our users do that, too-often with more verve, panache, and gusto than we can."

7. How can I remember my material?

Aristotle: "The animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experience; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings" [4, p. 1553 (Metaphysics)]

Jonathan: "I don't remember much of what I write.  I learn as I go, and without memorizing, I go over and over the material, considering where each fact fits in the evolving structure I am building.  As my own conception gathers detail, my long-term memory widens and deepens.  I write from that, tempered with new information, and assisted by my old files.  To recall facts, then, I don't have to envision hanging them around the Acropolis, but I do envision their location in my file structure, (the hard disk is my kind of memory) or in the abstract hierarchy described in my schema or Document Type Definition (DTD).  Beginning with the familiar, I learn the new by placing it within the existing structure, as best I can.

"Of course, these days, because everything we write gets saved somewhere, we have multiple archives and backups, while our users also store our words, often without knowing they have, on their own hard disks.  The effect: the individual moment is less important, because if we must, we can look up what we said, and reuse it, verbatim.  

"So we don't have to recall the text-just where we stored it, in electronic memory."

8. What is our role?

Aristotle: "It adds much to an orator's influence that his own character should look right and that he should be thought to entertain the right feelings towards his hearers" [4, p. 2194].

Jonathan: "Traditionally, we've gone along with your approach.  As technical communicators, we have concocted writerly personas-friendly or austere, chatty or abrupt.  We often adopt a corporate tone, which suggests the way we see ourselves relating to our users.

"But one persona no longer fits all.  Now that the audience has exploded into a dozen niches, we must develop a dozen slightly different personas to write from-the sympathetic expert talking to newbies, the intelligent peer showing respect for fellow techies, and so on.

"We are developing multiple personas.  But at the same time, visitors long for any sign of our real life, behind the scenes.  They want us to answer their questions-a corporate responsibility-but they also want to get a sense of who we really are, as individuals, behind the organization persona.

"Particularly if we get drafted to answer users' e-mail, we'll discover that the bland boilerplate response is not enough.  Visitors, increasingly, want to know where we live, what our hobbies are, what we think about politics, movies, music, what we feel. My gosh, they want to get to know us.

"Technical communicators face a Web where commerce is driving personalization of content, while most corporations fear individuals expressing themselves under the logo-but Web consumers are pushy, and they are demanding that we put aside our authority, at least occasionally, and act like human beings. Instead of hiding behind fake good cheer, we may have to become deliberately personal [17, 18, 24, 25, 37, 38, 41, 42, 62].

"In your sense, Aristotle, we earn trust through character."



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Copyright 2001 Jonathan and Lisa Price, The Communication Circle
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