Tone, Language, and Appeal

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize rhetorical approaches to building common ground
  • Evaluate rhetorical approaches to building common ground

You can approach your audience’s needs and build common ground using three basic rhetorical approaches: tone, language, and appeal.


What’s the difference between a formal tone and a conversational tone? What about the difference between writing that’s conversational and writing that’s very rigid? Of the three approaches we cover here, tone may be the most important one: if you choose the wrong tone, you may turn off your audience completely.

Take a look at this example from a student’s proposal to create an infographic for senior citizens:

real student’s writing

Based on this senior citizen audience, simplicity and authenticity must be key characteristics of the infographic. Its message, presented mainly through visuals, must not only be clear and easy to understand, but it must also be genuine in nature. Caution must be taken to avoid seeming judgmental towards the audience members’ digital skills and tendencies.

This student wants to make sure the tone of her document builds good will with her audience. If your audience is made up of senior citizens, you would want to make sure that you aren’t patronizing or belittling them about their technical expertise.

Can you think of a situation where your tone didn’t match the audience’s expectations? As you write an essay, you have to consider the audience’s potential reception of your tone. Even if the audience is hypothetical, the only way to ensure that you aren’t “tone deaf” is to pay attention to your tone.


Language is closely related to tone. In fact, if you misjudge the appropriate language for your audience, your tone will suffer, too. If you are writing an article for a scientific journal, obviously you would want to make sure to use the technical language appropriate to your subject.

Language has a lot to do with discourse communities. Imagine that you work in a car assembly plant. You know your job and enough about the process of car assembly in general to talk to anybody else in the plant about their jobs, as well. You probably have a specialized vocabulary that describes your work process. Now, imagine that you walk into an airplane manufacturing plant. Would you be able to do the same thing? Sure, many of the processes are the same, and you might be able to talk to the workers about the things you have in common. But the vocabulary is different. Workers in the airplane factory talk about different things and have different common knowledge than you do. Each factory is a discourse community. When you write, you are participating in a discourse community, and you should use language that matches the expectations of the audience.

Can you think of a situation where your language didn’t match the audience’s expectations? If you are an audiologist, for example, you would use different language to explain how a cochlear implant works to the parents of a deaf child than you would to discuss advances in cochlear implant technology with other audiologists.


You have already learned about the rhetorical appeals: ethos, pathos, and logos. Match them to their definition in the practice box below:

review your knowledge

What do these appeals have to do with finding common ground with an audience? Well, the way you balance ethos, pathos, and logos can vary depending on who your audience is. Think about the scenario below:

You are a scientist who studies climate and polar bear mating habits. You have just completed and published a study that tracks the declining polar bear population with the reduction of ice caps in the Arctic Ocean. You believe the results of this study are important, and you need to explain them to three different audiences.

An audience of scientists is primarily interested in your credibility (ethos) and your facts (logos). They want to know more about your methods, how your data was collected, and the accuracy of your study. When you are presenting to this group, you should minimize appeals to emotion, as they could turn off your audience.

An audience of kindergarteners is primarily interested in big, fluffy polar bears. Thus, you would want to emphasize the appeal to emotion (pathos). Your ethos, or credibility, is important, but in a different way than it is with the scientists. You must express yourself in a way that makes the children feel comfortable with you and makes them trust what you say. Facts are important in every situation, but the kindergarteners aren’t going to scrutinize your methods.

An audience of climate change denialist politicians would generally be very hostile to what you have to say. Playing up your credibility (ethos) may not be very helpful because they already reject the field in which your credibility is rooted. You have to rely heavily on facts (logos) with this audience and demonstrate that your facts are impossible to deny. You also have to rely on emotion (pathos) but in a different way than you do with the kindergarteners. This hostile audience is already reacting to you with emotion, so it’s important for you to receive that emotional energy and make the best of it.


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