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The Essential Guide to Rhetoric, by William M. Keith and Christian O. Lundberg (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)


The principles that guide a speaker or writer's choice of rhetorical strategies for dealing effectively with an audience.

Also known as appropriateness and accommodation, adaptation is closely related to the concept of decorum in classical rhetoric.

See also:

Examples and Observations:

  • "[D]ecorum represents the goal of rhetorical culture--the adaptation of all the available resources to encompass concrete situations."
    (Michael Leff, "Decorum and Rhetorical Interpretation: The Latin Humanistic Tradition and Contemporary Critical Theory." Vichiana, 1990)

  • "Decorum had always involved a complex notion of adaptation, with a certain personalist valence, since the choice of style depended not merely upon some mechanically conceived adjustment but upon ethos or character."
    (Walter J. Ong, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason, 1957)

  • Determining Factors
    "A number of factors influence the make-up and disposition of any given audience and, therefore, determine what will be appropriate to say:
    - Situation. What motivates the audience to listen to the speaker? What outcomes do they want or expect?

    - Context: What is the broader context of the speaking situation?

    - Demographics: What are the characteristics of the audience in terms of age, gender, race, religion, ethnic background, political affiliation, and socioeconomic status?

    - Ideology: What beliefs, worldviews, and emotional investments does the audience bring to the situation?

    - Homogeneity/Heterogeneity: How similar/dissimilar are most members of the audience?

    - Occasion: What expectations are there for the speech, given the occasion? (For example, a eulogy and a political debate generate different expectations.)

    - Need: What reason for speaking is the speaker adapting to? (This might include the public recognition of a problem.)

    - Genre: What is the genre, or type of speech (eulogy, toast, apology, etc.)
    . . . A common misconception about adaptation is that it involves pandering, or just telling the audience what it wants to hear. . . . The paradox is that the speaker has to adapt to the audience to disagree with and persuade them, so sharp disagreement is consistent with good adaptation and appropriateness to ultimately get everyone to agree."
    (William M. Keith and Christian O. Lundberg, The Essential Guide to Rhetoric. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008)

  • Cicero on Decorum
    "Like propitious moral or political judgment, decorum is fundamentally concerned with utility, with the adaptation of discursive form for persuasive effect. But Cicero argues vigorously that rhetoric's propriety is neither opportunistic in motive nor singular in focus. That is, decorum is that element of discursive style which not only adjusts the formal elements of language in conformity with rhetoric's practical goals, it also simultaneously considers what language is most suitable to the intrinsic nature of the subject itself. Or better yet, decorum works to give aesthetic form to the subject in a way that reveals its nature to those whom oratory would influence."
    (Michael Mendelson, Many Sides: A Protagorean Approach to the Theory, Practice and Pedagogy of Argument. Springer, 2002)
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