In response to my last post, a colleague offered up “rhetoric” as the field of theory that gives shape to what we do in business communication. This is a notion that has occurred to me before.
But with the little goad from my colleague, I got out my rhetoric books and spent a bit of time with them. In a nice little introductory text called The Essential Guide to Rhetoric, the authors draw a distinction between communication and rhetoric.
All rhetoric involves communication, they write, but not all communication is rhetoric. Communication theory really came into its own in the 20th century. Classic works like The Mathematical Theory of Communication laid the groundwork for information science. Scholars funded by government research developed theories of mass communication and would later establish the study of communication as a university discipline. The classic models tended to — at the most general level — break down communication into messages, senders, receivers, and media.
But the key point in The Essential Guide to Rhetoric is that “communication” happens any time a sender of any kind sends a message to a receiver. So, for instance, my stomach sending hunger message to my brain via nerves is a form of communication. The remote control sending a change channel signal to the TV is communication. So is the stop light flashing red as I approach it.
Communication also includes the president giving a speech or a college professor lecturing. In these situations, the outcome of the act of communication is contingent on the response of the audience. A garage door opener — when working properly — always responds in the manner we expect. It is not free to disagree or draw mistaken conclusions. The president’s audience is free to reject him, which is why he uses a variety of strategies to persuade his audience.
For the authors of the essential guide, this is what differentiates rhetoric and communication. Rhetoric is always contingent and it is always strategic. Its outcome depends on the audience response to the rhetorical situation. And it is carried out with the intention of moving the audience toward a desired belief, feeling, or action.
So back to my question: Does calling what we do business communication mislabel our field? Does it imply that we deal with a broader range of issues than we really do? Should we call it business rhetoric instead?