A professor of mine once quipped that in a rhetoric class, when in doubt, the right answer is always "audience." Those of us in the classroom who had studied rhetoric gave off a knowing chuckle. What he meant by that, of course, is that rhetoric has a strong focus on how audiencesas opposed to rhetorsjudge the discourse presented to them for appraisal. If a point does not resonate with an audience, that may be the fault of the rhetor (writer or speaker) who has not fully considered the makeup of the audience before her. A rhetor who disregards her audience's makeup is probably not interested in persuading very many people. She may be interested in shocking or offending an audience,* but she certainly will not get very far in gaining any adherence.

This is not necessarily to say that writing effectively for an audience constitutes an act of shameless pandering or cynical flattery. These are the abuses to which rhetors sometimes stoop, and, indeed, such practices have given rhetoric a bad name. The fact remains, however, that human beings have allegiances, predispositions and prejudices which must be taken into account when a rhetor undertakes to write or speak for a given audience. Here may be seen the rather large overlap the discipline of rhetoric has with other disciplines such as psychology and sociology, both of which are often concerned with persuasion and how it is effected among different individuals and groups. As students of persuasion have known for a long time, audience is certainly a significant rhetorical constraint
indeed, perhaps the most important one.


Homogeneous and Heterogeneous Audiences

When it comes to appraising one's audience, one of the first things to look for is whether the audience may be considered homogeneous or heterogeneous. That is, one should look for whether the audience members have more or less in common in terms of backgrounds, experiences and expectations insofar as that has bearing on the construction of the given argument. To put it in question form, can we think of the members of an audience as being more or less alike in such a way that they will each respond similarly or differently to the argument's components?

Let's consider one example. If you wish to speak to an audience about the possible benefits or detriments of stem-cell research, do you know whether your audience members harbor similar or dissimilar views about that subject? If you have a heterogeneous audience, you will have to take account of the major differences and speak to those with some degree of specificity in your argument. If the audience is homogeneous, however, you may take some things as given and not speak to them in much detail, while you focus on the particular expectations of the audience. To put it differently, when we are speaking to a heterogeneous audience, we must take into account that we are speaking to several or many individuals at once. When we are speaking to a homogeneous audience, though, we can speak almost as if to a single person, since the opinions of the individual members may be considered to be practically the same.

There may be times when we may not know whether our audience is homogeneous or heterogeneous, and we may have to do a "cold call" when speaking to them. In such cases, a heightened sensitivity to the verbal and non-verbal responses of the audience is especially important. If, on the other hand, we are fortunate enough to know the audience's makeup (or demographics) in advance, then we have some guidance whereby to go about putting the argument together.

Academic Audiences

An academic audience, for whom you will be writing this semester, has certain rhetorical expectations (e.g., suitable genres, styles and modes of inquiry) which may be considered similar and, in that respect, an academic audience may be considered homogeneous. Often, if people wish to argue a point before an academic audience, such points will not be entertained if they do not come couched in the trappings of academic conventions for discourse or account for the assumptions about how knowledge is generated among a group of scholars. In academia, no less than is true more generally, audiences will give you their greatest boon
a hearingon a conditional basis.

The following presentation addresses a couple of major features of academic audiences. The first is that such audiences treat knowledge as a social construction and, as such, subject to revision following subsequent arguments that seem persuasive to a community of scholars. The second is that academic audiences, while often informed about a great deal of things, know they do not know everything pertaining to their interests (even if some members of the academic community pretend otherwise!). For that reason, they expect to be edified about information hitherto unfamiliar to them. In other words, they require some background knowledge.

*Sometimes, though, shocking and offending may be the agreed-upon rhetorical goal of both rhetor and audience, as with stand-up comedy or shock-jock radio.