A Guide to Rhetorical Analysis (YouTube Script)
Hey, glad you’re back! Today we’re taking on the challenge of writing a rhetorical analysis. To start, here’s a pro tip from someone who has graded a lot them: it really is rhetorical analysis—analyzation just isn’t a word.
Rhetorical analysis is something that can sound a little complicated, but it’s really not that hard once you understand what you’re really doing. So, in today’s video we’re going to break down the process and explain each part.
Sound good? Let’s get to it—
Rhetoric & Analysis
If you’re interested in a more in-depth explanation of rhetoric, there’s a video up here you can watch. Just as a quick review, though, rhetoric is what we do when we’re trying to get other people on the same page, to see a situation as we see it, and to respond to that situation in the way we think is best.
The first place to start with a rhetorical analysis paper, then, is to find a text, video, song, object, picture, or whatever else that was created by someone in order to get other people on the same page.
When it comes to rhetorical analysis, then, your job is to explain how your rhetorical artifact works.
Think of it this way: if you want to understand how a toaster works (and you have an extra one lying around) you could take it apart, look at the pieces, figure out how they work together, and then draw conclusions about a toaster works. That would be a process of analysis. Rhetorical analysis works the same way, you take something apart, look at its individual pieces, explain how they work together, and then draw conclusions about how a rhetorical artifact gets its message across to an audience. You don’t need to uncover a deeper meaning; you don’t need to do additional research; you don’t need to find interviews with the creator to see what was going on inside their head—you only need to look carefully at a text and tell your reader how it works. Piece of cake.
Details, Interpretations, Justifications
So, when you’re writing a rhetorical analysis, your goal is to explain to a reader how the thing your analyzing works to get its audience on the same page. It’s a pretty straightforward goal—but how do you go about doing it?
Of course, you’ll want to start with a basic understanding of where the thing you’re analyzing fits in the world. Who created it? Why was it created—what was the creator’s goal? Think carefully about that purpose: why does this thing really exist? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read papers that say that a sentimental commercial from an insurance company about a dad watching his daughter grow up was created to make people feel like family is important. That might be true, but it’s not why the ad was created—it was created to sell insurance (The question then becomes why would they use the growing-up story to sell insurance)
You’ll also want to have a sense of who the audience is—and, like with purpose, be as specific as possible. You might be tempted to say that a trailer for a big superhero movie is “for everyone,” but if you can notice obscure references to the comics in the trailer, you can be sure that those references aren’t for “everyone”: those details are trying to get people to go see the movie—but they aren’t going to work on someone who doesn’t notice them. A trailer like that is probably meant for devoted fans, not just anyone.
It’s practically impossible to be too specific when you’re identifying details for a rhetorical analysis. When you’re gathering details just make a list of what you see or hear—and be as specific as possible. Don’t just say that the music video is colorful—identify the specific colors and start thinking about how those colors relate to each other (are they similar to each other or do they contrast?) Are there specific words that get repeated over and over again? How many people or characters are there?
As you identify details, your next job is to interpret them—to explain how they work to get the audience on the same page. Maybe you notice that there are a lot of bright colors on a poster—perhaps they’re meant to get the audience to feel cheerful and excited (why would the creator want the audience to feel that way?) Remember to tie these interpretations back to the main purpose of the thing you’re analyzing—how do these details help the creator to accomplish their rhetorical goal?
When you interpret details, it might also be helpful to consider our old friends ethos, pathos, and logos. Those classical rhetorical terms can help you to understand how specific details are working in a rhetorical artifact.
Then, when you have details and interpretations, don’t forget to justify your interpretations. How do you know, for example, that bright colors will make the audience feel excited and cheerful—and how do you know that that will help the creator accomplish their goal? Remember, your job as a rhetorical analyst is not just to list out what you found but to explain to your reader how the rhetorical artifact works. There’s a difference between reporting and explaining—show your reader not just what you know but how you know it’s true.
These three basic components of rhetorical analysis aren’t really steps—you don’t have to do them in any particular order. But an effective rhetorical analysis will contain all three: an identification of details, an interpretation of those details, and a justification explaining that your interpretation is valid.
Also, it’s worth noting that this isn’t a game of getting inside the creator’s head and explaining their original intent. All you have to work with is the thing you’re analyzing—not the creator’s thoughts. And that’s good because the audience doesn’t have access to the creator’s head either.
So don’t worry about whether or not the creator intended for a certain detail to have a certain effect—if you can notice it, it’s there, and it can very well be affecting the audience whether it was supposed to be there or not. If you’ve ever had someone take something you said the wrong way, you know exactly what that’s like—so don’t pigeonhole yourself into thinking that you’re just writing a report on the creator’s intent: you’re really writing an analysis on anything that the audience could potentially experience, whether the creator meant for it to be there or not.
But enough talking in the abstract—let’s see what rhetorical analysis actually looks like.
Practicing with an Example Video
So here’s a short video I found on the internet. Based on some light research, it’s clear that it was created as a trailer for a YouTube channel. That means that we can have a pretty good idea of what this video is meant to accomplish: to introduce people to the channel and encourage them to watch more videos and/or subscribe.
With that purpose in mind, we can start looking for specific details or elements of the video that work together to help this creator accomplish his purpose. That is, whenever we see something that catches our interest, we can ask—how does this part of the video help to encourage people to subscribe to the channel?
Now, I know that optional assignments are the same as nonexistent assignments, so I don’t really expect you to analyze the video on your own. However, just to give you a sense of what rhetorical analysis looks like in practice, here are some examples of how you might analyze different aspects of this video.
Maybe, when you watch this video, you’re drawn to the way that the golden skull character declares that viewers are really there for him—and not for the person talking in the background. Why, you might ask, would the creator of a video cut himself out of the video—how does that help him to accomplish his purposes?
Well, after the skull introduces himself, he says “Don’t feel bad: he never has to know. Maybe we should check back in on him, though.” This statement could be meant to help the viewer feel more invested in the argument of the video: the skull is letting the viewer in on a secret and then inviting the viewer to carry on watching the video as if nothing happened.
By putting this scenario in the video, the creator gives the viewer a chance to feel like they have privileged knowledge and to be engaged in the content on a different level.
Because people are more inclined to be invested in something when they feel like they have special knowledge and a part to play, this move could be meant to get viewers to care and, therefore, to be more inclined to consume additional content.
Of course, you could also interpret the same details in a different way. The fact that the skull cuts in and talks over the “actual” video sets up an expectation for the viewer that other content on the channel will work in a similar way.
It’s not just a professor sitting in front of a green screen projecting old lecture slides about writing. Even if things don’t get much more exciting than that, there’s at least an interrupting skull bringing things back down to earth.
By having the skull interrupt in the trailer, the creator helps viewers understand a key part of the internal logic of the channel: snarky skull comments are a part of it. This isn’t the place for monotonous explanations right out of the textbook—it’s a place to talk about writing but maybe also have some fun with it.
The structure of this video helps viewers to know what they’re getting with the rest of the channel, and, hopefully, that’s a better option that will make them more likely to subscribe.
Like I mentioned earlier, you could also start with an interpretation. Let’s say you really want to understand the video in terms of ethos—so you start looking for details that work to help the viewer trust the creator and his argument.
You could talk about how the person is dressed—how does a jacket and tie convey trust? How would the video be different if he were dressed in an apron or in a dark suit with a red tie and American flag pin? Push for specifics—what does a yellow tie say that a red tie doesn’t? What if there were no tie?
Of course, you could also look at the books on the shelves—there are poetry collections, books on writing, style, classical and modern rhetorical theory, research methods, teaching. You can’t know for sure that the creator has read them all, but you do know that they’re in the background: they’re meant to show that the content on the channel is backed by real knowledge: it’s not all just stuff this guy made up out of his head.
Even the fact that the skull interrupts everything can help to establish trust with the viewer. We don’t like people who brag about what they’ve achieved, so, to avoid that, the creator has put those points in the skull’s mouth.
That way, the creator’s experience and knowledge—which is important for establishing that he knows what he’s talking about—can still be stated without making it look like he’s full of himself—another important way to establish trust with viewers.
Okay, that’s just a taste of what rhetorical analysis would look like in action. If you’d like to see a more in-depth rhetorical analysis of that video, let me know in the comments, and we can definitely spend some time going over it in greater detail, even working it into a more formal paper structure. For now, though, I just want to give you a sense of what rhetorical analysis is all about.
We have definitely covered a lot of ground today. If you’re still watching, thanks for sticking with us. Before we quit, here’s a quick recap of what we discussed:
Rhetoric is what we do when we’re trying to get people on the same page. Analysis is what we do when we break something down into its smaller parts and explain how those parts work together.
Your purpose in writing a rhetorical analysis is to break a rhetorical artifact into smaller pieces and explain how they work together to help the creator accomplish their purpose.
Effective rhetorical analysis has three key components that can happen in any order but that must all occur
The identification of specific details
A rhetorical interpretation of those details
An explanation of how you know that your interpretation of those details is valid
Do all that, and you’re well on your way to writing a truly effective rhetorical analysis.
Now I’ve definitely said enough for today, so I’ll wrap up here. If you have a question or if there’s anything you’d like me to cover in a future video, leave it in the comments, and we’ll address it in the future. And, of course, if this video was helpful, give it a like and share it with a friend.
Take care till next time!