Rhetoric - Flexible Content

Use the power of rhetoric and structured data to deliver your message to the desktop, mobile and social media. Don't think of web content as a document: think of it as assembling together chunks of information, and find ways to adapt to multi-channel distribution. You'll make your site more SEO friendly and get more traffic.

The internet is full of junk. A staggering amount of junk: 1 million websites launched each day; billions of packets of content also tweeted, bookmarked, shared or otherwise thrown into the bubbling cauldron of human endeavour. Apparently, there are even 2 million ways to unlock a sink. OK, there are 2 million websites that claim to show you how to unblock a sink. Some do. Most don't.

But the point is: there's so much content out there, so don't just build a website full of nebulous gestures of information. More pages do not equal prizes. What you need to do is deliver quality–not quantity: get to the point. So I will. Sort of.


The Greeks understood the power of selling an argument 3,000 years ago. Nothing has really changed since. We have gone from oration, to manuscript, to block press, to movable type, telephone, television and now, the internet. But the skills of communication remain the same; and so should it be for your new website.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Until 50 years ago it was one of the foundations of a classical education: Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric; these were know as the Trivium, which scholars had to master before progressing to the Quadrivium. Important though that background is (and the parallels you can draw between the Trivium and design skills), we need to focus getting web pages to do a specific job: make us look smart, sell stuff, or just make people's lives better.

Rhetoric is commonly assumed to have three modes [of persuasion], not necessarily used in isolation:

  • Logos uses reason, logic, statistics, compelling evidence, and depth of information to persuade an audience. Politicians frequently bombard us with facts, not always correct, but you should always back up any claims you make.

  • Ethos refers to the credibility of an information source. Established newspapers and news programmes usually have years of proven reliability and trustworthiness. Don't let broken links, missing files or stale (rancid) content ruin the ethos of your website.

  • Pathos developing an emotional response. With the web we can use colour, typography, layout, images and text content to generate some sort of emotion in the site views.

And it's not just a case of employing one or more of these tactics (those darned politicians keep trying though); we have to figure out what it is we want to say and how to deliver it.

Designing a Compelling Argument

The Greeks and the Romans come to the rescue to help us design persuasive speech with the 'Five Canons of Rhetoric', which can easily be applied to building web content:

Definition - facts.
Comparison/Contrast - establish USP.
Relationship - cause and effect.
Circumstances - what’s possible/impossible.
Testimony - Reviews, comments etc.
Anticipated sequence of dialogue.
Writing techniques: eg, conclusion at start.
Eloquence, brevity, grammar, visual hierarchies and CONTENT!!
Adding in related prompts, or calls to action: eg, “You might also like.”
User Interaction (UI).

Good Content

So what do we mean by Good Content? Erin Kissane has a simple definition list in her book 'The Elements of Content Strategy'; good content is:

  • Appropriate

  • Useful

  • User-centered

  • Clear & concise

  • Supported

Read the book: it meets her own criteria.

Adaptive Content

Buzzwords in last year or two:

  • Responsive design, which essentially stretch [typography, layout containers and images] according to the screen width available. But the pages may still be serving the same massive chunk of text to all devices, from the smallest mobile phone, to the larget desktop browser.

  • Adaptive design the website (or application) detects what type of browser or operating system you are using and adjusts the website layout or content accordingly.

The key difference between the two approaches is that responsive design is stuck with the same hierarchical document structure (the Document Object Model - DOM): we can change the orientation or collapse parts of our page, but it still has the same fundamental structure. An adaptive approach, however, can manipulate the DOM and change the hierarchy or sequence of the page's content depending on what context is being served.

Our page's content needs to adapt to the device, so that we can still deliver good content and maintain the rhetoric. A couple of things we need to consider:

Web content != Page

A hangover from print days and everyone getting a bit immersed in Microsoft's Office products: a web page is not an atomic, bulky stream of text. A web page should assembled together like building blocks, or chunks of content. The chunks of information must have some connection to enforce our mode of rhetoric, and we can shuffle the order of our chunks (or even serve up different versions of our chunks) depending upon the context or device it's being served to. So for a mobile phone version, it might be better to use abbreviated content chunks to maximise use of the screen, yet still maintaining the rhetoric; for a desktop version, we have acres of space, so can add in links to related content, additional media relating to the page's main purpose. But...

Don't Punish Mobile

Design is full of compromises, but never punish mobile: always give mobile users a way to access the 'full' version of any abbreviations you make.

Mobile != Mobile

Just because your site is being viewed on a mobile device, don't assume your user is running for a bus, or walking down the street. Some 70% of mobile internet access is via WiFi (so they're probably at home, or relaxing in a coffee shop); and in 2012, 32% of adults in the UK accessed the Internet using a mobile phone every day. So mobile is important, and mobile users want to view the same stuff and buy the same things as they do on their desktops. It's a huge market you could be losing.


My friends, say goodbye to huge WYSIWYG-generated text fields. Think structure and markup: author-friendly fields to populate knowledge repositories; metadata and and taxonomy structures to link content; think context - data reuse and transport. The search engines will love you, and so will your users. You'll also find that your valuable knowledge is transportable and can be re-used within your own site, and across the web.
It's a bit of a mind-shift, but you will see payback.

In Practise

At the recent DrupalCamp Scotland I covered the same ground, then walked through a brief example based on Drupal's CTools Page Manager:

But if you want to see what the grown-ups are saying read the books listed at the reference, and stalk the authors on Twitter.

I feel it in my fingers,
I feel it in my toes,
Content all around me...


An excellent article recently posted by Mark Boulton looks at the way WYSIWYG based editors for web content is harming the way that we build online content. http://www.markboulton.co.uk/journal/wysiwtfftwomg