Given the diverse nature of audiences, the complexity of the communication process, and the countless options and choices to make when designing your communication, you may feel overwhelmed. One effective way to address this is to focus on ways to reach, interact with, or stimulate your audience. By learning a few strategies for visual design (the tools of visual rhetoric!), you’ll create much more effective communication.

Cognate Strategies

Charles Kostelnick and David Roberts outline several cognate strategies, or ways of framing, expressing, and representing a message to an audience, in Designing Visual Language: Strategies for Professional Communicators (Kostelnick & Roberts, 1998). The word “cognate” refers to knowledge, and these strategies are techniques for imparting knowledge to your audience. They help answer questions like the following:

“Does the audience understand how I’m arranging my information?”

“Am I emphasizing my key points effectively?”

“How does my expression and representation of information contribute to a relationship with the audience?”

The following table summarizes the nine cognate strategies in relation to Aristotle’s forms of rhetorical proof; it also provides areas on which to focus your attention as you design your message.

Aristotle’s Forms of Rhetorical Proof

Cognate Strategies


Pathos Tone






Logos Clarity



Clear understanding

Key points

Order, hierarchy, placement

Ethos Credibility



Character, trust

Norms and anticipated outcomes

Sources and frames of reference














As you may remember from previous studies of logic or early philosophy, Aristotle outlined three main forms of rhetorical proof: ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos involves the speaker’s character and expertise. Logos is the logic of the speaker’s presentation—something that will be greatly enhanced by a good organizational plan. Aristotle discussed pathos as the use of emotion as a persuasive element in the speech (Wisse, J., 1998), or “the arousing of emotions in the audience.” If you strategically use pathos, you are following Aristotle’s notion of rhetorical proof as the available means of persuasion. If logic and expertise don’t move the audience, a tragic picture may do so.

You’ll want to consider the cognate strategies and how to address each as you plan your communication, be it an email, a proposal, a research poster, or an infographic.

The 9 Cognate Strategies

Tone Your choice of words, your clothing, your voice, body language, the rhythm and cadence of your speech, the use of space – these all contribute to the tone of the presentation. Tone, or the general manner of expression of the message, will contribute to the context of the presentation.

EmphasisAs the speaker, you need to consider how you place emphasis—stress, importance, or prominence—on some aspects of your speech, and how you lessen the impact of others. Emphasis as a cognate strategy asks you to consider relevance and the degree to which your focal point of attention contributes to or detracts from your speech. You will need to consider how you link ideas through transitions, how you repeat and rephrase, and how you place your points in hierarchical order to address the strategy of emphasis in your presentation.

Engagement:  Engagement is the relationship the speaker forms with the an audience. Engagement strategies can include eye contact, movement within your space, audience participation, use of images, and even the words you choose. To develop the relationship with the audience, you will need to consider how your words, visuals, and other relevant elements of your speech help this relationship grow.

Clarity “Clarity strategies help the receiver (audience) to decode the message, to understand it quickly and completely, and when necessary, to react without ambivalence” (Kostelnick, C. and Roberts, D., 1998). Your word choices and visual elements should be chosen carefully, and used together appropriately, to ensure you’re conveying the right meaning.

Being ConciseBeing concise is part of being clear – it refers to being brief and direct in the visual and verbal delivery of your message, and avoiding unnecessary intricacy. It involves using as many words as necessary to get your message across, and no more. If you only have five to seven minutes, how will you budget your time? Being economical with your time is a pragmatic approach to ensuring that your attention, and the attention of your audience, is focused on the point at hand.

Arrangement:  As the speaker, you will gather and present information in some form. How that form follows the function of communicating your message involves strategically grouping information. “Arrangement means order, the organization of visual (and verbal) elements” (Kostelnick & Roberts, 1998) in ways that allow the audience to correctly interpret the structure, hierarchy, and relationships among points of focus in your presentation.

Credibility:  You will naturally develop a relationship with your audience, and the need to make trust an element is key to that development. The word “credibility” comes from the word “credence,” or belief. Credibility involves your qualities, capabilities, or power to elicit from the audience’s belief in your character. Consider persuasive strategies that will appeal to your audience, build trust, and convey your understanding of the rhetorical situation.

ExpectationYour audience, as we’ve addressed previously, will have inherent expectations of themselves and of you depending on the rhetorical situation. Expectations involve the often unstated, eager anticipation of the norms, roles, and outcomes of the speaker and the speech.

Reference:  No one person knows everything all the time at any given moment, and no two people have experienced life in the same way. For this reason, use references carefully. Reference involves attention to the source and the way you present your information. The audience won’t expect you to personally gather statistics and publish a study, but they will expect you to state where you got your information.


Conventions are accepted ways of giving form to things–an established technique or practice. You could also say that conventions are the “rules” or expectations that readers/viewers have for a particular genre or medium. Much of the communication we receive is shaped by conventions, whether we realize it or not. Where do you find the title of a published article–at the top of the article or the bottom? Where do locate on an organization’s website the physical address and phone number? While no one will argue that the title of the article belongs at the bottom, there may be some discussion on the various places we might look to find an address or phone number on a website? Why? Because some conventions are rigid, and some are loose. Some are well-established, and some are not.

Take a look at this “Anatomy of an Article” resource, specifically at the labeled diagram in the How to Read a Scientific Paper section. All those labeled snippets of the article are conventional in a scientific article. When you write a scientific article, you’d be expected to draft the text for each of those conventions; when you read scientific articles, you expect those conventional snippets (and expect them in something close to that order, as well).

While following conventions may feel prescriptive at times–we don’t like our creative visions to be stifled!–remember that NOT following convention can lead to a host of issues. Ethos may suffer, as your readers may feel you are not a credible or knowledgeable source. Pathos may suffer, too, as readers may feel that your conscious choice to disregard convention is disrespectful to them (in some circumstances). It’s important to think about conventions for communication when solving any problems in technical communication. Where do readers expect to find information? What does the genre of writing dictate in terms of arrangement? What about typography–are there conventions that need to be considered for type style and size?

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it’s a duck.” If we apply our understanding of convention to this saying, we see that others may not recognize our “duck” if it doesn’t look or walk like one. And our duck, though dressed and waddling in the most creative way, may lose its audience quickly!

Here’s a brief video touching on Aristotle’s forms of rhetorical proof:

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The content in this chapter was remixed from Communication for Business Professionals by eCampusOntario and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. 

H5P self-check content in this chapter was created by Sam Malone for use in Technical Communication Across the Professions and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



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