Background. Circumstances. Conditions. Frames of reference.
Context is crucial to communication. Readers and listeners use it to understand words and create meaning from those words. Writers and presenters use it as they construct and shape each message, providing their audience with the resources needed not only to comprehend a message but to recognize its significance. In a document or presentation, a context supplies information or detail before or after a particular word, sentence, or group of sentences in order to clarify meaning.
Yet context extends beyond the linguistic to the rhetorical. Its reach includes events, incidents, encounters. In these cases, context consists of the circumstances within which an event occurs, circumstances that affect how a message is constructed. If, for instance, you've been asked to resign from a position, your letter of resignation might be polite but brief, to the point, devoid of complimentary language. But if you're resigning of your own volition, your letter might be more gracious, more complimentary.
Appropriate context improves communication, especially when that context is of the linguistic or rhetorical type.
Have you ever received an email that contains only a link to a Web site or a few words whose connection to your reality are loose at best? Without sufficient context, words often miss their mark. As a writer or presenter, part of your task is to place words and sentences against the background with which you want an audience to view them.
You do that by providing detail, anything from a few additional words to several sentences. If a word's meaning may not be familiar to an audience or if you're using a word in a specialized sense, put it into context with definitions or explanations: "An allusion—a brief, indirect reference—to the Republic of Texas left listeners stumped."
But sometimes context demands more; referring to the Republic of Texas could stump many audiences not familiar with that state's history as a sovereign nation (1836-1846). To ward off such confusion, ask yourself what audience members need to know about your message; determine what background will help them understand your point. Will they be familiar enough with a study you cite or an event you mention? If not, contextualize.
But don't go overboard. Give them the right information in the right amount.
Rhetorical context is the canvas upon which communication takes place. Where and when and why a communication takes place, who its audience is, and what purpose it seeks to fulfill form rhetorical context; all make demands, and changing any one element changes others.
The traditions, expectations, and etiquette expected at certain events drive this context. We don't expect that a President of the USA will deliver a rap version of the State of the Union Address like a character from Hamilton. Nor do we expect the winner of a Nobel Prize to send his recorded comments rather than personally accepting the award and delivering his obligatory speech.
The context for the conduct of a financial analyst road show confers very specific expectations (we are getting it right and the investment thesis for us grows stronger) that are markedly different from those of a clinical investigator meeting (a legal responsibility to assure the protocol is understood and effectively applied). And both are different from an event that celebrates top performers in an organization (you are the champions) or collective success (we are the champions).
In many ways, providing sufficient linguistic and rhetorical context is a pre-programmed response to an occasion, audience, and purpose. Look ahead to consider those needs so you can meet them.