Know your audience

We all have to write material to influence and inform people, but before doing anything, it behooves us to think about who our audience is and what we want the take-away message to be.

For example, if you are writing a business memo, your intended audience is probably people with whom you work. What and how you report information should vary depending on the reader. When we talk to people face-to-face we adjust our speech to be sure we are communicating our message but many people don’t think about this when writing. Different audiences have different levels of understanding based on age, level of experience with a given subject, education, and interest.

The importance of your audience

Understanding your audience is important when making decisions about what information you should include, what kind of supporting details the reader needs to understand about your topic, and how you should structure the hierarchy of information. If you are writing to persuade, you need to be able to appeal to and address a specific group of people.

If you assume that the reader is less knowledgeable than you, you might provide more details and a better explanation. Think about the intended audience and write to address what the reader needs to know to follow your ideas. To write effectively to a specific audience, think about who the audience is and its needs.

The specificity of information will be determined by whom you are targeting. Common audiences might include the following:

Generalized group of readers, or the “lay” audience:  This most likely means your readers will need background information as well as examples and illustrations to help them understand the material. This audience connects to the human-interest aspect of articles.

Professionals in the field:  If the assignment is to address people in a particular field or profession, you can assume they know the jargon and terminology common to that field and you should write in the style and vocabulary that is common to that field or discipline. Background information, facts, and statistics to make decisions will be important to this group.

Academic audiences, subject experts:  If you are writing for an academic community, similar to the readers of peer-reviewed journals, these readers will expect you to conform to the conventions of that particular field, include citations from known experts, and contribute new information. This audience may be the most demanding in terms of knowledge, presentation, and visuals. It is important that documentation is accurate and up-to-date.

Customizing information

The best way to write effectively for a given audience is to customize the information. Consider what you want the audience to do with the information. Do you want the reader to make a decision or take action based on the information you are providing? Have you thought of questions the reader might have and provided answers for them?

Making an informal list can be helpful:

  • What does your audience already know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • Why do they need to know it?
  • How will you help them?
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