Know Your Audience
Knowing or anticipating who will be reading what you have written is key to effective writing.
You need to know who you want to read your writing, why they are likely to read it, and what they want to get out of their reading, in order to include the right content.
This page outlines the importance of knowing your audience when writing or preparing to write, and provides some ideas for how you can start to identify your audience, and then tailor your writing to fit.
Before you start writing you should, where possible, identify the audience of your writing and tailor your writing style to suit.
Identifying Your Audience
The first question to ask is “Who am I writing this for?”
When writing letters or emails, the answer may be obvious but for other forms of writing such as reports, strategies, marketing brochures, advertising copy or blogs, the answer may not be so obvious.
Before you start writing, it is helpful to ask yourself a series of questions:
Who do I want to read this?
In other words, who am I writing this to or for, as a direct audience? This may be the person to whom you are addressing the email, or it may be much wider. For example, for a summary of your company’s strategy, your intended audience may be the Executive Board.
Who else is likely to read this?
This covers a number of areas. You may, for example, wish to find out whether what you write will be published, whether in print or online, or who else might be sent a copy for information or for comment, either by you, or by one of the group who will see it directly.
If it is going to be published, you need to find out where, including the website, and then have a look at the kind of people who usually visit that website. This will enable you to work out, for example, their level of technical knowledge, and their level of overall interest in the subject. Will it be publicised in any way, for example, by social media? Who else might see it as a result of that?
You can think of these two questions as identifying your primary and secondary audiences.
The primary audience is the one that really matters to you: that is the person or people who need to take action as a result of what you write, or whom you are being paid to address, for example.
Although your primary audience is more important, you also need to keep your secondary audience in mind at all times. You do not want to write or say anything that could cause serious offence, or damage your own or someone else’s reputation.
Even when writing to an individual, bear in mind that your words might easily be copied and pasted into another format or passed to another audience.
Just think of Oliver Alcock. Before leaving accountancy firm PwC, Alcock wrote an email to some of his friends in the company to say that he was going. He complained about having been bored, and criticised the ‘PwC Ponzi scheme’, and the lack of time for a social life.
His email went viral around the company, and then on social media, and was discussed by the PwC board. It is safe to assume that Oliver will not be receiving a glowing reference from PwC, and may find it quite hard to find another job in the near future.
If in doubt, leave it out.
If there is anything that you would not be happy for anyone to read, then don’t write it down.
Adapting Writing to the Audience
The next questions to ask are:
- What are my audience’s primary concerns?
- What do I want them to do as a result of reading this?
Knowing who your audience is means that you can adapt the content of your writing to address the main concerns of your audience.
For example, an annual report written on behalf of a corporate organisation must address the concerns of stakeholders and potential stakeholders but can assume that these readers have at least some background knowledge of what the organisation does and will not need to include what each individual member of staff does.
Advertising copy written for the same product or service might have different content and style dependent upon the medium through which the advertisement will be broadcast. If you know your readers are specialists in a particular area, the writing style should acknowledge this and differ from an article written on the same topic for the general public. Journalists, however, will need a straightforward summary, and clear ‘story’ (for more about writing for journalists, see our page on How to Write a Press Release).
Knowing your audience will also help you to decide on the “voice” to use.
The writer's voice is a literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author but also includes how formal or informal (relaxed) the tone of voice should be. Letters or emails to personal friends may be written in a very informal style since there is already a degree or familiarity between the writer (you) and the audience (your friend). However this same style is not appropriate in professional situations where a more formal tone is expected.
If you are writing to very busy people who perhaps receive hundreds of similar communications, then you should adopt a brief and succinct written style that conveys the key messages quickly and clearly.
You could also consider including charts, diagrams or illustrations if this helps to convey the key messages more succinctly than elaborate and convoluted text. If, however, you know that you are writing to people who want or need detailed content then provide it.
If you are not sure how much detail is required, then it is always best to ask first.
Knowing what you want your audience to do as a result means that you have a purpose in writing. It is much easier to craft an engaging piece that will catch your audience’s attention if you have a clear purpose in mind.
Your purpose might be, for example, to:
- Increase your audience’s understanding of a particular topic;
- Persuade your audience to get in touch with your company to book on an event;
- Generate a click-through to your website; or
- Stop a negative rumour or gossip from spreading.
Throughout your article, hold this purpose in mind, and make sure that everything you write is relevant, and moves your purpose forwards.