Know Your Audience
One of the most important aspects of writing effectively is to know who will be reading your text: that is, your intended or likely audience. Sometimes this is obvious: for example, if you are writing a letter or an email. However, at other times—for example, when writing reports, blogs or marketing copy—it may be less clear.
This page discusses how you can gather information to understand more about your intended audience. It goes on to explore how this affects both the content of your writing (what you say) and the style (how you say it), and why this matters.
Identifying Your Audience
The first question to ask is “Who am I writing this for?”. This is your intended audience.
In other words, you need to know who you are aiming to reach with your writing. This might be an individual, in the case of a letter or email. However, with a blog, marketing copy, or report, it might be one or more groups. Try to identify all the groups that you want to attract with your copy, in as much detail as possible.
You may find it helpful to read our page on Customer Segmentation to understand more about separating your audience into groups.
You also need to be aware of your secondary audience.
This is people who might come across your writing (especially if it is published in print or on the internet).
Even when writing to an individual, your words may be copied and pasted into another format or passed to another audience. You cannot necessarily tailor your writing to fit this audience—but it is wiser to be mindful of them than to ignore them completely.
Why consider your secondary audience?
You may wonder why you should be mindful of an unintended audience.
The answer is simple: both internet and print publications cast a long shadow.
Writing something that could upset or offend people, however inadvertently, may come back to bite you later. Even a private email may be published under Freedom of Information legislation.
If you bear in mind that anything you write may end up public and/or published, you are unlikely to go far wrong.
Understanding Your Audience
Your next step is to find out more about your audience.
In particular, you want to know why they might find your writing useful and/or interesting. What are they looking for from you? Do they want information or entertainment, for example?
The more you know about them, and the more you understand their needs, the easier it will be to meet those needs. In business, this means that they are more likely to become or remain your customers.
You may find it helpful to read our page about Gathering Information for Competitive Intelligence to find out more about how to find information about your audience.
The questions for which you need answers are:
Why is this audience reading this document or text?
What are the main concerns and problems that they wish to solve?
In your writing, you are generally aiming to show your audience how to solve those problems (possibly through your products or services, but without any hard selling). Remember that a problem may be as simple as ‘I have no information about topic x’.
Writing for Your Audience
The real importance of knowing your audience is that you can adapt your writing to suit those people. This has two key elements:
Being able to address their main concerns through the content that you include; and
Writing in an appropriate style.
For example, an annual report written on behalf of a corporate organisation must address the concerns of stakeholders and potential stakeholders. It may therefore need to include information about financial issues, and also corporate social responsibility. However, you can assume that these readers have some background knowledge about the organisation. You will therefore not need to explain every last detail of the organisation, or the roles of each member of staff. Finally, you do not know these readers, and they do not have a close personal relationship with the organisation that is publishing the report. The report will therefore need to be written in a fairly formal style.
However, advertising or marketing copy written about a product or service will be very different. There, you are speaking directly to potential customers or groups of customers. You want to build a strong relationship with them, to make them feel closer to your product or service. You will therefore write in a fairly informal style. However, you will probably use different content and even a slightly different style for different marketing media (and for more about this, see our page on Understanding Marketing Mediums).
Similarly, if you know your readers are specialists in a particular area, you will be writing in a different style, and using different language, from an article written on the same topic for the general public.
Finding Your Voice
Knowing your audience will 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. It also includes whether the language and style is formal or informal (relaxed). 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).
Marketers often use a similar style in writing marketing copy, because this makes their company seem more friendly and human. This builds a relationship with potential customers.
However, a more formal style may be expected when writing to an unknown peer in another organisation, or to more senior managers (you may find our page Business Writing Tips helpful here).
Other considerations include:
The level of detail required
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. However, if 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.
Whether to include visual information
It is helpful to include graphs, charts, diagrams or illustrations if this helps to convey the key messages more succinctly than elaborate and convoluted text.
Any formal constraints such as word counts
Sometimes you will be faced with formal constraints such as maximum word counts or lengths. For example, executive summaries are often no more than one page in length. You may also be expected to break up the page into chunks, using headings. There is more about this in our page on Know Your Medium.
The Bottom Line
Understanding your audience is crucial to effective writing.
Before you start writing you should always identify your intended audience and try to understand their needs. You can then consider how to tailor both your content and your writing style to suit. However, it is also worth being aware of how your writing might come across to others—and make sure that you are unlikely to offend anyone.