Audience-Centered Communication Overview

Learning Objectives

Module Two:  Knowing Your Audience.

  • Learn about how to analyze your audience
  • Learn why it is important to analyze your audience before you start writing
  • Learn why technical writing is audience-centered


Audience matters

When you’re in the process of writing a paper, it’s easy to forget that you are actually writing to someone. Whether you’ve thought about it consciously or not, you always write to an audience: sometimes your audience is a very generalized group of readers, sometimes you know the individuals who compose the audience, and sometimes you write for yourself. Keeping your audience in mind while you write can help you make good decisions about what material to include, how to organize your ideas, and how best to support your argument.

To illustrate the impact of audience, imagine you’re writing a letter to your grandmother to tell her about your first month of college. What details and stories might you include? What might you leave out? Now imagine that you’re writing on the same topic but your audience is your boss.  It’s likely that your two letters would look quite different in terms of content, structure, and even tone.

In technical writing, audience analyze is especially important, since the writing itself is audience-centered.  The main purpose of technical writing is to communicate a message that is specifically tailored to the audience’s needs.  Failure to do so can cost you sales, productivity, safety, or other issues that will impact your business.

Isn’t my instructor or my boss my audience?

Yes, your instructor or employer is probably the actual audience for your paper. Your instructors read and grade your essays, and you want to keep their needs and perspectives in mind when you write. However, when you write an essay with only your instructor or employer in mind, you might not say as much as you should or say it as clearly as you should, because you assume that the person grading it or reading it knows more than you do and will fill in the gaps. This leaves it up to the reader to decide what you are really saying, and your reader might decide differently than you expect. For example, he/she might decide that those gaps show that you don’t know and understand the situation at hand.   It might show that you can’t relate to your employees or you can’t accurately describe important concepts to potential clients, suppliers or employees. It might also, for example, inadvertently show your supervisors that you aren’t quite as knowledge about the organization as you thought you were and that would be a disaster!

Thinking about your audience differently can improve your writing, especially in terms of how clearly you express your argument. The clearer your points are, the more likely you are to have a strong piece of writing.

How do I identify my audience and what they want from me?

Before you even begin the process of writing, take some time to consider who your audience is and what they want from you. Use the following questions to help you identify your audience and what you can do to address their wants and needs.

  • Who is your audience?
  • Might you have more than one audience? If so, how many audiences do you have? List them.
  • Does your writing task itself give any clues about your audience?
  • What does your audience need?
  • What do they want?
  • What do they value?
  • What is most important to them?
  • What are they least likely to care about?
  • What type of visuals does your audience need?
  • What type of language and tone will you use?
  • What is the background of your audience (education, social status, economical status, knowledge in the topic you are talking about, experience, etc.)
  • What kind of organization would best help your audience understand and appreciate your? What do you have to say (or what are you doing in your research) that might surprise your audience?
  • What do you want your audience to think, learn, do or assume about your message? What impression do you want your writing or your research to convey?

How much should I explain?

This is the hard part. As we said earlier, you want to show your instructor that you know the material. But different assignments call for varying degrees of information. Different fields also have different expectations.  You may be writing to members of your organization or you could be writing for clients, customers, or prospective employees.   You must analyze each audience to see what their needs are; what they need to know; what you want them to know; and what you want from them.

Once you have a draft, you may want to  try your level of explanation out on a colleague before publishing or sending out your materials . Get the person to read your rough draft, and then ask him or her  to talk to you about what he/she did and didn’t understand. (Now is not the time to talk about proofreading,  Your proofreader is looking at your materials for comprehension purposes only). You will likely get one of the following responses or a combination of them:

  • If your listener/reader has tons of questions about what you are saying, then you probably need to explain more.
  • If your reader seems confused, you probably need to explain more clearly.
  • If your reader looks bored and can repeat back to you more details than he/she needs to know to get your point, you probably explained too much. Excessive detail can also be confusing, because it can bog the reader down and keep him/her from focusing on your main points.

Sometimes it’s not the amount of explanation that matters, but the word choice and tone you adopt. Your word choice and tone need to match your audience’s expectations. For example, if you are writing a report on a new product to member of your board of directors, the report will sound formal, you will not use slang or jargon, and you will explain how this new product works (and adds to profits). However, if the report is for potential customers, you may choose to write using informal expressions, using examples that highlight the benefit to the customer if they buy your product, and may even contain humor!

Generally, you want your reader to know enough material to understand the points you are making. If you are trying to persuade them, you want to give them key points that support your opinion. Lastly, if you want your readers to do something, you may have to outline steps or provide an explanation of a process.  Your words, your format and design, and your tone all help get your message across to each unique audience.