This piece wraps up a three-part series on the value of audience awareness in improving engagement with writing, surveys, and more.
We’ve done the work now to figure out who we’re writing for, what we’re writing for them, and why we’re writing it in the first place. Today we’ll close the discussion by thinking through what we’re going to do with that information now that we have it.
4) What’s the best way to convey my purpose to my audience?
Many of the previous questions have dealt with factors that are beyond our control as writers. We don’t always get to choose the audience that will read our work. We can’t always decide what form to use in our communication or the reason we are writing. But, when the time comes to actually sit down and craft our words, we can become more deliberate and creative with our choices. Beyond choosing the actual words on the page, we have the chance to make the big and small decisions that will influence whether or not our message will connect with our audience.
In some part, this requires an empathetic mindset, trying to think like a reader and asking yourself, How would I respond to this if I were them? Before you put a single word on the page, take some time to consider how your choices as a writer may affect your audience. This consideration provides you with the best chance to make the connection and communicate your message to them effectively. Below are some of the most common considerations.
Language and word choice
Words are the molecules of written communication. By changing things around—swapping one word for another, for example, or rearranging and restructuring—we can end up with completely different outcomes, in this case, different effects on the audience. When choosing the right word for the situation and for the particular audience, it’s important to think about more than the actual meaning; you should also consider the connotations, the mental associations that your audience might have with that word. For example, one manager might call an employee “assertive,” while the other might call the exact same person “aggressive;” though the two words are relatively synonymous, the former seems more positive, the latter more accusatory.
It’s also important to know your likely audience’s general familiarity with the specialized language and jargon of your industry. If you are writing a blog for a group of insiders, you can probably get away with dropping terms and acronyms without defining or explaining them. Writing in the exact same way for novices or other non-insider readers will most certainly leave them frustrated and confused, thus detracting from the message you wish to convey.
Voice and tone
Effective communication with an audience often requires modulation and adaptation on the part of the writer, a willingness and ability to adopt the right tone and voice to fit the specific situation and needs of the audience. Tone and voice are two sides of the same coin; tone is the attitude that you wish to convey to your reader, while voice is the style with which you create that attitude. Different situations require different tones and voices. The tone and voice that you choose when texting with a close friend (lol! Ikr) would likely turn off potential clients who might expect a higher level of formality in business dealings; an email to a client will probably be most effective if written with a more professional tone, though it will likely be just as important to strike a welcoming and friendly balance there in terms of voice. A disciplinary letter should probably have a sterner, more serious tone and voice than a letter of congratulations. An article for a peer-reviewed journal will likely have a more academic tone than a more general-interest blog post on a company website. It all comes down to audience and expectations.
When making decisions within a piece of writing, it’s important to consider the likely context in which a reader will meet your work, both in terms of their immediate situation and the norms and practices of their culture. As we’ve already mentioned, you will want to write differently for an audience new to your subject material than you would a group of experts in your field. When writing for those unfamiliar with your material, it’s important to meet your reader where they are at the moment, and then work to get them where you want them to end up. It’s also vital to spend at least a little time thinking through the cultural contexts surrounding your intended audience when choosing how you will present your material. Especially when writing for a more international audience, ask both: what am I assuming my readers will already know, especially in terms of references and allusions? and is there anything I’m writing that could be misunderstood or misinterpreted by someone who is reading this outside of my own cultural context?
I’ve spent some time in each of these entries looking at the choices I’ve been making here in my own writing. I have chosen to use a more informal tone and voice, complete with asides and parentheticals, and first- and second-person address with the hopes of making a more personal connection and striking a welcoming, collegial tone. I know that most of my audience is here to learn more about the company, which I have always found to be a warm and familial place, open to new ideas and innovations, so I wanted the writing to reflect that for my audience. I know the expectations that my editors have for this blog environment, and I have a good idea of the expectations you have as an audience when coming here. Obviously, I could have written this as a straightforward information piece about audience, like a lecture in front of a class of students, but that’s not the relationship I wanted to establish with you.
Though the choices I’ve made are riskier—they could come off as gimmicky or, at worst, pandering—I hope that I’ve been effective in relating to you as a reader and getting you to take a step aside and think about your audience next time you write something, as I’ve thought a lot about you while writing this.