Know Your Audience
The word “strategic” comes from the ancient Greek for “army commander.” Its military roots highlight the elements of action, intent, and anticipation—elements that are shared with writers in the workplace. Writing for professional reasons means that your words will lead to action and impact other people, systems, and processes. Your writing will even define you as a professional in a public context and affect your credibility and reputation. Therefore, thinking ahead when composing your document and writing with a clear purpose are essential. It’s not possible to be persuasive or informative without knowing who you are writing for. Understanding your readers—the audience—will determine the impact of your ideas. The audience is the basic measure of the quality of a piece of writing: your writing can be “good” or “bad” only depending on who will read it and why.
So, what are some ways to analyze audiences? First, think about whether they are internal or external to your organization. Are they your company colleagues? Are they clients or members of the public? The kind of information you give and the style you use will be different in each case.
Then think about their level of knowledge in relation to the subject. Are they experts? Do they have general, but not in-depth, knowledge? Or are they complete novices? This will give you some clues on how much detail, or background, to include and how much you need to explain. It will also determine if you can use technical terms and jargon or if you should use conversational language only.
Third, think about their status in relation to you. Are you writing to management, subordinates, teammates, investors, or shareholders? The degree of formality, directness, and politeness will depend on status matters. Culture also plays a role. Does your audience come from a different country or culture? Find out the communication values and expectations of that culture. For example, do you address them by their given name? Surname? Title only? Do you tell them directly what you want or is an indirect approach expected in that culture?
Finally, think about their attitude. Are they likely to be friendly and eager to hear from you, or might they be hostile and suspicious? How you structure information will depend on this. Sometimes, it’s advisable not to begin with the main point first, directly, but to lead to it gradually—for example, when you’re delivering “bad news.” At other times, the opposite is true and directness is key—for example, in cases where you must avoid misunderstanding.
In many cases in professional contexts, the audience is composed of different readers. You will have a primary audience—the readers you are mainly writing for. But you may also have a secondary audience—those who are not your target readers but who are also involved. Also, someone may need to read and approve your document before it reaches the primary audience. This would be the immediate audience. For example, if you are a member of a team working on a project (a very common situation in the workplace), you may write a progress report for senior management. They will be your primary audience. However, your project team manager may need to read the document first (immediate audience), and it might interest some of your colleagues in the project too (secondary audience). To turn it into an effective communication, you need to take all these audiences into account.
When planning your document, brainstorm the possible audiences and keep in mind that sometimes people you hadn’t intended as readers may end up being part of the audience. To illustrate these points, consider this scenario that requires you to think about the audience.
You work in the Human Resources Department of a law firm. Your firm has a high staff turnover with half of junior lawyers leaving the firm in the first 2 years. This is an industry-wide problem in your country. Your CEO asks you to investigate this problem and to write a report suggesting some solutions.
Who is your audience for this report?
- a.The CEO is the
Feedback: The CEO is, indeed, the primary audience. However, this project has multiple audiences. Who are the rest?
- b.The CEO and the
Feedback: Since this is an internal report, it’s not likely to reach a public audience, so it’s best to write confidentially as an insider rather than as a journalist.
- c.The CEO and the lawyers
who are employed in the firm.
Feedback: Yes, since this is an internal report, the CEO and anyone in the firm with whom the management shares the report would be the primary and secondary audience, respectively.
Watch the video from Chris Esparza, the Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Leadership Development at the University of Oregon Law School as he reflects on a time where not considering his audience and his audience’s feelings resulted in a workplace miscommunication.