- the individual who receives a message
- a discourse community or community of practice
“An audience is never wrong. An individual of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles in the dark – that is critical genius.”Billy Wilder
To be an effective writer, you must use language that is audience-centered, not writer-centered. In other words, transcend your own perspective and consider the needs and interests of your readers. Ask yourself:
- What do my readers know about the topic?
- Are my readers likely to have an emotional response to my work?
- What do I want my readers to do, think, or feel?
If you don’t define words and concepts that your readers need to understand your document, then your writing will be unsuccessful. Transforming a writer-centered draft into an audience-centered draft can be one of the most important challenges you face as a writer. All of us, no matter how educated, can have difficulties getting inside someone else’s shoes. Audience awareness is one of the major keys to effective writing.
Examples of Different Audiences
Audiences are characterized by the questions they ask when they read. As a writer, you want to consider your readers’ reasons for viewing your text.
Instructors: When instructors are your primary audience, they may ask:
- Did the student follow instructions?
- Does the student’s writing reflect understanding of central course concepts?
- Do the student’s opening paragraphs explain the purpose, its significance, and forecast the organization?
- Did the student follow conventions for citing, paraphrasing, and summarizing sources?
- Is the document written well, following grammatical, mechanical, and punctuation rules?
Technicians/Users: When you are writing as the expert, explaining how to do something, your users are likely to ask:
- Does the text clarify in a step-by-step order what I am supposed to do?
- Are warnings and safety precautions clearly presented?
- Can I skim through the visuals and flow diagrams rather than read the text?
- Where do I go for additional help?
Decision Makers: When someone is in a position of making decisions, he or she may be harassed by demands on his or her time. As a result, he or she may grow impatient if you don’t immediately present your request. Decisions makers may only read your abstract or introduction. Additional questions the reader may ask include:
- Does the writer provide cogent and persuasive evidence for his or her claim?
- Who will benefit and who will be hurt by enacting this proposal?
- Is the author capable of carrying out the proposed work?
Internet Skimmers: Researchers have found that people approach documents published on the Internet with a different set of expectations than they would a traditional text. Although online readers can be motivated to read carefully, they tend to be more likely to skim online documents than printed documents. These readers may ask:
- Are key points summarized at the top of the browser window?
- Are visuals, animations, audio clips, and video clips used to illustrate key points?
- Is the text chunked into minimalist portions?How do I move around in the site?
When Should You Consider Your Audience?
Interestingly, writers and writing teachers do not always agree about exactly when you should consider your audience. It’s possible, for example, that thinking about an audience early in the writing process can be intimidating. When addressing a difficult subject, some writers may be so concerned with developing the material for themselves that they don’t want to pause or complicate matters by questioning what others would think about the subject. They may even write a few drafts before questioning how their words and ideas will affect readers.
Audience Analysis Questions
Nonetheless, you are wise to consider your audience as early as possible in the writing process. Asking yourself the following questions can help you solidify your sense of audience.
- Who is your primary audience? a teacher? a parent or loved one? fellow students? a politician? a university committee? a broad, general audience such as subscribers to a weekly magazine like Time or Newsweek? Are they a lay audience, executives, experts, or technicians?
- Does your document have multiple audiences? Can you discern an important secondary audience? If so, how will you account for the needs of this audience? Should you have separate sections in your document that address the needs of these different audiences?
- What factors impinge on how your audience will feel about your subject? For instance, are you addressing someone who is overcome by grief or emotional problems?
- How knowledgeable are your primary and secondary audiences about your subject? What concepts or terms will you need to define for these audiences? What level of education does your primary audience have?
But What If I Don’t Really Know My Audience?
You will face situations when you are unsure about what your audience knows about a topic or how the audience may feel about the topic. You will not always be able to make informed guesses about your audience’s level of education, knowledge about the topic, or interest in the topic. As a result, you may need to rely on an internalized, imaginary audience. In other words, you may need to make educated guesses about the needs, education, and likely reactions of the people who are likely to read your work.
“Consider Your Audience ” was written by Joseph Moxley, University of South Florida