This chapter focuses on audience and different considerations for revising your document based on those audiences. The type of audience identified will shape your document’s format, terminology, style, and technical level. There are several types of audiences, including experts, technicians, executives, gatekeepers, and non-specialists (laypeople). However, most documents you create will have multiple audiences: often, a primary audience—the main audience for the document—and a secondary audience—other audiences that are likely to read the document, but who are not the main focus. In addition to the type of audience, you should analyze the audience to identify other factors that can affect how the document is received, including background, needs and interests, culture and values, and demographic characteristics. The rest of the chapter gives strategies to revise a document’s content for your audience, including changes to the content, style and format, sentence style, and document design.
A key concern of technical communication is the receiver of the information—the audience. Technical communication is the delivery of technical information to readers (or listeners or viewers) in a manner that is adapted to their needs, level of understanding, and background. Your documents must clearly convey new information to the reader, and you often need to translate highly technical concepts to groups with differing levels of technical knowledge—this is a key skill for any technical communicator. Therefore, the audience is one of the most important considerations in planning, writing, and reviewing a document. Adapt your writing to meet the needs, interests, culture, and background of those who will be reading your documents.
It is often not enough to identify a single audience for documents. There are several types of readers who may use them, each with different backgrounds, education levels, needs, and interest in the topic. All should be considered when analyzing the audience for a successful technical document.
2.2 Types of Audiences
During the planning stages of your document, you should analyze the audience to identify the type (or types—it is rarely just one type) of readers. Identifying what type of reader may be interested in your document will help you create an improved, more effective document.
Common Types of Audiences
The following are several types of common audiences for technical documents:
- Experts: People who know the business or organization (and possibly the theory and the product) inside and out. They designed it, they tested it, and they know everything about it. Often, they have advanced degrees and operate in academic settings or in research and development areas of the government and technology worlds (the creators, specialists).
- Technicians: People who build, operate, maintain, and repair the items that the experts design and theorize about. They have highly technical knowledge as well, but of a more practical nature (the hands-on users, operators).
- Executives: People who make business, economic, administrative, legal, governmental, or political decisions about the products. Executives frequently have little technical knowledge about the subject. Often, executives will be the primary audience for documents such as proposals and reports (the CEOs, committees, hiring managers).
- Gatekeepers: People who oversee the writer and the document. They decide if the document is compliant with rules, regulations, legal obligations, and/or the needs of the writer’s employer. Think of them as the direct supervisors of the writer—they confirm that a document will fulfill its purpose for the client, as well as ensure compliance with the company’s rules, regulations, and policies. In the classroom, your instructor will often be your gatekeeper—they ensure you follow the standards and goals of the assignment (the writer’s supervisors, lawyers, instructors).
- Non-specialists: People with the least technical knowledge of the topic. They want to use the new product to accomplish tasks; they want to understand the new technology, products, or procedures enough to use them in a particular situation. Or, they may just be curious about a specific technical matter and want to learn about it—but for no specific, practical reason (the laypeople).
Audience analysis can become complicated when you consider that you may have a combination of audience types and backgrounds: mixed audience types, wide variability within audience, and/or unknown audiences.
Multiple or Mixed Audiences
Most documents you write will have multiple or mixed audiences. Often, it is best to think of these in terms of the primary audience(s) and secondary audience(s).
The primary audience is the main reader of the document. For example, if you create a set of safety protocols to be displayed in a laboratory, the primary audience will be the technicians which use the laboratory. In this example, it is important to adapt the safety protocols for the technicians to understand, as unclear steps could lead to physical harm.
The secondary audience(s) is made up of others who may read or be interested in a document, but who is not the main (primary) reader. In the laboratory example, these groups could be experts who enforce laboratory regulations and safety standards, but also could be non-specialist custodial staff that clean and maintain the lab. Both of these groups may be interested in this document—the experts ensure that safety standards are met, while the non-specialists may need to follow the displayed protocols in an emergency. Additionally, the secondary audience may be someone your primary reader consults if your message, report, proposal, etc. is a request for a specific action. For example, if you are a salesperson making a pitch to a client, that client may need to consult their supervisor before agreeing to your terms.
How should you approach writing a document with so many possible readers? First, identify the primary audience of your document. Then, identify likely secondary audiences, if any.
Most of the time, you will know who the primary audience is—you will be writing a document aimed at a particular group of people or a single person. You may have a client you are writing for or a group you specifically want to understand your ideas. In this case, you should write your document for the primary audience, but also include information for the secondary audiences. For example, if you write a set of new procedures for a company’s technicians, you must also include information that your gatekeepers insist accompany the document, such as legal clauses or business descriptions. You will also need to think about the technicians’ bosses (executives) who need to approve any new procedures implemented at the site.
If you believe a document is unlikely to be used by the secondary audience(s), you can write for the primary audience only. This would be applicable if you create a set of instructions over “How to Change a Tire” for a website. You can assume most readers will be non-specialists who need assistance with the task, not mechanics, designers, or engineers in the automotive industry.
If you believe the document will likely be used by multiple audiences or you are unsure who the primary audience is, you can then write the document so that all the audiences can understand it. This is also a good choice if you know that many different types of readers will be interested. For example, imagine you wrote a research report over the use of a city’s public park facilities. Community members (non-specialists) are just as likely to read the report as those on the city council (executives), the head of the Parks Department (experts), and those who maintain the parks (technicians). In this case, you would want to write your report to be accessible to all these types of audience.
2.3 Audience Analysis
Once you have identified the types of readers for a specific document, it is important to determine some of the qualities of these groups. If you are writing to a known, specific audience (e.g., Hiring Manager Serena Tims; Director of University Dining Services Ollie Lopez; the corporate board at Sony Inc.; etc.) versus a general, unknown audience (e.g., people who want to learn how to change their car’s oil) you may need to do some research on the individual (if available), the company or organization they work for, or even the industry your audience is a player in. Determining these characteristics will help guide your document creation—you can decide what information needs to be included or eliminated, which terms to use or which need to be defined, an effective design for the document, and so on. Regardless of which type of reader you identify (experts, technicians, executives, gatekeepers, or non-specialists), you should analyze these groups in terms of their characteristics:
- Background—knowledge, experience, and training: One of your most important concerns is just how much knowledge, experience, or training you can expect in your readers. If you expect some of your readers to lack certain background, do you automatically supply it in your document? Imagine you are writing a guide to using a software product that runs under Microsoft Windows. How much can you expect your readers to know about Windows? If some are likely to know very little about Windows, should you provide that information? If you say no, then you run the risk of customers getting frustrated with your product. If you say yes, you increase your work effort and add to the document’s page count (and thus the cost), and could annoy users with more knowledge. Obviously, there is no easy answer to this question—part of the answer may involve just how small a segment of the audience needs that background information.
- Needs and interests: To plan your document, you need to know what your audience is going to expect from that document. Imagine how readers will want to use your document. What will they demand from it? For example, imagine you are writing a manual on how to use a new smartphone—what are your readers going to expect to find in it? Do they want to quickly find answers to specific user questions, or do they expect a comprehensive breakdown of each phone function? Make decisions on what readers want to read about as well as what they do not want to read about.
- Culture and values: The difference between culture and values can be difficult to define, but both influence how an audience approaches new ideas. Culture consists of the shared beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, values, and assumptions shared by an identified group of people. It is what sets a group apart from others. Values are the deeply held principles that guide thoughts and actions. Think of culture as the social dynamic that sets the tone, and values as the by-products of the culture that affect decisions.
When analyzing the reader’s culture, remember these five things:
- It is learned: The conscious and unconscious learning we undergo, over time, turns into beliefs that we consider to be valid. We then teach each other that these beliefs are cultural norms. They are expressed in our daily lives as behaviors and actions.
- It is shared: Although you may think of yourself as an individual, you share beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and assumptions with people who grew up or live in similar cultural backgrounds.
- It is dynamic: Culture is dynamic and complex. Culture is fluid rather than static, which means that culture changes every day, in subtle and tangible ways. It is important to pay attention to the cultural context of a communication to understand the depths of its dynamic properties.
- It is systemic: There are patterns of behavior and deeply rooted structural systems which are beneath the waterline. What we see at the top of the iceberg are the behaviors; we do not see what contributes to those behaviors. Changes to the system are slow and gradual; visible changes may not appear until later.
- It is symbolic: Symbols are both verbal and nonverbal in form within cultural systems, and they have a unique way of linking human beings to each other. Humans create meaning between symbols and what they represent; as a result, different interpretations of a symbol can occur in different cultural contexts. (See chapter 1 for an in-depth discussion on cultural diversity and technical writing)
There are two levels of culture and values you should consider: personal and corporate. Personal culture may be created by shared religion, race, ethnicity, region, and/or social groups. A classic example is the culture within a religious group—this can lead to specific types of dress, language, and celebrations. Personal values are the beliefs held by the individual, but they are influenced by culture as well as other factors.
Corporate culture and values are similar, but on a micro level. Corporate culture is created by the employees and how they interact. Within a company, different departments may have their own cultures, in addition to the company’s collective culture. Corporate values are set by the company, and are often reflected in their mission statements, policies, and other structures. These are the principles that guide the company’s decisions and goals. When considering culture and values, identify both personal and corporate factors which can influence the reader.
- Other demographic characteristics: Of course there are many other characteristics about your readers that might influence how you should design and write your document—for example, age groups, type of residence, area of residence, gender, political preferences, and so on. For example, if you write a proposal to raise gas taxes by $.01 to fund speedbumps in neighborhood streets, you will need to consider the neighborhood’s habits (do most residents drive, walk, or take public transportation?), the age of resident (older residents are often on a fixed budget; younger residents may think speedbumps are a nonissue), political preference (some could be against infrastructure spending), and other qualities.
Wide Variability in an Audience
You may realize that, although you have an audience that fits into only one category, its background varies widely. If you write to the lowest common denominator of reader, you are likely to end up with a cumbersome, tedious, book-like report that will turn off the majority of readers. However, if you do not write to that lowest level, you lose that segment of readers. In this situation, most writers compose for the majority of readers and sacrifice the minority readers. Others put the supplemental information in appendixes or insert cross-references to beginners’ books.
2.4 Adapt Your Writing to Meet Your Audience’s Needs
Once you have identified and analyzed your audience, how do you use this information? How do you keep from writing something that may potentially still be incomprehensible or useless to your readers? Draft your document with your audience’s needs in mind, but remember that writing can be refined over many drafts. With each subsequent draft, think more carefully about your readers, and revise and edit your document so that you make technical information more understandable for specific audiences.
The following list contains some strategies to help you make technical information more understandable for differing audiences. You can use these strategies to revise and refine as you begin to put your final document together. However, it is a good idea to be aware of your audience’s needs even in the early stages of your report drafting.
Figure 2: Common Revision Strategies List
Strategies to Revise Content
- Add information readers need to understand your document. Check to see whether certain key information is missing—for example, a critical series of steps from a set of instructions; important background that helps beginners understand the main discussion; definition of key terms. Note that some of this information can be added in the main document body, but you can also add appendices or glossaries—it depends on your audience and document type.
- Omit unnecessary information. Unnecessary information can also confuse and frustrate readers—after all, it is there so they may feel obligated to read it. Technical document are often skimmed for important detail—excess unnecessary information could make the reader miss important information. For example, you can probably chop theoretical discussion from basic instructions.
- Change the technical level of the information. You may have the right information in your document, but it may be pitched at too high or too low a technical level. Are you using terms the reader will be familiar with? Is the sentence structure clear for the audience’s reading comprehension? It may be pitched at the wrong kind of audience—for example, an expert audience rather than a technician audience. This happens often when product-design notes are passed off as instructions. Think about your audience’s education level and familiarity with the topic and terms used, and revise to make sure your content is clear for that audience.
- Add examples to help readers understand. Examples are one of the most powerful ways to connect with audiences, particularly in instructions. Even in a non-instructional text, when you are trying to explain a technical concept, examples are helpful—analogies in particular. If you already have examples, it may help to alter the technical content or level of your examples. Common examples may not be useful to experts; highly technical ones may totally miss your non-specialist readers.
Strategies to Revise Style and Format
- Change the organization of your information. Sometimes, you can have all the right information but arrange it in the wrong way. For example, there can be too much background information up front (or too little) such that certain readers get lost. Other times, background information needs to be placed throughout the main text—for example, in instructions it is sometimes better to feed in chunks of background at the points where they are immediately needed. If the document does not seem to work for the audience, try reorganizing some of the information so that the document is clearer and easier to understand.
- Strengthen transitions and key words. It may be difficult for readers, particularly non-specialists, to see the connections between the main sections of your report, between individual paragraphs and sometimes even between individual sentences. You can make these connections much clearer by adding transition words and by echoing key words more accurately. Words like “therefore,” “for example,” “however” are transition words—they indicate the logic connecting the previous thought to the upcoming thought. You can also strengthen transitions by carefully echoing the same key words. A report describing new software for architects might use the word software several times on the same page or even in the same paragraph. In technical documents, it is not a good idea to vary word choice—use the same words so that people can clearly understand your ideas. Your design choices can also visually connect and transition between sections (see the “Strategies to revise document design” below).
- Write stronger introductions—for the whole document and for major sections. People seem to read with more confidence and understanding when they have the big picture—a view of what is coming, and how it relates to what they have just read. Therefore, writing a strong introduction to the entire document—one that makes clear the topic, purpose, audience, and contents of that document—makes the document easier to understand. In most types of technical documents, each major section includes mini-introductions that indicate the topic of the section and give an overview of the subtopics to be covered in that section to let the reader know what information each section will contain.
- Create topic sentences for paragraphs and paragraph groups. It can help readers immensely to give them an idea of the topic and purpose of a section (a group of paragraphs) and in particular to give them an overview of the subtopics about to be covered. This is the first sentence of the paragraph, and states the main point or idea. The type of topic sentence can vary depending on document type. In an argumentative paragraph, you will make a claim which you will prove through the rest of the paragraph (e.g., reports; proposals; some emails, letters, and memos). In informative documents, the topic sentence will be an overall point which you will explain and back up in the detail sentences (e.g., informative emails, letters, and memos; results section of a report).
Strategies to Revise Sentence Style
- Change sentence style. How you write—at the individual sentence level—can make a difference to the effectiveness of your document. In instructions, for example, using imperative voice and “you” phrasing is vastly more understandable than the passive voice or third-personal phrasing. Passive voice is where one switches the location of the subject and object in a sentence. A simple, active sentence such as “The boy threw the ball” becomes the wordy, passive sentence “The ball was thrown by the boy.” Taking the emphasis off the noun—in this case, the boy—and the action—throw vs was thrown—detracts from meaning of the sentence. Passive, person-less writing is harder to read—put people and action in your writing. There are times to write in passive voice, but technical documents generally need active sentence structure.
Revise to use more active verbs, and less be verb phrasing. All of this makes your writing more direct and immediate. Also, personalizing your writing style and making it more relaxed and informal can make it more accessible.
- Edit for sentence clarity and economy. This is closely related to the previous strategy. Writing style can be so wordy that it is hard or frustrating to read. Sentence length matters. An average of somewhere between 15 and 25 words per sentence is about right; sentences over 30 words are often mistrusted. When you revise your rough drafts, put them on a diet—go through a draft line by line trying to reduce the overall word, page, or line count by 20 percent. Try it as an experiment and see how you do. You will find a lot of fussy, unnecessary detail and inflated phrasing you can chop out. Eliminate excess words and phrases; state ideas as simply as possible while still providing necessary detail.
Strategies to Revise Document Design
- Add and vary graphics. For non-specialist audiences, you may want to use more, simpler graphics. Graphics for specialists are often more detailed and technical. In technical documents for non-specialists, there also tend to be more “decorative” graphics—ones that are attractive but serve no strict informative or persuasive purpose at all.
- Break text up or consolidate text into meaningful, usable chunks. For non-specialist readers, you may need to have shorter paragraphs. A six to eight-line paragraph is the usual maximum. This is because a paragraph should contain content about a single ideas; breaking up paragraphs into smaller ideas can help the reader more easily understand the individual topics, while also making the text less (visually) overwhelming. Notice how much longer paragraphs are in technical documents written for specialists—the ideas do not need to be broken down as much visually for a specialist to understand the content.
- Add cross-references to important information. In technical information, you can help readers by pointing them to background sources. If you cannot fully explain a topic at a certain time in a document, point to a section, chapter, or external source where the information is located. One can also include glossary of terms or appendices at the end of a document with extra information that is related, but not 100% necessary, to understand the document’s content.
- Use headings and lists. Readers can be intimidated by dense paragraphs and “walls of text” uncut by anything other than a blank line now and then. Search your rough drafts for ways to incorporate headings—look for changes in topic or subtopic. Search your paragraphs for listings of items—these can be made into vertical lists, or look for paired listings such as terms and their definitions—these can be made into two-column lists. Of course, be careful not to force this type of formatting, and do not overdo it.
- Use special typography, and work with margins, line length, line spacing, type size, and type style. Depending on your audience, you can modify the format by making the lines shorter or longer (adjusting margins), using larger or smaller type sizes, and other such tactics. Typically, sans-serif fonts, such as Ariel, are useful for online readers. Serif fonts, such as Time New Roman, are useful for print texts. (See chapter 5 for more information about document design)
By now you should be able to see that many of the decisions you make as a technical writer depend on who will read your report. From content, to language, to layout, every aspect of your communication must keep your readers’ needs in mind.
We will spend time later in this book expanding our discussion of audience as well as document design–an important consideration that can help tremendously in making your document professional and easy to read.
Material in this chapter was adapted from the works listed below. The material was edited for tone, content, and localization.