1.4: Analyzing and Adapting to Your Audience

Learning Objectives

  • Explore the purpose of audience analysis
  • Use tips to adapt your communication to your audience

Why Should You Analyze Your Audience?

The audience for your communications refers to your readers, listeners, viewers, and/or users. Audience analysis is a critical step in planning your communication.

Consider these questions about your audience:

  • Is your audience internal (within your company) or external (such as clients, suppliers, customers, other stakeholders)?
  • Are they lateral to you (at the same position or level), upstream from you (management), or downstream from you (employees, subordinates)?
  • Who is the primary audience?
  • Who are the secondary audiences?

The answers to these questions create an understanding of your audience that will help in crafting a message that is designed to effectively communicate specifically to them.

Keep in mind that your different audiences will also have a specific purpose in reading your document. Consider what their various purposes might be, and how you can best help them achieve their purpose. What do they already know? What do they need to know?

Audience Purpose for Reading
Executives Make decisions
Supervising Experts/Managers Advise decision makers; direct subordinates
Technical Experts/Co-workers Implement decisions; advise
Lay People/Public/Clients Become informed; choose options; make decisions

When you consider what the audience is expected to do with the information you provide, it will help you craft your message effectively. You should also remember that technical writing often has a long “life-span”: a document you write today could be filed away and reviewed months or even years down the road.

Some companies develop audience profiles to help guide communications. This is a good exercise whenever you have something to communicate, especially if the information is complex. Here are some questions to consider as part of the audience profile:

Developing an Audience Profile

  • Who are your primary readers? (specific names and titles, or general roles)
  • Are they above you in the organizational hierarchy? Lateral? Subordinate? Outside of your organization?
  • Who else might read this document? Who are the secondary readers?
  • Do you know the audience’s attitude about the topic?
  • How might cultural differences affect the audience’s expectations and interpretations?
  • How much technical background does the audience have?
  • How much do they already know about the topic?
  • What situation gave rise to this document?

How Can You Adapt to Your Audience?

Once you’ve 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  accordingly.

The following tips are about making technical information more understandable for nonspecialist audiences, and they refer to information you will 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 writing.

Tip #1: Provide the right information for your audience

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.

Omit information your readers do not need. Unnecessary information can also confuse and frustrate readers. After all, it’s there so they may feel obligated to read it. For example, you can probably cut theoretical discussion from basic instructions.

Change the level of the information you currently have. You may have the right information but it may be “pitched” at too high or too low a technical level. It may be pitched at the wrong kind of 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, for example, when you are trying to explain a technical concept, examples will help, analogies in particular.

Change the level of your examples. You may be using examples, but the technical content or level may not be appropriate to your readers. Simple examples may not be useful to experts; highly technical ones may totally miss your nonspecialist readers.

Tip #2: Guide your reader through your writing

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) so that certain readers get lost. Sometimes, background information needs to be consolidated into the main information; for example, in instructions it’s sometimes better to feed in chunks of background at the points where they are immediately needed.

Strengthen transitions. It may be difficult for readers, particularly nonspecialists, 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 prose, it may not be a good idea to vary word choice so consider using the same words if this will help avoid confusion.

Write stronger introductions, both 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’s coming, and how it relates to what they’ve just read. Therefore, write a strong introduction to the entire document, one that makes the topic, purpose, audience, and contents of that document clear. And for each major section within your document, use mini-introductions that indicate at least the topic of the section and give an overview of the subtopics to be covered in that section.

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.

Tip #3: Craft effective sentences

Change sentence style and length. How you write at the individual sentence level can make a big difference. In instructions, for example, using imperative voice and “you” phrasing is more understandable than the passive voice or third-personal phrasing. Personalizing your writing style and making it more relaxed and informal can make it more accessible and understandable. Passive, person-less writing is harder to read—put people and action in your writing. Similarly, go for active verbs as opposed to be verb phrasing. All of this makes your writing more direct and immediate; this means that it is easier for your readers.

Edit for sentence clarity and economy. Often, writing style can be so wordy that it is hard or frustrating to read. When you revise your rough drafts, 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’ll likely find a lot of fussy, unnecessary detail and inflated phrasing you can chop out.

Tip #4: Make your document visually appealing

Add and vary graphics. For nonspecialist audiences, you may want to use more graphic and simpler ones too. Graphics for specialists are more detailed, more technical. In technical documents for nonspecialists, 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 nonspecialist readers, you may need to have shorter paragraphs.

Add cross-references to important information. In technical information, you can help nonspecialist readers by pointing them to background sources. If you can’t fully explain a topic on the spot, point to a section or chapter where they can find more information.

Use headings and lists. Readers can be intimidated by big dense paragraphs of technical writing, uncut by anything other than a blank line now and then. Search your rough drafts for ways to incorporate heading and look for changes in topic or subtopic. Search your technical writing for listings of things since these can be made into vertical lists. 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 special formatting, and don’t overdo it.

Use special typography, and work with margins, line length, line spacing, type size, and type style.

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.

References & Attributions


Content on this page is adapted from  Annemarie Hamlin, Chris Rubio, and Michele DeSilva, Central Oregon Community College, from Online Technical Writing by David McMurrey – CC: BY 4.0


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Writing in a Technical Environment (First Edition) Copyright © 2022 by Centennial College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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