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Audience Analysis

Understand your audience (photo courtesy paintMonkey on Flickr | CC BY 2.0)

Understand your audience (photo courtesy paintMonkey on Flickr | CC BY 2.0)

My dad is in his first Creative Writing class, as I’ve mentioned before. His first assignment was to write something for the class to review. The assignment was vague, but its destiny was clear: the whole class would pass judgment on whatever it was he wrote.

To make matters worse, half the students in the class aren’t even writers — they’re the editors of the school’s literary magazine. With nothing on the line, nothing new and genuine to contribute, their whole role in the class is to tear down the hard-working, soul-baring writers. The monsters!

Ahem. You can see my bias there. It would be a frightening scenario for me, and this being Dad’s first try at this, he got a little nervous. He’s a smart guy, though, and so he faced his fear by rushing to get his story written early so he could get some early feedback, and still have time to rewrite and revise.

He decided to make his something a slice-of-life scene. He picked a recent event — a big blizzard we had over Christmas Eve — and tried to capture the experience, in vivid detail. He wanted desperately¬†to get it right, so he used every trick he knew to write the best scene he possibly could.

Then he took it to class, where the poets complained about his use of language, where the girls complained about his gender bias, and where the editors complained about his choice of genre. None of those were things he’d been working on, so this feedback caught him totally off-guard.

He did the right thing, though: he listened carefully, took detailed notes, and then on his way home he called me up to ask what to do about all those things.

A Public Speaking Process

I spent a little time giving him some specific advice for specific complaints, and a lot more time giving him some general encouragement, but the real solution came from his own experience. When we got to talking about it, he realized he’d been writing something that his class had no interest in reading. It would have made a great blog post, but the editors were looking for a story.

As soon as we had the issue in that context, he understood it completely. After all, he’s an amazing public speaker, and his problem was one he addresses every time he has any presentation to give. The solution is Audience Analysis. Before long, Dad was teaching me how to fix his problem.

He explained his whole process for preparing a speech. He always starts with a topic that he has something to say about, he spends a little time figuring out the thesis sentence that will direct how he talks about that topic, and then he moves directly to audience analysis. Once he’s got those three issues resolved, he said, there’s no need for an outline, no need to memorize a script. Once he’s got those three issues resolved, the speech is done.

Making the Connection

It’s the same in writing. I’ve talked before about picking topics, and I talk a lot about picking the right form for your document. All that leaves, then, is audience analysis. When Dad’s preparing a speech, he’s got some key issues he always has to consider.¬†What is the occasion for the speech? Why is the audience assembling? What do they expect to take home from the speech? What kind of speech do they expect? What kind of speaker do they expect? What is their common interest? What does he have in common with them? What is their education level and interest level in his topic?

Your job as a writer is to get in the habit of asking those same sort of questions. It doesn’t matter if you write a fantastic slice-of-life — if you’re presenting it to people looking for a story, they’re going to be bored. And I can tell you from experience that a really, really awesome fantasy story will earn you nothing but blank looks and a cruel nickname if your audience isn’t into that sort of thing.

Essentially, that’s what “negotiating a connection” is all about. Every document you write needs to bridge a distance between you and a reader. Audience analysis can be a formal or an informal process, a conscious or an unconscious act, and really it happens automatically every time you sit down to write.

The problem is, unless you’re already an expert, the automatic version you’re doing is probably informal, and probably unconscious, and (to add a new element), probably insufficient, too. At best, you make more work for your readers when you just toss something out and leave it to them to “figure it out.” At worst, you can make yourself look like a fool (or, depending what you’re writing, even get somebody hurt).

Your Questions

So what do you need to know? It depends on the document type. It also depends on your skill level. There’s some stuff you can do perfectly without even trying, but there’s other things you stumble over. Maybe you’ve got great voice, but your metaphors fall flat. Maybe you can spin a good tale, but you can’t get the right level of detail when you’re giving instructions. Whatever your weaknesses are, you need to come up with the questions that will help you compensate, and connect with your audience.

Here’s a few common questions, that wouldn’t make a bad checklist any time you’re starting on a new project.

What’s my purpose?

Are you trying to entertain, or to educate? Are you requesting assistance, or passing out orders? Often a single document is trying to do multiple things (like a blog post that’s trying to educate, but in an entertaining manner). In those cases, it helps to formally consider your purpose to help you get the balance right, and make sure the document achieves all of your purposes in sufficient measure.

What’s the best document type to achieve my purpose?

Should you write a blog post or a short story? Should you put your instructions in a structured tutorial, in a printed memo, or in an email? It helps to have your purpose figured out in advance, because that can help you analyze which document type will serve you best. If your purpose is to convey an experience, a blog post can do more for you than a short story (as Dad found out in class). If your purpose is to make sure a hundred employees all perform a new procedure in the same way, a formal document is more likely to get their attention than an email.

How formal should this document be?

Some documents call for a conversational tone, but others need strictly formal tone. I know writers who think it’s a matter of personal taste, but the tone of your document should always be driven by your purpose — you should consider what you want this document to do, and what tone will best achieve that result with your anticipated audience. Sometimes you need perfect sentence structure, sometimes you need idiomatic language that would make Strunk and White wince in pain. Just make sure you’re doing the right one.

How long should this document be?

Again, it’s not a question of personal preference, but of audience effectiveness. You need to understand your topic, and understand your audience, and write a document that’s the right balance of length (meaning, hopefully, useful detail), and readability (meaning, in almost all cases, brevity). If your audience just craves the information you’re providing, spin a good long yarn. If your audience has the attention span of a two-year-old, you’ve got to pack as much information as you can into a tiny space, and make it pop.

Maybe that sounds more like prewriting than audience analysis, but the answers to all of those questions (except maybe the first), can only be found through audience analysis. You’ll have to know how interested your audience is, how educated they are, how much background information they’ve already got, and how they’re likely to respond to the information you’re presenting.

I’ve said it again and again, but writing is a mental game. If you just take the time to think it through, to really consider who your audience is and how they’re going to respond, you’ll be a better writer. If you’ve done that, then by the time you’re putting words on the page, you’re already putting the right words on the page. You’ll give them a story they actually want…and save yourself some embarrassment.

3 Responses to “Audience Analysis”

  1. Trish Pogue says:

    This is a great post. As I was reading it I was thinking of some letters that I am preparing. I need to consider who I’m writing to and why. With that information I will know what words to use to persuade them to part with something for a good cause. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  2. Aaron Pogue says:

    Y’know, Trish, I meant this post as almost an aside, but as I’ve been working on the posts that come after, I keep pointing back to it, again and again.

    When it comes right down to it, audience analysis is what makes everything else work. Accurate descriptions, effective punctuation, good use of metaphors, argument and persuasion and interesting storytelling all depend on you knowing your audience.

    So I’m glad to hear it worked. I think this is going to end up an incredibly important post.

  3. Dave Doolin says:

    Scribing up your next article on WiaW. This needed to be linked to.