Know Your Audience: Writing In the 21st Century
December 1, 2011 § Leave a comment
The other day I was talking with some businesspeople about the writing on their website. They were asking me how it might be improved. My first question to them was, “Who is your audience?” “We are just starting out,” they answered. “We have not asked the question of audience yet.”
That was their mistake. Audience should be the first thing you consider when writing text for a website. It is the first thing you should consider when writing any piece of writing.
Think about the various writing you do over the course of a day. An email to a friend has a clear audience. You know your friend, can imagine her reading your email. You tailor your words to her. A text to your daughter has an audience that you know well, too. You probably use different words and shift your tone when you write to her. If you make to-do lists or keep a diary, you write to yourself, and use the words you like to read.
Likely, you do not struggle over these types of writing. You do not ask yourself if a word is appropriate or a paragraph is focused. Why? Because you are comfortable with your audience and you understand their expectations.
You also know how to shift your writing to different audiences. When you write a direct and firm “come home now!” text to your daughter, you are employing writing devices you know (or hope!) will be effective. When you ask your friend if her cold is better and if she had fun at the movies the other night, you are using writing appropriate for a good friend, asking her questions and offering support.
It is when we have to shift our writing to an unfamiliar audience that trouble sets in. Some people who write very effective texts (their daughters open up the front door minutes after hearing from them) and whose emails cheer their friends (“thanks so much for thinking of me!”) call themselves “poor writers” when faced with something new to write—or someone new to write to. Why? Because they find office memos torture, or they get poor grades on their school papers, or their websites do not attract traffic.
Business plans, for instance, frustrate many a start-up entrepreneur who struggles to describe the benefits of her product. The real culprit is often the audience. Or, the lack of one. Like the business managers who did not think about the audience for their website, she does not imagine a person reading what she is writing. She does not know the possible investors like she knows her friends and daughter. She forgets to picture those busy executives scanning documents over coffee, trying to decide where to put their money.
But if the writer pictures an audience—even if it is “generic executive”—on the other side of the screen, the writing comes easier.
Writing is always an act of communication, and the more concrete understanding you have of whom you are communicating with, the better your writing will be.
The new forms of writing borne in the 21st century all have built-in and specific audiences. On Facebook, your friends are your audience. On Twitter, it’s your followers. Blogs are written for specific audiences, too: fellow LEGO enthusiasts, or your extended family, or newshounds. The best blogs speak directly to their readers (“What do you think of this? Send me comments!”). Websites target particular groups, be it consumers you hope to attract, your neighbors or mothers of two year olds who do not sleep through the night. They include their audience in their words, too (“Regular readers will remember our story from last week…”).
One effect these new forms have had on all writing is to break down artificial boundaries separating writers from readers. New writing forms do not try to speak to everyone and for all time, as you might have been taught to do in your school papers. That was always a myth (only the teacher read them!). I bid the myth of the “objective, universal” audience farewell. I welcome new forms of writing that invite writers and their audiences to interact with one another. They make most of us more comfortable expressing ourselves.
Writer’s Block is what happens when you do not have a clear idea of your audience, or are scared by your audience. There is no difference between texts to daughters, emails to friends, blog posts to subscribers and business plans to investors when it comes to audience: each has one.
Always start writing by imagining your audience. Who do you want to visit your website? If you are writing an email to your boss, use what you know about him to craft your sentences, just like you do when you email your friend.
Tailor your words to what you know about your audience. Do not pretend you are writing for everybody or some objective, timeless “reader.”
If you are writing for a large group, use what you know about this group generally. Are they concerned about the economy? Do they watch network TV? Do they buy a lot of tech gadgets? Do they live in your town? Do they understand specialized language in your field of expertise? Adapt your tone and voice accordingly, as you would in a text to a friend.
If you are suffering from “writer’s block,” it might be because your audience is intimidating. In this case, imagine a different, less intimidating audience to get you unblocked. Imagine you are writing that business plan for your sick friend. Imagine that description of your book is a text to your daughter. Change your imagined audience and the words might rush out of you. From there, you can adjust your writing to your “actual” audience.