Do you take the time to define the audience for whom you’re writing? Writers who don’t do this before writing may produce content that doesn’t hit the mark. On this blog, and in my financial blogging book, I suggest how to narrow down your audience. However, I’m always looking for new approaches. That’s why I was intrigued by the chapter on “How to Define Your Audience” in How to Write and Present Technical Information by Charles H. Sides.
Here’s how Sides approaches this challenge:
My systematic method for audience definition is divided into four processes: (1) defining who the readers are; (2) defining what the readers know; (3) defining what the readers need to know; (4) defining what the readers will do with the information.
Sides talks about his processes in the context of the technology industry where, as he says, “Because of the daily technological advances in high-tech industries, you are often writing in a vacuum without specific knowledge about your intended readers.” That challenge isn’t unique to technology. Financial writers often lack contact with their targets, a challenge I address in “How to capture investment client questions when you lack access?”
Let’s look at the Sides method in the context of financial services.
1. Define who your readers are
For example, are your readers potential clients? If so, are they individuals or institutions? Or, are you targeting the press, social media influencers, referral sources, students, professors, or members of your own organization? Are your readers members of one narrowly defined group, or are you targeting a mix of groups?
As Sides says, “Readers come to a document with different backgrounds, different levels of knowledge about the subject, and different needs for the information that is provided.” He suggests that, among other things, you look at the professional and educational backgrounds of your readers. For example, a recent college graduate who majored in finance will respond differently from a recent graduate with a Ph.D. in Japanese history who will respond differently from a Japanese history Ph.D. who has also earned the CFA credential and worked for an investment management firm (like me).
2. Define what your audience knows about your topic
Your readers’ educational and professional backgrounds will give you a general idea of what they know about your topic. However, they may not know many specifics about the narrow topic that you’re writing about.
In the tech context, Sides says, “they may know a good deal about game-design architecture, but would need to be led clearly through a report about a new kind of virtual reality (VR) headset that your firm has developed.” In an investment context, an international stock analyst is knowledgeable about non-U.S. stocks in general, but may not know about the frontier market where your firm is pioneering investments.
Sides suggests that you ask yourself how much background is necessary to introduce your topic. On the one hand, you don’t want to bore or insult your readers with overly basic information. On the other hand, you may lose many readers if you don’t provide some basic information. I’ve written about how to manage this challenge in “How to make one quarterly letter fit clients at different levels of sophistication.”
3. Define what your audience needs to know
Sides suggests two useful questions for this step:
- What information does your audience need from your report or paper to do their jobs better?
- Will the information that’s included need a technical slant or a managerial slant, a marketing or public relations slant?
Your answers to the first question will help you to delete unnecessary information. Your answers to the second question will help you focus your writing.
4. Define what your audience will do with your information
For example, will your readers use the information to perform professional tasks, such as picking specific investments? Or, are they simply using your information to increase their knowledge of the field?
Sides concludes that “We might not always tell readers what they want to hear, but we should always give them what they need—and should want—to know.” To achieve that, it helps to define your audience.
I like his philosophy.
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