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The audience of a technical document—or any piece of writing for that matter—is the intended or potential reader or readers. For most technical writers, this is the most important consideration in planning, writing, and reviewing a document. You "adapt" your writing to meet the needs, interests, and background of the readers who will be reading your writing.

The principle seems absurdly simple and obvious. It's much the same as telling someone, "Talk so the person in front of you can understand what you're saying." It's like saying, "Don't talk rocket science to your six-year-old." Do we need a course in that? Doesn't seem like it. But, in fact, lack of audience analysis and adaptation is one of the root causes of most of the problems you find in professional, technical documents—particularly instructions where it surfaces most glaringly.


Types of Audiences

One of the first things to do when you analyze an audience is to identify its type (or types—it's rarely just one type). The common division of audiences into categories is as follows:

Audience Analysis

It's important to determine which of the four categories just discussed the potential readers of your document belong to, but that's not the end of it. Audiences, regardless of category, must also be analyzed in terms of characteristics such as the following:

Audience analysis can get complicated by at least two other factors: mixed audience types for one document, wide variability within audience, and unknown audiences.

Audience-Analysis Example

If you are taking a technical-writing course, you may be expected to append an audience description to your technical documents. Here's an example:

Note to Instructor: These instructions are intended for individuals who want to streamline their calculations using Microsoft Excel using macros to efficiently compute their data. They understand how to input data into Microsoft Excel and have basic knowledge of the Microsoft Office Suite. They are comfortable using Windows software and are comfortable with basic arithmetic abilities to verify their calculations and check for logic errors in computing.

Audience Adaptation

Okay! So you've analyzed your audience until you know them better than you know yourself. What good is it? How do you use this information? How do you keep from writing something that will still be incomprehensible or useless to your readers?

The business of writing to your audience may have a lot to do with in-born talent, intuition, and even mystery. But there are some controls you can use to have a better chance to connect with your readers. The following "controls" have mostly to do with making technical information more understandable for nonspecialist audiences:

These are the kinds of "controls" that professional technical writers use to finetune their work and make it as readily understandable as possible. And in contrast, it's the accumulation of lots of problems in these areas—even seemingly trivial ones—that add up to a document being difficult to read and understand. Nonprofessionals often question why professional writers and editors insist on bothering with such seemingly picky, trivial, petty details in writing—but they all add up! It reminds me of the ancient Chinese execution method called "death by a thousand cuts." However, in this case, it would be "perplexity by a thousand minor problems."

Audience Situation

It is not enough merely to define a specific audience for a technical-writing project. You need to know the situation in which this audience operates—what its goals are: solve a problem, enable improvement, support decision making? Situations for report writing are probably as infinite as human social relations. A report situation involves an audience needing or requesting a certain type of report (document) for its specific needs and uses.

Summary of latest developments. In this situation, an organization (for-profit company or government entity) or individual needs a summary of the "latest" on research and development in some field (technological, medical, architectural, astronomical, etc.). The information must be readable by people not specialized in the field and not slanted for or against the research and development. The information must enable the recipients to make decisions.

Guide on task performance. In this next situation, an organization needs some sort of guide for staff doing certain tasks. The situation might include doing a seminar at the organization and leaving the guide for staff future reference. (This should not be a typical company policy and procedures.)

Special-interest promotion. In this situation, a national or state interest group wants to promote something about its special interest (for example, green roofs). They need good writers to develop a guide or white paper to present their information convincingly.

Understandable technical summary for students. In this next situation, high school teachers or college teachers of introductory science, medical technology, engineering courses need a unit developed that will be effective with non-majoring freshmen and sophomores.

Understandable technical summary for clients. In this situation, counselors and advisers (high school, college, government agencies) need in-depth but understandable information on a topic so thay can knowledgeably advise clients (students, citizens).

Understandable technical summary for citizens. Similar to the preceding situation, legislators (local, state, national) need in-depth but understandable information on a topic so thay can speak on this topic intelligently and knowledgably to citizens and other legislators.

I would appreciate your thoughts, reactions, criticism regarding this chapter: your responseDavid McMurrey