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Know Thy Audience

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Knowing your audience – Any successful content creator on Elance will tell you it's one of the cornerstones of writing great content for yourself, your business or your clients. Margot Lester, owner of The Word Factory stops by the Elance Blog once again to share her best insights on learning more about the most important group of people: your readers.

Writers are often told to write with the audience in mind but are rarely told how to do it. The solution is writing like a reader.

Bringing awareness to your own experience as a reader is the first step. What makes you want to read a piece? How do writers hold your interest? What types of details do you crave?

Now you can start focusing on your audience and what they want to know, versus what you want/need to tell them. Here’s how:

Describe Your Reader
Start by identifying your audience down to the smallest workable group. “Anyone with a pulse” isn’t going to be effective. “iPad users who need to file a health insurance claim online” or “Busy moms looking for play groups where they can drop off a child at the last minute” are better. Maybe you can even narrow it down a person you know who seems like the ideal audience.

Then determine what you know about this audience. What are their values? Their concerns? And what questions might they have about your product or service?

Several years ago, I was asked to write a faith-based dating advice column for a major online personals site. Great opportunity, but not exactly my sweet spot. Before I started writing, I learned all I could about my readers, including reviewing the questions they’d sent in, to get a feel for their issues and concerns. This helped me understand who was reading my column and what they cared about. The audience was “people working hard to align faith and romance who didn’t feel they could share their concerns with friends and family.”

Figuring this out also told me how they wanted to hear my advice: “a compassionate and tolerant voice giving them ways of thinking through their situations without pressuring them to arrive at a particular conclusion”. I couldn’t give the usual “do it my way” advice. Instead, I had to give people advice on how to advise themselves. Had I missed this subtle point, I might have had a “one and done” career in this area. As it happens, I probably wrote a hundred of these columns.

Predict Their Questions & Concerns

The most valuable writing answers readers’ questions and addresses their concerns. This usually involves some guess work unless you’ve got amazing market research at your finger tips. But even a stab in the dark is better than no stab at all.

Write down a few things you think your reader might ask you. It’s a safe bet that most readers will at some point ask a variation of “What’s in it for me?”, “Why should I care?”, or “What if I don’t?”. Feel free to use one these as a starting point. Still, develop three or four more specific questions related to your readers and topic.

A few years ago, I was writing a piece for a local museum about health issues related to coffee consumption and the environmental impact of coffee farming. Based on what we knew about museum visitors and members, the program director and I came up with these questions to guide my writing:
 

  • Is all coffee alike?
  • Does coffee have any health benefits?
  • Is it true decaf isn’t totally decaffeinated?
  • Will it really turn my teeth brown or give me an ulcer if I drink too much?
  • Can you really become addicted to coffee?
  • Why is shade-grown, fair trade coffee better than the alternative?
  • What brands meet these criteria?
  • How young is too young for my child to begin drinking coffee?
     

We’re all bombarded with content from morning till night, making us more discerning than ever about what we choose to consume. If your piece isn’t addressing readers’ needs right from the top, they’ll move on to something else that does.

Define Your Purpose
Make sure you know exactly what you want your audience to think, feel, or do after they’ve finished reading. This seems obvious, but so many writers jump right in without taking a second to set a goal beyond simply finishing and filing the piece. If you’re going to invest the time in writing, invest a little more time in knowing why you’re doing it.

Here are the goals we developed for a short article on a digital library of yearbooks at a local university:

We wanted our readers to think that:
 

  • This is a great way to relive my college experience.
  • I want to use this.
  • Cool technology makes books accessible to the masses.
  • I want to support this effort financially.
     

We wanted our readers to do the following:
 

  • Make a donation to the library to support digitization projects.
  • Visit the digital library [[online?]] and leave a comment.
  • Learn what else the library’s doing with a larger Internet archives project.
     

Notice how easy it is to turn these goals into copy. Some can be stated literally. Others can be expressed merely by providing the information behind the idea. For example, if we want readers to know that “cool technology makes books accessible to the masses” all we have to do is explain what technology that is and how it works. This might even be a great lead for the piece. Information about giving could come at the end after people understand and have a strong sense of wanting to participate in something interesting and important.

A well-defined purpose helps you develop a strong main idea and details to support it so your writing will be more effective and results-oriented.

Hone Your Main Idea & Details
With a clear idea of the audience, their needs and your purpose, revisit your main idea. Does it still work? If not, tweak it. Then, using your purpose and audience questions, determine or hone the details (in the form of evidence, explanations and examples) that support that main idea. You don’t necessarily have to answer all the questions, but you want to at least consider every one.

Start Writing
With all these issues ironed out, you can begin writing. What? I can hear you saying, “C’mon, Margs. We’re supposed to do all this before we actually start writing?” I know it seems like extra time in what is usually an already compressed process. But I promise you’ll save more time later if you invest the time now. Getting the foundational issues nailed down before you start drafting will help you draft faster, revise better and publish sooner.

While you’re drafting and revising, focus on the “style” issues that seal the deal for your reader:

Voice: There are a million different voices, from authoritative (like an expert in the field) to compassionate (like a writer who’s been there, too), to funny (like a witty pal) and on and on. The “right” voice is the one your readers want to hear, not necessarily the one you always use. Sometimes I try on several voices before I find the one that feels right. Before the faith-based assignment, I wrote another advice column for a general audience. I used my own voice for that, dishing out sage advice with a side of Southernisms like y’all, honey and idioms like “tighter than a possum on a trashcan”:

The fact is, darlin’, this man is telling you six ways to Sunday that he isn’t the man for you. He’s disrespectful. He’s secretive. He’s unkind. He’s just too chicken to call it off himself. It may not a burning bush, but sugar, this man’s behavior is a sign – a sign that he’s not the one for you.

But when I wrote about commercial development on and around airports (called aerotropoli) for a Forbes India/Kenan-Flagler Business School project, the tone was more formal and authoritative.

The nation’s airports are evolving from transportation and supply chain-focused areas into mixed-use commercial centers meeting many consumer and business needs. These include, among others, hospitality, entertainment, retail, office, meetings, exhibitions and conventions. Real estate professionals are thus taking a more strategic look at emerging opportunities airport areas offer.

Word Choice: A highly technical article for an audience of experts will probably contain a lot of jargon and specialized lingo. But that won’t be nearly as effective if you’re covering the same topic for a group of lay people. Look back over those questions your readers may have to help you remember their level of expertise in and exposure to your topic, and choose words that meet your audience where they are. For example, I used to write for a cancer center. When I wrote for physicians, I could confidently use a term like “cell apoptosis”. But when I wrote about the same topic for a general audience, I’d change it to “programmed cell death” to help my readers.

Though all of these methods will be helpful to you, writing for an audience isn’t really a technique; it’s just writing. Without readers, most of us wouldn’t write at all. The more we think of readers as our partners, our inspiration, and people helping us get our work done—and less as a challenge or an impediment to personal expression—the more we’ll enjoy writing and the more our readers will enjoy reading it.

Questions, comments, observations? Email me at margot@thewordfactory.com.

About the Author:
Margot Carmichael Lester is the owner of The Word Factory, a content and creative company in Carrboro, N.C. She’s currently working on Be A Better Writer: Corporate Edition following on the heels of Be A Better Writer: Power Tools for Young Writers, which won a gold medal from the Independent Publishers Association in 2007.