Know Your Audience

Before you say it or write it, think about the listener and reader. How do they want to hear it and read it?


The starting point for all communication is becoming aware of the intended audience and approaching them on an appropriate level. So many times, people get themselves into difficult situations because they did not consider the audience’s reaction to the message. In your career you’ll often have to think about who your audience is and you goal. For example, the conversation during your initial panel interview will be very different than the one in your exit interview, and your elevator pitch will be different depending on who you give it to.

Anyone could make a list of controversies that started as the result of an insensitive remark or one that was not well thought out. In addition to considering what the message says, as a writer (and speaker) you need to consider how the ideas are expressed.

To ensure successful written communication, first think about the people who will read it. By putting yourself in their shoes, you will gain insight into what they want to know and how they want to be addressed. If you are writing a high level paper about electrical engineering, you can assume that professional electrical engineers will be reading it, allowing you to use more advanced industry vernacular.

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece has an inscription that cautions each person to “know yourself.” Improving communications encourages people to know thy audience.

Sales managers are no strangers to the concept of “put yourself in the buyer’s position.” It means that the seller (in this case, you as writer) will consider what features and benefits to present to the person on the receiving end. Word choice and message length (think: brevity) will show your recipient how much thought and care you put into crafting your message.

Audiences are composed of people, all of whom have different perceptions. When writing graduation quotes, the audience is pretty clear. But often, these questions will yield a variety of answers, simply because perceptions differ:

  • What is a lot of money?
  • What is tall?
  • What is hot?

It’s a fun exercise to ask these questions in a diverse group. Notice how responses differ, based on people’s life experiences, income levels, educational backgrounds — anyone could increase this list. In fact, try asking a group to define the word “hit.” Someone from a music-oriented town like Nashville, Tennessee, might say “a Top 40 single”, while someone from Las Vegas, Nevada might say “another card at the blackjack table.” The point is that by showing the audience that you thought about these factors before approaching them, you’re demonstrating that you care about them. What could be a better compliment?

To avoid having messages misperceived, misconstrued or misunderstood, choose language that will be understood by most (preferably all) of your recipients. If you are writing about clean eating for an audience that does not know much about nutrition, you don’t want to use highly advanced medical terms. Think of the individuals who comprise your audience before you communicate with them. Ask yourself:

  • Who is the audience?
  • Why am I writing/presenting? What do I want my audience to know or do?
  • What do they already know? What is their level of understanding?
  • What is their likely attitude about the topic?
  • How can I honor my audience’s needs and perspectives?
  • What does my audience want to achieve?
  • What medium will support the message the best — e-mail, letter, memo, report, proposal, etc.?
  • What format or layout will appeal to the audience and support the message?

Then, as the final step before beginning to write, organize your ideas. It’s a true sign of respect for your audience. Show that you are concerned for their time and attention. Plan to present the information that will make the most sense to them. Your organizational pattern may take any form (chronological, inside to outside, top to bottom, etc.). However you deliver the information, just make sure that someone new to your subject area will “get it” without having to strain the brain to do so. For example, if you’re writing about finance, don’t write so that you have to be an employee at Morgan Stanley or controller to understand it.

With all this in place, you’re ready to put fingers to keyboard, or (how dated to say…) pen to paper. Approach the task with a positive attitude, a clear purpose and straightforward organization, and you’ll be on the path to achieving your goal.