Question to ask: Who is the Audience?

Creative Commons License photo credit: David Boyle in DC

Which questions are the most important to ask when given a writing task?

To me, “who is the audience” is absolutely number one.

Who is the audience?

For a tech writer, the more you know about your audience, the the better you’re able to figure stuff out: What are appropriate word choices? What’s the appropriate level of detail? Which terms do I need to define?

And it doesn’t stop there. I find that thinking carefully about the audience helps me answer questions that don’t, at first glance, seem related to audience.

For example: How much white space do you need? How scannable must it be?

The answers may be different if you’re writing for a NASA engineer who’s training for the next Mars mission vs. a college student surfing the Net late at night after the bars close.

How do I know who the audience is?

Sometimes the best answer you get about the audience is “our customers.” That’s the audience? Great.

Your next stop is at the marketing department, because they know who your customers are. They probably know in excruciating detail, with charts, graphs, and cute names for all the categories.

Ok, so Marketing tells you that most of your readers are white women in their 50s, married, making 40-75K a year, with high school diplomas and kids in college. (Think I’m kidding? I’m not. Those Marketing people get in deep.)

What do I do next?

Once I’ve got a good idea about the audience, I like to think in terms of personas. Now, this isn’t a post about personas, but I’ll give it a few lines, because they really can be helpful.

I make up a person who fits the description, give him or her a name that’s typical for  the given sex, age, and sub-culture. For instance, a likely name for this white woman in her 50’s might be Diane. It’s less likely to be Edna, Skye, or Fukuoka, so I won’t use those.

Then I make up some background material for her (especially some that makes it clear why she’s a customer).

What car does she drive? What does she do on Sundays? What does she care about? How does she use my product?

And then…

I write for her.

When I have choices to make, I make them with her in mind. When I know that I’m writing for Diane, then it’s much easier to answer questions about level of detail and which tone to use.

NOTE: Research is far from clear that writing for personas actually improves your product or makes it easier for your audience to read! But it DOES make it easier to write, and that’s good thing.

So I say that “Who’s the audience” should always be the very first question a writer asks. Am I wrong? What’s the next question to ask?


Question to ask: How will the reader get here? (This is my post and may be listed in the auto-generated posts below)

Some positive research on personas in design

A contrary opinion


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