Do You Know What Your Audience Doesn’t Know?

Figure reading to audience

Readers of this site already know that I’ve recently moved from the US to Australia.

While we settle in, we’re staying with my in-laws out in the country. Our neighbors are sheep and goats, but as long as there’s broadband Internet, I’m happy. And there is!

Now, my in-laws have a Victorian-age, steam-driven computing machine, otherwise known as a 12 year-old Dell.

Rather than tempt fate by using it regularly, the first thing I did on arrival was set up a wi-fi network so that I could connect to the Net via laptop and phone.

But then a funny thing happened

A few days after we arrived, the Internet provider started sending frantic faxes to the in-laws. The faxes said:

Hey! Your account only allows you to download 200MB of data a month. This month, you’ve already downloaded three times that! You might want to upgrade your account and save tons o’ cash.

Did my mother-in-law wave these faxes in my nose and demand a response?

Did she ask politely what the best course of action was?

Did she mention them at all?

Well, no. And why not?

Because she had no idea what was happening.

She simply didn’t realize that our Internet usage had anything to do with her.

I had told her that I had created a wi-fi network, but she didn’t really know what that meant.

[Actually, I barely know what it means. When asked the difference between bluetooth and wireless, I just shrugged and said, “Bluetooth uses Bluetooth magic, wireless uses wireless magic.”]

I had told her that now I could get online from anywhere in the house, which she understood, but, crucially, she assumed that if I was using my computer, then I was using my own Internet connection.

This was a failure in two acts on my part. Here is a picture of failure, to get you in the mood:

Failure number one

My first failure was a failure to ask if there were limits on their bandwidth. I’m so used to unlimited downloads that it never occurred to me to ask.

Here are people who turn on their computer once a week and I was so stuck in city-mouse mode that I was oblivious to the obvious difference in needs.

Failure number two

My second failure was to assume that they understood the implications of a wi-fi connection. It’s not obvious, and I set up the network without explaining what I was doing or what the consequences were.

Which of course leads me to think about tech communication.

Tech writers must know what the audience doesn’t know

It’s kind of a pun. We have to know all kinds of things that the audience doesn’t know. If we don’t, then there’s no point in them paying attention to what we create.

But we also have to know (or guess) which things the audience doesn’t know. When we get that wrong, we really mess up.

We need to let them know not only what’s happening, but what will happen because of what’s happening. Consequences and implications.

When we tell them that the wi-fi network is working without finding out whether they know what that means, then we’ve done a bad job and we’ve done more damage than good.

My wallet is now feeling the pain as I atone for my sins by paying overage costs. Learn from my mistake!

P.S. In honor of low-bandwidth readers, I’ve compressed the images in this post beyond good taste.

Do you have any real-life examples of assumptions gone wrong?

5 Responses to “Do You Know What Your Audience Doesn’t Know?”

  1. February 11, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    Having read Rhonda Bracey’s blogs, “Cybertext Newsletter” and “At Random” for awhile, including her rants on the ideosyncrasies of Australia’s broadband internet service providers and their outrageous volume charges, I’m not surprised that you ran into this problem.

    But writers needing to know what their audiences don’t know is an excellent point in planning any communications project.

  2. February 11, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    Right you are, Kai.

    My favorite example was when a buddy and I co-coached an intramural womens’ softball team. For half the season we implored one of our players to “take some pitches” and then watched in agony as she swung at everything she could reach. Finally it dawned on us that she thought “taking” a pitch meant the same thing as swinging at it. Which kind of makes sense, when you think about it. After we told her that “taking” a pitch means not swinging at it, she became one of our best hitters.

    Your ISP sends faxes??? Wow, you really are out in the country.

    • February 11, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

      Aw, shoot. I know your name isn’t Kai. I had just been reading some stuff from Kai Weber and, well, it’s Friday and I’m tired. And now I’m very embarrassed.

      I guess I’m living proof that sometimes your audience members can’t even be counted on to know the things they do know.

  3. February 12, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    Heheh, Larry, don’t worry about it.

    Techquestioner: We seem to be getting it worked out now. And I’m only about $350 in the hole! Ugh.

  4. August 2, 2017 at 3:25 am #

    I know this is a really old post, but you might be interested in seeing the results of a study I did called “So You Think You Know What Your Readers Want”, which i presented at the STC Summit in DC 2017 (

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