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Pros don’t settle for platitudes about audience

Know your audience! The most common platitude about workplace writing. Well . . . duh . . . who could argue with that?  It certainly doesn’t describe what pros have learned. What amateurs need is GUIDANCE for getting to know the right things about their readers.

My guidance, based on a chapter new to the third edition of Revising Professional Writing, focuses on two sides of the rhetorical triangle. Let me offer a personal example. I’m helping my husband write a letter soliciting sponsorships for First Tee of Tuscaloosa from local businesses. (He serves on their Board of Directors.) The purpose of this letter is to direct readers, and the bottom line message is “give us $500.” Before I begin a draft, we talk about the content of his message. And I think through several questions, some of which I ask my husband to answer.

The first few questions connect his audience with him and his/her purpose:

  1. How well does he know his readers?  Although a few are acquaintances, most are strangers.  That poses challenges.
  2. How much power does he have over his readers? Little, if any in this situation. He has no legitimate authority to direct their actions. That’s another challenge. But the program is affiliated with the local government, through its parks and recreation office. And it’s part of a national program. That helps establish credibility.
  3. How similar are his values to those of his readers? Overall, I’d say moderately similar. He and his readers are business owners who live in the same city. But he probably feels more strongly about the values inherent in golf (e.g., honesty, confidence, responsibility, courtesy, etc.) than some of them. And with a large audience, there are bound to be some readers whose values are unpredictably different. It’s definitely more challenging to address an audience with diverse values or whose values differ from the writer’s.

The second set of questions connect his audience with his message and determine the readiness of readers to accept the letter’s content:

  1. How much expertise do his readers have about his message? For the entire group of readers, my husband guesses there is moderately low knowledge of First Tee, especially of its goals (which focus on life skills rather than golf). This means the letter has to educate or inform the audience.
  2. How sensitive are his readers to his message? Overall, we’re predicting moderately low sensitivity because the sponsorships are cheap and include advertising at the First Tee site and events. But he still has to persuade them to act.

A true pro can has answered these questions before delivering a message to readers. What’s more, a pro uses those answers strategically to choose the content, organization, and style for the message.

Amateurs become pros more quickly when these questions are given to them as a guide for planning a workplace document. The upcoming tutorial on audience helps amateurs understand these questions, espcially the more complex ones about value differences and sensitivity. It refers to a page from a Hazard Abatement Notice, which I created based on information available from Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

  • Writer: the owner of a construction company
  • Readers: the company’s employees and OSHA officials
  • Bottom Line Message: three hazards identified during an OSHA inspection have been addressed

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  1. It would be great to see a copy of the letter your husband ended up writing, as well as see some data on its results (e.g., funds it generated, percent of responses, feedback from the audience about the letter’s effectiveness, etc.). That would make a great addition to this very helpful and interesting advice.

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