If you know your audience before you begin to write and really take them into consideration before putting your fingers on the keyboard, your writing will be more effective. In fact, this is probably one of the key elements of good writing. By way of example, take a moment to think about how you would address some of the following categories of readers.
- A professor
- Your classmates
- Your best friend from high school
- Your parents
- Your boss
- An attorney handling your case
- Academic professionals in the area you are writing about
- A potential employer
As you can imagine, writing to each of the groups above requires you to make many changes in how you say things, what tone you use, what words you use, whether you wish to appear more knowledgeable than the reader…the list is endless.
Why Is It Important to Know Your Audience?
You may not realize it, but being able to know your audience is of utmost importance in good writing. If you do not address a certain audience appropriately, you could lose their respect, attention, and interest before they’ve gotten through your first paragraph!
As an example, let me relate my experiences as a criminal defense trial attorney. As Dickens would say, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times!” It was an utterly amazing experience – and exhausting due to the number of cases I handled.
One of the things that I had to do quickly was learn to address vastly different audiences – both in my writing and speaking. On a daily basis, I had to be able to effectively communicate with other lawyers, judges, and clients, some of whom never made it out of the 8th grade.
Most of my criminal clients were indigent people with very low educational levels, who had been victimized one way or another most of their lives. When writing or speaking to them I had to walk quite a tightrope. I needed to find a way to explain complex legal concepts to people who really had zero understanding of law or “legalese.”
It took altering my demeanor, my inflection, and mostly the words I used and how I said them. Choosing my words carefully was especially important in written communications, because I did not have my demeanor and inflection to assist with understanding. All of this was crucially important – these were people who had to make decisions that would greatly affect the rest of their lives.
Audience: Prosecutors (or Opposing Counsel)
These were my peers, people I’d been to law school with. We were equally educated, we had a deep understanding of criminal law, we knew what worked at trial and what didn’t. And we knew how to bargain.
Because we spoke exactly the same language, it made it incredibly easy to communicate. Emails were a respectful mix of a personal and formal tone, depending on what was being said. (OK – sometimes anger was involved as well!) When we didn’t agree it could get dicey, but there was always an understanding that we were in this to do our job.
Obviously, speaking or writing to someone in such great authority and deserving of such respect was vastly different than speaking to clients. Whereas with clients I typically used simpler language, and with prosecutors I used as much legalese as I wanted and as much common speech as I wanted, with judges I kept both my speech and my written communications significantly more formal. I was expected to speak to the judge in legalese, and with the respect deserving of his or her position.
Know Your Audience: A Cheat Sheet
OK – I realize you are likely not attorneys. But the principles discussed above apply in a variety of situations. I think that most people instinctively know how to adjust their writing to different audiences. However, not everyone really considers this important element of good writing before they begin to type.
If you do, you’ll likely be in good shape. Here’s a little cheat sheet to help you know your audience and how to write to them.
- Applying for a job: Very formal, respectful, and with deference to their position of authority.
- Writing to your manager: Somewhat formal, depending on how long you’ve been employed and how well you know your boss. In big companies where you almost never see the boss, you will write with formality and exceptional politeness. Your tone should never be too personal. However, if it’s a small company where you see and speak to your boss daily and have a good relationship – then you can likely get away with a far more personal tone.
- Business proposals: Obviously quite formal. You need the person reading the proposal to take you seriously and your tone should reflect that.
Academic Audience (or Other Experts)
- If you are writing an academic paper for a professor, you would do well to remain respectful of the authority of your reader. While you certainly want to keep it engaging and can insert a bit of personality, you are writing to a person who is more of an expert in the field than you. Show it!
- Teaching: Write to their level of understanding. If your audience is elementary school children, use small, easy-to-understand words and bright imagery, even illustrations if allowed. Make your tone fun!
- Creative writing: Obviously you want to maintain a kind, caring, gentle, and friendly tone for kids. In fact, the more fun the better – just keep it age-appropriate!
- Teaching: This can be quite personal! It depends on your personality. You could have a great deal of fun here to keep things engaging. Be sure to maintain a level of respect since the purpose is teaching.
- Creative writing: The world is your oyster! When writing short stories, fiction, or even non-fiction, the only thing that limits the tone of how you write is how you want to portray yourself and the story!
Friends or Family
This type of personal writing is more informal, friendly, and full of your personality!
We hope this information helps! We’ll be covering how to hit the right tone in writing in a future article, but in the meantime, check out our related article on quoting, paraphrasing, and summarizing.