In Clear Communication, it’s Not all About Me—It’s About You!

By Jamie Stark

How many relationship break-up stories include the phrase “it’s not you, it’s me?” When it comes to clear communication, the opposite is true. It’s not so much about the “me” that is the writer or speaker, rather it’s more so about the “you” that makes up your audience.

I’ve been a volunteer plain language trainer with the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) for 3 years, and without a doubt the most important thing I tell students to remember is to always know who your audience is.

Sometimes as communicators we forget to take a step back from what we might be working on and think about how not everyone might be an expert on the subject. Unfortunately, the more familiar you are on a subject, the harder it is to put yourself in your readers’ shoes. For example, you might be an expert on Harry Potter, having read every book and seen every movie multiple times. But your audience may not understand the difference between Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff. Your job is to bridge that gap and present the information your audience needs to know in a way that is relevant to them and makes sense.

Knowing Your Audience

Would you talk to your supervisor the same way you talk to your child? Or, to your grandmother as you would to a doctor or scientist? Probably not. That’s why it’s important to always know who you’re writing for.

Identifying your target audience may not always be easy, especially if your message affects multiple groups of people. To help get you started, ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the purpose of this document?
  • Who am I talking to?
  • What is their level of expertise? Am I talking to a group of lawyers or doctors where technical language would be okay? Or, am I talking to an immigrant population who may have limited English proficiency?
  • What do they already know?
  • What do they need to know?
  • What’s in it for them? Why should they care?
  • How do they prefer to receive information? Email, telephone, web, newspaper/magazine, mailed letter, social media?
  • How does my audience prefer my agency/office interact with them? How do they interact with my agency/office?
  • What’s the best outcome for my agency/office? What do I need to say (or how should I say it) to get this outcome?
  • What’s the best outcome for my audience? What do I need to say to get this outcome?

Once you’ve figured out who your readers are, you’ll be able to start thinking about how to connect the material to them and make it meaningful. You’ll also be more equipped to predict the types of questions they might have.

Staying Organized

If you’re writing to several different groups of people, staying organized as you brainstorm their unique qualities, likes, dislikes, levels of expertise, etc. can be difficult. One thing that helps me is to create an audience table (see sample below) that captures the following information for each group:

  • Key messages—What is the most important information (BLUF—bottom line up front) for my audience? If I only had 2 minutes to talk to them, what would I say?
  • Opportunities and strengths—What are the advantages for my audience? How will this information help them?
  • Vulnerabilities and risks—Am I dealing with a resistant or hostile audience? How have they reacted to previous communications on the subject? What are potential challenges and obstacles to communication that I need to prepare for?
  • Communication channels—How do I best reach my audience? Would it be a mailed letter, email, web content, social media campaign, newspaper, or magazine?
  • Sample Audience Table
Audience

(Group)

Key

Messages

Strengths/

Opportunities

Vulnerabilities/

Risks

Communication Channels

By displaying this information in a table, you’ll be better able to see any relationships between groups of your audience, as well as any similarities and differences that could influence how you communicate to them.

Identifying and writing to your audience will help them connect personally with the information you convey because they will be able to see themselves in your writing. And, when your audience can connect to the information, they’ll be more likely to remember it and use it to effectively make decisions.