1. Analyze primary and secondary audiences using common profiling techniques.
2. Adjust writing style according to audience.
Just as the first commandment in any business is “Know thy customer,” so the first in communication is “Know thy audience.” And just as any business thrives or dies by how well it supplies a customer demand, any act of communication’s success depends entirely on how well the sender tailored it to meet the needs and expectations of the audience. Sometimes that audience is a person or group you know; sometimes it’s a person or group you don’t, but you always adjust your message content and style to what you know or can guess at about them. You wouldn’t speak to a customer approaching you for the first time the same way you would a co-worker buddy, nor would you speak to your manager the same way you would speak to either of the others (depending on what type of manager you have). In each case, you adjust the level of detail in your content, as well as your tone, word choices (diction), grammar, and overall style (formal or casual) based on how you’ve profiled your audience.
Profiling or analyzing your audience takes skill and consideration. When you sit down to write, ask yourself the following questions:
- How big is my main audience? Is it one person, two, a few, several, a dozen, dozens, hundreds, or an indeterminately large number (the public)?
- Who might my secondary or tertiary audiences be (e.g., people you can see CC’d or people you can’t because they could be forwarded your email without you knowing)?
- What is my professional or personal relationship to them relative to their position/seniority in their organization’s hierarchy?
- How much do they already know about the topic of my message?
- What is their demographic?
The following subsections delve further into these considerations to help you answer the above questions in specific situations.
Writing for Audiences of Various Sizes
Writing to one person is a relatively straightforward task, but you must adjust your writing style to accommodate a larger audience. When emailing one person, for instance, you can address them by name in the opening salutation and continue to use the second person singular you throughout. When addressing two or three, say for a project that involves 2-3 partners (including you, making 3-4 altogether), you would likewise address them each by name, either in alphabetical order or in order of who is primarily involved and then descending in size of contribution. Past four, however, you may start to use collective salutations such as “Hello, team,” or “Hi, all.” Luckily, the second-person plural pronoun you is the same as the singular. For small audience such as this, your style can generally follow the conversational rapport you’ve developed with them, whether that be formal or informal, humourless or humorous, literal or expressive, and so on.
The larger the group, however, the more general and accessible your language has to be. When writing for an indeterminately large group such as the consumer public, say in a blog on your company’s website, your language must be as plain and accessible as possible. In Canada, the public includes readers who will appreciate that you use simple words rather than big, fancy equivalents because English may be their second or third language. Indeed, the Government of Canada has published a handy guide for how to write accessibly in plain language:
Use Familiar language, known expressions, and illustrations
- Choose familiar, everyday words and expressions (e.g., “quite” rather than “relatively”)
- Define specialized words and difficult concepts, illustrate them with examples and provide a glossary when it is necessary to use several such words/concepts
- Choose concrete rather than abstract words and give explicit information (e.g., “car crash” rather than “unfortunate accident”)
- Avoid jargon and bureaucratic expressions
- Use acronyms with care and only after having spelled them out
- Choose one term to describe something important and stick to it; using various terms to describe the same thing can confuse the reader
- Add tables, graphs, illustrations and simple visual symbols to promote understanding
Instead of: Use: 23-01-2003 January 23, 2003 We can reasonably speculate that young adults want to hear about terrorism and security issues. Young adults are likely to want to hear about terrorism and security. Tax payers are encouraged to e-file their tax returns. Did you know that you can file your tax returns on the internet?
Source: Communication Canada (2003, p. 16)
Likewise, your writing to large audiences must be unbiased in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, ability, or orientation lest you offend members of those groups. Because using masculine singular pronouns like he, his, and him would exclude the female half of your audience, for instance, you would use the gender-neutral plural pronouns they, their, and them instead. (Using those plural pronouns for singular situations is also becoming acceptable although you might want to avoid doing that if writing to someone you know is a grammar stickler unless you discover that they are fine with the practice.) When identifying people by their role, use non-gender-exclusive equivalents. See Queen’s University’s (2014) Inclusive Language Guidelines page for more on avoiding bias in your writing.
The larger the group, the more careful you must be with using unique English idioms as well. Idioms are quirky or funny expressions we use to make a point. If you wanted to reassure a customer who recently immigrated from North Africa, for instance, before explaining an automotive maintenance procedure unique to Canadian winter weather and said, “Hey, don’t worry, it’ll be a piece of cake,” they may be wondering what eating cake has to do with switching to winter tires. Likewise, if you said instead that it’ll be “a walk in the park,” they would be confused about why they need to walk through a park to get their radials switched. Calling it a “cakewalk” wouldn’t help much, either. These expressions would be perfectly understood by anyone who has been conversing in English for years because they would have heard it many times before and used it themselves. In the case of using them around EAL (English as an additional language) speakers, however, you would be better off using the one word that these idioms translate as: easy. Again, the whole goal of communication is to be understood, so if you use idioms with people who haven’t yet learned them, you will fail to reach that goal. See www.theidioms.com for a wide selection of English idioms and their meanings.
Communication Canada. (2003, May). Successful communication tool kit: Literary and you. Government of Canada Publications. Retrieved from http://publications.gc.ca/collections/Collection/PF4-16-2003E.pdf
Queen’s University. (2014, April 9). Inclusive language guidelines. Style Guide. Retrieved from http://queensu.ca/styleguide/inclusivelanguage
Considering Secondary Audiences
Always consider secondary or even tertiary audiences for any message you send because, besides secondary audiences you may invite, you have little-to-no control over what tertiary audiences see your message unless confidentiality can be somehow guaranteed. Your emails can be forwarded, your text or voicemail messages shown or played, and even what you say can simply be reported to tertiary audiences and be believed (depending on the credibility of the reporter). Youth who are more comfortable writing electronically than speaking in person often make the mistake of assuming privacy when sending messages and get in trouble when those messages fall into the wrong hands—sometimes with surprising legal consequences related to bullying or worse. Before sending that email or text, or leaving that voicemail in professional situations, however, always consider how it would be received by your manager, your family, or a jury.
You may think that you have a right to privacy in communication, and you do to some extent, but employers also have certain rights to monitor their employees and ensure company property (including cyber property) isn’t being misused (Lublin, 2012). If a disgruntled employee, for instance, uses their company email account in communication with a rival company to prove that they are part of a target company, then uses that email account to sell trade secrets before leaving for another job, the employer has a right to read those emails and take measures to protect against such corporate espionage. Because company emails can be stored on the organization’s servers, always assume that any email you send using a company account can be retrieved and read by tertiary audiences. If you are at all concerned that an email might hurt you if it fell into the wrong hands, arrange to talk to the primary audience in a channel that won’t be so easily monitored.
Even in more harmless and routine information sharing, you must adjust your message for any known or unknown secondary audiences. If you CC (complementary copy) your manager or other interested stakeholders in any email, for instance, you will be more careful than you otherwise would be to ensure that your message is completely free of any language or content that would make you or them look bad. Your style will be a little more formal and you will proofread more thoroughly to avoid writing errors that make you appear uneducated and sloppy, which no employer wants to pay for.
Even if you don’t yourself designate CC recipients, as explained above, someone else could. Say you’re in a back-and-forth email thread with a co-worker as you collaborate on a project. You’re making good progress at first, but your partner begins slacking off and your emails become progressively impatient, even angry and threatening. Frustrated, you enlist another collaborator who, towards the end of the thread as drafts are exchanged with finishing touches, CC’s your manager to show that the work is completed. Seeing the lack of professionalism in your exchanges with the previous collaborator when trying to assess what discipline may be necessary, your manager now sees that you must share some of the blame for your poor communication choices.
Of course, netiquette requires that you be careful with whom you CC on messages. Often managers will be interested in what’s going on with certain projects and would like to be CC’d to be kept in the loop. In such cases, clarify with them to what extent they want to see the progress; CC’ing them on every little exchange will just waste their time and annoy them by flooding their inbox. Involving them only when important milestones are met, however, will be much appreciated.
Lublin, D. (2012, November 8). Do employers have a right to spy on workers? The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/career-advice/experts/do-employers-have-a-right-to-spy-on-workers/article5104037/?ref=http://www.theglobeandmail.com&
Considering Your Relationship to the Audience and Their Position
Just as you might wear your best clothes for an important occasion like a job interview or wedding, you must respectfully elevate the formality of your language depending the perceived importance of the person you’re communicating with. As said above, if you’re writing to your manager about something very important, something that will be read closely perhaps by many people, you would be more careful to write in a professional style and fully proofread your email than you would if you were writing a co-worker who doesn’t really care about the odd spelling mistake. Employers or clients are judgmental and will pigeonhole you as sloppy and careless about details if you send them a poorly written email; whereas, all employers want to see that their employees are detail-oriented for the money they’re paying them, especially if the employees’ writing is representing the company to clients and other stakeholders (Wiens, 2012). Ultimately, you don’t want to embarrass yourself and lose out on professional opportunities with glaring writing mistakes that more thorough proofreading could have caught.
Formality in writing requires correct grammar and punctuation, whereas more casual writing takes liberties such as using sentence fragments and contractions. If writing to a friendly co-worker a quick information-sharing email, for instance, you might say, “Just a quick heads-up: don’t forget to submit your travel expenses to Brenda in HR by 4:30 today.” The first clause is a noun-phrase fragment rather than an independent clause with a subject (“I …”) and predicate (“… am sending you …”), it contains colloquialisms such as “heads-up” (meaning “forewarning” or “reminder”), the contraction “don’t” shortens “do not,” and the initials “HR” are shorthand for “the Human Resources department.” Of course, your audience knows how to interpret all of this and will appreciate the conciseness of the message because it shaves seconds off the reading process, respecting their time. If you were the administrative assistant to an important manager, however, you may want to be more formal, courteous, correct, and yet still concise by saying “Please submit your travel expenses to Brenda in HR by 4:30pm today.” Formality conveys respect.
Formality in writing also involves carefully selecting words that are slightly fancier than the colloquial (“informal”) words you would normally use in everyday situations. Word choice is called “diction” and, if it requires that you use a thesaurus to find words with meanings equivalent to the simpler words that come to mind (called “synonyms”), then always use a dictionary to ensure that the synonym is the correct choice for the context in which you’re using it. When writing a relatively non-judgmental co-worker whom you’ve become good friends with, you tend to write more casually with plain words that are possibly even slightly slangy for comic effect. When writing someone higher up in your organization’s hierarchy, however, you would probably choose slightly fancier words along the formality spectrum, yet not so fancy as to come off as pretentious. Such obfuscation wouldn’t be reader-friendly and wouldn’t accomplish the basic communication goal of being understood, as you might realize right now if you don’t know what the word obfuscation means (it means the act of intentionally making your meaning unclear to confuse your audience).
On most occasions, especially with customers, you want instead to strike a balance with a semi-formal style somewhere between overly formal and too casual. Your writing should read much like you talk in conversation, although it must be grammatically correct.
Table 5.1: Word Choices along the Formality Spectrum
|Informal / Slang||Semi-formal / Common||Formal / Fancy|
|kick off||begin / start||commence|
|awesome / dope||good||positive|
|crappy / shoddy||bad||negative|
|fess up / come clean||admit||confess|
|bad-mouth / put down||insult / belittle||denigrate|
|put up with||endure / suffer||tolerate|
|leave out / skip||omit||exclude|
|give the go-ahead / greenlight||permit||authorize|
|loaded / well-heeled||wealthy / rich||affluent / monied|
|pronto / a.s.a.p.||now||immediately|
Considering Your Audience’s Level of Knowledge
A key preparatory step whenever sharing information is to gauge approximately how much your audience knows about the topic you’re writing about so that you provide no more and no less information than is necessary. This benefits both them and you. A safe assumption with everyone you deal with in professional situations is that they’re busy and don’t have time to read any more than they need to. If you over explain a topic in an email, you make the double mistake of wasting the reader’s time and insulting them by presuming their ignorance. Besides getting on their bad side, this becomes a triple mistake considering the time you wasted in writing more than you had to.
On the other end of that spectrum, writing too little because you’ve incorrectly assumed that your audience knows what you know also inconveniences them. A lack of necessary information in a message ultimately leads to either errors due to confusion or wasted time from having to respond with requests for clarification or, worse, damage control because your reader acted on misunderstandings resulting from your miscommunication; either way, the goal of communication (for the receiver to understand information as it was understood by the sender) isn’t met by the message.
Appropriately gauging your audience’s level of knowledge extends to the language you use. Every profession has its jargon, which is the specialized vocabulary, shorthand code words, and slang that you use amongst colleagues with the same discipline-specific education as you. Jargon saves time by making elaborate descriptions unnecessary, so it’s useful among people who speak the same language. But some professionals err by using jargon with customers and even employers who don’t know the special words or expressions being used. At worst, this puts those audiences in the uncomfortable position of feeling ignorant of something perhaps they should know about, leading to confusion; at best it leads to opportunities for educating those audiences so they can use the same jargon with you. A legal professional, for instance, is necessary to help navigate someone through an unfamiliar court process and the bewildering legal terminology in documents related to it. But that professional must be able to translate that difficult legal language into familiar terms that the uninitiated can easily understand.
Besides using plain language, effective document design can also help aid understanding for those who may have difficulty with reading comprehension, as well as for those who are competent professionals but are just busy. When explaining a procedure, for instance, using a numbered list rather than a paragraph description helps the reader skim to find their spot when going back and forth between your instructions and performing the procedure itself. For instance, if you’re explaining how to find the date of a webpage if one is not indicated on the page itself:
- Go to google.com or place your cursor in the search bar of a Chrome browser tab.
- Write “inurl:” in the search bar and paste the URL of the webpage you want the date for from “www.” onward.
- Paste “&as_qdr=y15” at the end of the Google search URL.
- Hit your Enter key and the date that the webpage was last updated will appear in grey on the third line of the first result.
is so much easier for your reader to follow than:
First, go to google.com or place your cursor in the search bar of a Chrome browser tab, write “inurl:” in the search bar, and paste the URL of the webpage you want the date for from “www.” onward. Next, paste “&as_qdr=y15” at the end of the Google search URL, then hit your Enter key. The date will appear in grey on the third line of the first result.
Brief, bolded headings and subheadings for discreet topics within a document also help orient readers looking for specific information, as you can see from scanning through this textbook. If this chapter contained no such headings and instead was just a ream of paragraphs like in a novel, finding this section using the Table of Contents and index alone would be difficult. Again, it’s on you to make the writing clear and easy to find.
Considering Your Audience’s Demographic
The previous subsection explained the necessity of gauging your audience’s level of education in a given subject area, and that extends to their more general level of education as well as other demographic factors such as age. Depending on your profession, you may have to deal with people of all ages and levels of education from elementary school children to world-wise retirees. Dental hygienists, for instance, adjusts their language from being simple with an overly enthusiastic, over-the-top friendly and reassuring tone with a child client in the dentist chair one moment, then switches in the next to using more technical vocabulary in a matter-of-fact yet still-friendly tone with an older client who has had years of dentist-chair lectures enough to know what “excessive plaque buildup at the gumline” means.
Sometimes judging levels of understanding can be difficult and lead to trouble when done in error, so tact and emotional intelligence is essential. Speaking to an elderly person as you would a child because you assume they’ve fallen into feeble-minded senility when they are indeed still capable can be downright insulting to them. Don’t be surprised if your condescension is met with sassy kickback if you make that mistake. But if you speak to an elderly person as you would a middle-aged adult despite their having severe hearing loss and undiagnosed early-onset dementia, this will also lead to failures in communication and understanding. So, what are we to do, then?
The key to gauging the level of one’s understanding if it could be either expert or clueless is always to begin communication with a mid-level diction and conversational tone in your opening message, then adjust based on the feedback message, which includes both a verbal or written response and nonverbals (if communicating in person).
If your correspondent’s writing style similarly betrays a lack of lack of education—for whatever reason—through numerous grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors, then you know to adjust your own style to use more plain expressions accommodating someone with a more basic reading level. In such cases, be understanding rather than assume that the person is merely dim-witted. They could be
- extremely intelligent but English is their second or third language and they’re still getting the hang of it,
- extremely intelligent at some things but just not at writing,
- very young and still learning how to write,
- very old and either out of practice or losing their faculties,
- functionally illiterate, as is the case with 2 out of 5 Canadian adults (Conference Board of Canada, 2013),
- affected by any number of learning disabilities of varying severity, or
- good writers and smart, but in a terrible rush.
Unless you know otherwise, you can guess at any of the above explanations (or a combination of them) before responding, but never respond assuming one of them to be the case. Rather, respond without judgment to someone who writes poorly, but do so in a plain, accessible style using familiar words and fully explain your topic.
Being nonjudgmental as well as respectful towards those of different cultures and religious beliefs is also key to effective communication. If you are committed to a belief system yourself, never assume that everyone else shares your views or is wrong for believing otherwise. Even if you are not religious per se, you still have a belief system shaped by the culture in which you developed. Everyone’s belief system is the result of life experiences that differ from those of others; unless that system drives them towards anti-social behaviour or even violence, nothing is wrong with holding those beliefs as far as you’re concerned. The success of Canada’s multicultural society depends on the tolerance and understanding between citizens. In your writing, always be understanding towards others’ beliefs; don’t belittle or insult them. If someone writes you to say that they will be absent because of a Muslim holiday you did not know about, for instance, use this as an opportunity to learn something about that holiday so you can say, for instance, “Eid Mubarak” at the end of your message to maintain goodwill.
Knowing your audience by their size, position relative to you, knowledge of your topic, and demographic helps you craft your message content and style to meet their needs.
The Conference Board of Canada. (2013). Adult literacy rate—low-level skills. How Canada Performs. Retrieved from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/education/adult-literacy-rate-low-skills.aspx