- How much do they already know about my topic?
- What do they think about my topic?
- What are their goals?
Identify your audienceIn some cases, you may already be familiar with your audience, such as a client you’ve worked with for many years or your project manager. In others, you may be encountering one with whom you are much less familiar, such as the media. If you are not familiar with your audience, making an informal list of the kinds of people who comprise it can help you approach the research necessary to understand them. Be as specific as possible. Your non-expert audience, for instance, may include engineers in other fields or specific government agencies.
Analyze your audienceTo optimize your communication, you will need to know not only who your audience is, but also what they need from your communication task. Engineers in other fields, for instance, may have specialized knowledge, but may not understand your area of expertise. They will need some background information. Your boss, on the other hand, has some understanding of your topic, and is most interested in the nature of your work. He or she primarily wants to hear progress or results. Regardless of your level of knowledge about your audience, audience analysis will help you gain such insight.
ResearchYou can approach your audience analysis informally. According to Geoff Hart, 2005 Society for Technical Communication Fellow, “Almost any attempt to understand the audience’s needs…will [yield]…better results” . To understand your identified audience, start by gathering demographic and psychographic information. Keep careful notes you can refer to as necessary.
Table 1: Definitions and examples of demographics and psychographics.
|Definition||Statistical data relating to the population and particular groups within it.||The study and classification of people according to their interests, activities, and opinions.
|Examples||age education level gender income level geographic region cultural or ethnic background||attitudes beliefs values loyalties knowledge level lifestyle|
You can use the following informal research methods to find this kind of information. Be sure to keep careful notes to reference later.
- Review existing research: Conduct a thorough online search to find studies about your audience. For instance, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Web site contains demographic information about segments of the U.S. population; the Pew Research Center includes research on public opinion and behavior.
- Brainstorming: Use your personal experience to think about the characteristics your audience might have. Speak with other engineers or collaborators to expand that list of characteristics.
- Interviews: If you have access to members of your audience, talk to them about their background, beliefs, values, etc.
Formulate conclusionsUse your notes to write a summary of your audience and their needs. Having a summary in writing will be useful to you and any other stakeholders as you develop your communication plan.
Verify your conclusionsVerify your conclusions in order to make adjustments where necessary. Consult a colleague familiar with your work who has experience communicating with similar audiences, or talk again with a representative of your audience. Your stakeholders, co-authors, or your boss may also be able to verify your conclusions. With a thorough, studied understanding of your audience, you will be better prepared to communicate effectively with them to gain your desired results.
Where can I find more information about understanding audience?
- Guide for Conducting Reader-Centered Research This worksheet, from Paul V. Anderson’s book, Technical Communication: A User-Centered Approach, walks you through the process of audience analysis.
- The Video Tutorial on Audience Dr. Kim Campbell, communications professor at the University of Alabama, explains the importance of purpose, audience, and message.
- Communicating Science to Non-Scientists (video) Dr. Jean-luc Doumont, physicist and communication trainer, describes why communication problems exist between scientists and non-scientists and how to address them.
- “If no one understands the science, it doesn’t exist” (pdf document) This tip sheet from the Euroscience Open Forum provides further strategies for getting to know your audience.
- Personas and the Five W’s: Developing Content that Meets Reader Needs This article describes the journalistic approach to audience analysis (the “five W’s”), and how to use an audience analysis to create composites of your audience members (personas) to help you focus more clearly on their needs.
- Mastering the Art of the SME (Subject Matter Expert) Interview Although targeted to technical communicators, this article includes useful techniques for interviewing audience members for the purpose of understanding their needs.
- >The Pew Research Center This resource provides information on the issues, attitudes, and trends shaping both the United States and the world.
- United States Census Bureau This resource provides quality data about the people and economy of the United States.