Understand Your Audience

Research shows that communicators who understand their audience are more successful in achieving their communication goals. Understanding your audience can help you answer questions like:

  • How much do they already know about my topic?
  • What do they think about my topic?
  • What are their goals?

 
The following research-based guidelines will help you understand your audience and help you achieve the results you want.

Identify your audience

In 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 audience

To 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.

Research

You 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” [4].

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.

Demographics 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 conclusions

Use 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 conclusions

Verify 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?

References

[1] P. V. Anderson, Technical Communication: A Reader-centered Approach. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.

[2] J. Doumont, Communicating science to non-scientists [Video]. Available URL: www.youtube.com/watch?v=IFu3jaLmse0. 2012, April 12

[3] J. Redish, Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works. Amsterdam: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2007.

[4] G. Hart, “The five W’s: An old tool for the new task of audience analysis.” Technical Communication, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 139–145, 1996. Available URL: http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/1995-1998/five-w.htm. 1996.

[5] J. Cleland, Business Writing for Results: How to Create a Sense of Urgency and Increase Response to All of Your Business Communications. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.