How often have you read or seen something and then wondered, “For whom was this written? To whom were they speaking?” All too frequently, speakers and writers speak and write to themselves or to people just like themselves, rather than to the actual audience that will hear or read their words. Case in point: Have you ever listened to a public discourse or sat in an introductory-level class, where the speaker assumes that the audience possesses a base knowledge of the topic that is inappropriate for the venue, by using insider’s vocabulary that is incomprehensible to newcomers to the topic? Most of us have experienced this. Such instances are examples of unclear communication because the words were not aimed at the actual listeners or readers, but rather, primarily, aimed at impressing the speakers’ or authors’ peers with their own intelligence. Have you ever seen a sleekly designed website or other product that you can’t actually figure out how to use? Again, such creations were not designed for the user of the product, but rather, to impress other designers. The obvious—but not always recognized—issue is that if an audience can’t understand the discourse or the user can’t use the product, then the process of composing or designing has failed its primary mission: to reach its audience.
An audience receives what it is actually presented with, not what the mind of the creator thinks it has presented; if the audience can’t understand or misunderstands the written or spoken text, then the impression left on them will be outside the intended meaning of the discourse.
Therefore, to communicate, an author or speaker must take the actual audience into consideration right from the start when composing a message. To do so, the author must understand the audience—both the primary and the secondary audience that will potentially receive that message. Such things as sentence complexity, the use of metaphor and figures of speech, first or third person, personal or impersonal tone and voice, word choice, directness and familiarity, formality, and other factors need to be consistent and intentionally used, rather than randomly applied, in order to communicate effectively. Furthermore, all of these elements need to be geared toward the actual audience that will be receiving the discourse, if misunderstanding is to be avoided and intended meaning is to be communicated.
The primary audience is the target audience, the one that writers or speakers intend to reach with their discourse; the communicative needs of that primary audience must be clearly understood by the speaker or writer before they speak or write. Identifying who that audience might be would be the first step to understanding how to reach them and this might be accomplished by things like brainstorming ideas of who you think you want to reach and bouncing those ideas off of others with similar focus to yours. Additionally useful would be some basic demographic research to further identify the general characteristics of those people whom you identify. Learning the actual needs and wants of those you identify would be the second step, something that only research—asking questions, conducting surveys—will actually find out.
Don’t assume that you know what people think, because such assumptions will undoubtedly result in a skewed idea of your audience that will more than likely represent stereotypes, rather than actual people. Targeting stereotypes for your audience is something that will be noticed by the readers and listeners and will more than likely alienate them and backfire on your intended purposes.
Another important consideration—especially in this day of digital text—is that in addition to your primary audience, you have a secondary audience. By trying to imagine how the text or discourse you are composing will be shared to others, you can attempt to take that secondary audience into account. For example, is your blog geared to teachers? If so, then your blog message might be seen by students, parents, or your principal or the school board members that have hiring and firing power over you. Thinking in advance about where your discourse might be shared is only common sense, but how often do people fail to account for it? Although impossible to take every possibility into account, by trying to imagine potential ways that your discourse might be disbursed on media other than the original platform, you can anticipate an additional audience and take that information into consideration in further selecting an appropriate style and tone for what you publish or present.
Planning with audience awareness in mind is all about how to make a connection and how you, as an author or speaker, can be understood clearly and unambiguously by the audience that is on the receiving end of your communication event.
Piraro, Daniel. “Bizarro Comic Strip for February 01, 2016.” Comics Kingdom. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <http://comicskingdom.com/bizarro/2016-02-01>.