The audience of a technical report—or any piece of writing for that
matter—is the intended or potential reader or readers. For most technical
writers, this is the most important consideration in planning,
writing, and reviewing a document. You "adapt" your writing to
meet the needs, interests, and background of the readers who will be
reading your writing.
The principle seems absurdly simple and obvious. It's much the same
as telling someone, "Talk so the person in front of you can
understand what you're saying." It's like saying, "Don't
talk rocket science to your six-year-old." Do we need a course
in that? Doesn't seem like it. But, in fact, lack of audience analysis
and adaptation is one of the root causes of most of the problems
you find in professional, technical documents—particularly instructions
where it surfaces most glaringly.
Types of Audiences
One of the first things to do when you analyze an audience is to identify
its type (or types—it's rarely just one type). Audiences are
commonly categorized as:
Experts:These are the people who know the theory and the
product inside and out. They designed it, they tested it, they know
everything about it. Often, they have advanced degrees and operate
in academic settings or in research and development areas of the
government and business worlds. The nonspecialist reader is least
likely to understand what these people are saying—but also has
the least reason to try. More often, the communication challenge
faced by the expert is communicating to the technician and the
Technicians: These are the people who build, operate,
maintain, and repair the stuff that the experts design and theorize
about. Theirs is a highly technical knowledge as well, but of
a more practical nature.
Executives: These are the people who make business, economic,
administrative, legal, governmental, political decisions on the
stuff that the experts and technicians work with. If it's a new
product, they decide whether to produce and market it. Executives
are likely to have as little technical knowledge about the subject
- Nonspecialists: These readers have the least technical
knowledge of all. Their interest may be as practical as technicians',
but in a different way. They want to use the new product to accomplish
Or, they may just be curious about a specific technical matter and
want to learn about it—but for no specific, practical reason.
It's important to determine which of the four categories the
potential readers of your document belong to, but that's not the end
of it. Audiences, regardless of category, must also be analyzed in
terms of the following characteristics:
Audience analysis can get complicated by at least two other factors: mixed
audience types for one document, wide variability within audience, and
Background-knowledge, experience, training: One of your most
important concerns is just how much knowledge, experience, or training you
can expect in your readers. If you expect some of your readers to lack
certain background, do you automatically supply it in your document?
Consider an example: imagine you're writing a guide to using a software
product that runs under Microsoft Windows. How much can you expect your
readers to know about Windows? If some are likely to know little about
Windows, should you provide that information? If you say no, then you run
the risk of customers' getting frustrated with your product. If you say yes
to adding background information on Windows, you increase your work effort
and add to the page count of the document (and thus to the
cost). Obviously, there's no easy answer to this question—part of the
answer may involve just how small a segment of the audience needs that
Needs and interests: To plan your document, you need to
know what your audience is going to expect from that document. Imagine
how readers will want to use your document; what will they demand
from it. For example, imagine you are writing a manual on how to
use a new microwave oven—what are your readers going to expect
to find in it? Imagine you're under contract to write a background
report on global warming for a national real estate association—what
do they want to read about; and, equally important, what do they
not want to read about?
- Other demographic characteristics: And of course there
are many other characteristics about your readers that might have
an influence on how you should design and write your document—for
example, age groups, type of residence, area of residence, gender,
political preferences, and so on.
More than one audience. You're likely to find that your report is
for more than one audience. For example, it may be seen by technical people
(experts and technicians) and administrative people (executives). What to
do? You can either write all the sections so that all the audiences of your
document can understand them (good luck!). Or you can write each section
strictly for the audience that would be interested in it, then use headings
and section introductions to alert your audience about where to go and what
to stay out of in your report.
Wide variability in an audience. You may realize that, although you
have an audience that fits into only one category, there is a wide
variability in its background. This is a tough one—if you write to
the lowest common denominator of reader, you're likely to end up
with a cumbersome, tedious book-like thing that will turn off the
majority of readers. But if you don't write to that lowest level,
you lose that segment of your readers. What to do? Most writers
go for the majority of readers and sacrifice that minority that
needs more help. Others put the supplemental information in appendixes
or insert cross-references to beginners' books.
Okay! So you've analyzed your audience. What good is it? How do you
use this information? How do you keep from writing something that
will still be incomprehensible or useless to your readers?
The business of writing to your audience may have a lot to do with
in-born talent, intuition, and even mystery. But there are some controls
you can use to have a better chance to connect with your readers. The
following "controls" have mostly to do with making technical
information more understandable for nonspecialist audiences:
These are the kinds of "controls" that professional technical
writers use to finetune their work and make it as readily understandable
as possible. And in contrast, it's the accumulation of lots of problems
in these areas—even seemingly minor ones—that add up to
a document being difficult to read and understand. Nonprofessionals
often question why professional writers and editors insist on bothering
with such seemingly picky, trivial, petty details in writing—but
they all contribute to making your document readable.
- Add information readers need to understand
your document. Check to see whether certain key information
is missing—for example, a
critical series of steps from a set of instructions; important background
that helps beginners understand the main discussion; definition of
- Omit information your readers do not need. Unnecessary
information can also confuse and frustrate readers—after all,
it's there so they feel obligated to read it. For example, you can
probably chop theoretical discussion from basic instructions.
- Change the level of the information you currently have. You
may have the right information but it may be "pitched" at
too high or too low a technical level. It may be pitched at the
wrong kind of audience—for example, at an expert audience
rather than a technician audience. This happens most often when
product-design notes are passed off as instructions.
- Add examples to help readers understand. Examples are one
of the most powerful ways to connect with audiences, particularly
in instructions. Even in noninstructional text, for example, when
you are trying to explain a technical concept, examples are a major
help—analogies in particular.
- Change the level of your examples. You may be using examples
but the technical content or level may not be appropriate to your
readers. Homespun examples may not be useful to experts; highly
technical ones may totally miss your nonspecialist readers.
- Change the organization of your information. Sometimes,
you can have all the right information but arrange it in the wrong
way. For example, there can be too much background information up
front (or too little) such that certain readers get lost. Sometimes,
background information needs to woven into the main information—for
example, in instructions it's sometimes better to feed in chunks of
background at the points where they are immediately needed.
- Strengthen transitions. It may be difficult for readers,
particularly nonspecialists, to see the connections between the
main sections of your report, between individual paragraphs, and
sometimes even between individual sentences. You can make these
connections much clearer by adding transition words and by echoing
key words more accurately. Words like "therefore,"
"for example," "however" are transition words—they
indicate the logic connecting the previous thought to the upcoming
thought. You can also strengthen transitions by carefully echoing
the same key words. In technical prose, it's not a good idea to vary
word choice-use the same words so that people don't get any more confused
than they may already be.
- Write stronger introductions—both for the whole document
and for major sections. People seem to read with more confidence
and understanding when they have the "big picture"—a
view of what's coming, and how it relates to what they've just
read. Therefore, make sure you have a strong introduction to the
entire document—one that makes clear the topic,
purpose, audience, and contents of that document. And for each major
section within your document, use mini-introductions that indicate
at least the topic of the section and give an overview of the
subtopics to be covered in that section.
- Create topic sentences for paragraphs and paragraph groups. It
can help readers immensely to give them an idea of the topic and
purpose of a section (a group of paragraphs) and in particular to
give them an overview of the subtopics about to be covered. Roadmaps
help when you're in a different state!
- Change sentence style and length. How you write—down
at the individual sentence level—can make a big
difference too. In instructions, for example, using imperative voice
"you" phrasing is vastly more understandable than the passive
voice or third-personal phrasing. For some reason, personalizing your
writing style and making it more relaxed and informal can make it
more accessible and understandable. Passive, person-less writing is
harder to read—put people and action in your writing. Similarly,
go for active verbs as opposed to be verb phrasing. All of this makes
your writing more direct and immediate—readers don't have to
dig for it. Obviously, sentence length matters as well. An average
of somewhere between 15 and 25 words per sentence is about right;
sentences over 30 words are to be mistrusted.
- Work on sentence clarity and economy. This is closely related
to the previous "control" but deserves
its own spot. Often, writing style can be so wordy that it is hard
or frustrating to read. When you revise your rough drafts, put them
on a diet-go through a draft line by line trying to reduce the overall
word, page or line count by 20 percent. Try it as an experiment
and see how you do. You'll find a lot of fussy, unnecessary detail
and inflated phrasing you can chop out.
- Use more or different graphics. For nonspecialist audiences,
you may want to use more graphics—and simpler
ones at that. Writing for specialists and experts tends to be less
illustrated, less graphically attractive—even boring to the
eye! Graphics for specialists tend to be more detailed, more technical.
In technical documents for nonspecialists, there also tend to be more
"decorative" graphics—ones that serve no strict informative
or persuasive purpose at all.
- Break text up or consolidate text into meaningful,
usable chunks. For nonspecialist readers, you may need to have
shorter paragraphs. Notice how much longer paragraphs are in technical
documents written for specialists. (Maybe a 6- to 8-line paragraph
is the dividing line.)
- Add cross-references to important information. In technical
information, you can help nonspecialist readers by pointing them
to background sources. If you can't fully explain a topic on the
spot, point to a book or article where it is.
- Use headings and lists. Readers can be intimidated by big
dense paragraphs of writing, uncut by anything other than a blank
line now and then. Search your rough drafts for ways to incorporate
headings—look for changes in topic or subtopic. Search your
writing for listings of things—these can be made into vertical
lists. Look for paired listings such as terms and their definitions—these
can be made into two-column lists. Of course, be careful not to
force this special formatting—don't overdo it.
- Use special typography, and work with margins, line length,
line spacing, type size, and type style. For nonspecialist
readers, you can do things like making the lines shorter (bringing
in the margins), using larger type sizes, and other such tactics.
Certain type styles are believed to be friendlier and more readable
than others. (Try to find someone involved with publishing to
get their insights on fonts.)