Online Technical Writing:
Audience Analysis



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.

Note: Once you've read this section on audiences, try using the audience planner. You fill in blanks with answers to questions about your audience and then e-mail it to yourself and, optionally, to your instructor. Use the audience planner for any writing project as a way of getting yourself to think about your audience in detail.

Note: Students enrolled in the Online Technical Writing are encouraged to take the reading quiz on this chapter. (Anybody else is welcome to try it as well.)

Types of Audiences

One of the first things to do when you analyze and audience is to identify its type (or types--it's rarely just one type). The common division of audiences into categories is as follows:

Audience Analysis

It's important to determine which of the four categories just discussed 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 characteristics such as the following: Audience analysis can get complicated by at least two other factors: mixed audience types for one document, wide variability within audience, and unknown audiences.

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.

Audience Adaptation

Okay! So you've analyzed your audience until you know them better than you know yourself. 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 add up! It reminds me of some Chinese saying about "death by a thousand cuts."

Return to the table of contents for the Online Technical Writing Course Guide (the online textbook for online technical communication courses at Austin Community College and other institutions worldwide).
This information is provided and maintained by David A. McMurrey. For information on use, customization, or copies, e-mail hcexres@io.com.