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Early in the process of thinking about a topic, you should identify you audience and the purpose of the document you are writing. Being in the IT field and dealing with many business and IT audiences, I have to make sure to inquire about who the audience is, as it will greatly vary the contents and language you use. There are different documents written to different audiences, as shown on the Services section of my website.
You should ask yourself the following questions about your audience:
- Who are your readers or listeners?
- Why are you communicating with them?
- What do you expect or hope them to do?
Unless it’s clear in your mind what the answers are, you won’t be able to construct a clear and effective piece of communication.
Managers are often the most important audiences for technical communications because they make decisions that affect projects and careers. The fundamental managerial roles are interpersonal roles: figurehead, leader of the unit, liaison to external units. However, since managers have many contacts from their interpersonal roles and their power, they also have important informational roles: they are the “nerve centers of information.” As such, they monitor and disseminate information and serve as spokesperson for their units. Finally, managers have decisional roles: they are initiators of change, disturbance handlers, resource allocators, and negotiators.
Nonspecialist audiences are often the most difficult audiences to write for. These are the readers who know little about a subject but will be reading your writing in detail to find out more. If you are writing a purpose to a potential client, you are probably writing for a nonspecialist audience. if you are replying to an angry customer, you are probably writing for a nonspecialist audience. If you are writing a set of operating instructions, you are probably writing for a nonspecialist audience.
The difficulty of writing to nonspecialist audiences is that as a specialist, you become used to thinking about a certain topic in certain specialized ways. Your knowledge of these topics is so great that you have organized it in your mind to break things down into manageable chunks, each consisting of smaller chunks (at least I do!). An you have given special labels or technical terms to many of these chunks. The problem is that nonspecialists do not know those terms and do not have all of those chunks of knowledge organized into a nice, coherent network. If you insist on using only your technical language, you fail to create a bridge of common knowledge between you and your nonspecialist reader. This makes communication difficult and sometimes impossible.
Solution? Break things down to common knowledge as much as you can when writing, without distorting the technical content of our message. Use a conventional mode of presentations, like proposals, reports, spreadsheets, or documents that are familiar to most people. This enables the reader to have a better sense of the overall flow of your logic.
Since peers generally speak the “same language” as you do, so this is an easier audience to write for. (ex., part of your design team for a project) With peer audiences, you don’t need to do many of the things you would do for a nonspecialist audience, such as giving lengthy explanations, defining terms, and using many examples. If you do, they may think you are patronizing them!
With peers, you should use language the way most other people in your field use it. You should:
- Use standard technical terms.
- Use a conventional format.
- Emphasize data and display it in standard ways, using graphs, tables, equations, or other appropriate forms.
- Use standard forms of reasoning and argumentation.
- Make your main points clear and accessible.
- Be careful not to overstate your claims.
Whoever your audience may be, make sure to find out who they are and their knowledge before writing communication to them to ensure that the communication is understood and the purpose is received correctly.
– N. Harris