Understanding your audience is essential to crafting any piece of good writing, but it is especially important when addressing people beyond your lab group, such as outside researchers, peers from different fields, and—as you advance in your STEM career—grantors, government officials, journalists, and other local and international representatives.
Effectiveness in communication is measured by how well your audience understands the information presented, not by how well you understand the message. So as you are writing or rehearsing a presentation, you should not only think about what makes sense to you but also what makes sense to your audience. Consider what your audience knows about your topic, what they don’t know, and how they are accustomed to seeing and hearing information, and then change your writing and speaking approach to cater to these expectations.
There are many ways you can change your writing to better appeal to a specific audience. Four approaches include: changing the composition of your opening statement, word choice, presentation of images, and emphasis techniques.
The lede or opening statement
All good writing begins with a strong opening statement (also called a lede), an attention-getter that speaks directly to your reader. One common opening is a statement that challenges your reader’s knowledge or expectations. Another approach is to use statistics or interesting facts to highlight the importance of your story. Regardless of the approach, make sure that it is interesting to your target audience. And remember, the further removed people are from your field of work, the more important it is to convey the relevance of your work (the reason why your work is meaningful) early on.
The level of jargon you use, the terms you choose to define (and those that you assume your audience already knows), and whether or not you use the technical or the common names to define terms will all change depending on who your audience is. For a general audience, avoid jargon altogether and limit your use of acronyms. Instead, use plain language wherever possible.
Your choice of images, the level of detail you put in them, and how you position images within your report or presentation should also be determined with the audience in mind. For those doing a poster or slide presentation, make sure that images are large enough that viewers can see them from at least 5 feet away. If you need to use a highly complex image, add annotations or contrasting colors to direct your readers’ focus and make the most important parts of the image stand out.
In writing, emphasis techniques include capitalization, bold, italics, punctuation, color, and changes in size. In oral presentations, emphasis is added through pauses and changes in volume and pacing. All these techniques can and should be used to deliberately exemplify your main point(s) and direct your audience’s focus.
Confused about how to write for a specific audience? Try answering the following questions:
- Who is in your audience? Think of a person, real or imaginary, who would read your writing or view your presentation, and write to them directly. Another approach is to look up a specific publication where your work could be featured, identify the audience within that specific publication, and write to those audience members.
- How much does your audience know about your topic? Identify one key concept that you anticipate your audience may not know well, then write out a simple explanation or find/create an image or schematic that can help you explain that concept.
- What do you want your audience to understand or do with the information you provide? Write down the key takeaways of your report or presentation and frame your presentation or writing around them.
- What questions will audience members have about your work? Incorporate the answers into your report or presentation. You can also use them to prepare yourself for the Q&A session that follows your presentation.