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 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:
* 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 executive.
* 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. If it's a new power technology, they decide whether the city should implement it. Executives are likely to have as little technical knowledge about the subject as non-specialists.
* Non-specialists: 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 their tasks; they want to understand the new power technology enough to know whether to vote for or against it in the upcoming bond election. 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 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:
* 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 background information.
* 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, sex, political preferences, and so on.
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.
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 non-specialist audiences:
* 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 key terms. (See the section on ideas on content for details.)
* 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 non-instructional 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 non-specialist 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.
More Audience Analysis