The first time I write for a publication or for a company, the first question I ask is, “Who’s your audience?” Because what I write will depend a lot on who will see it.
Even my grocery list is going to look different depending on who’s doing the shopping this week. If I’m going to the store I might write “coffee.” If you’re going, I’d specify a brand and how many pounds.
Suppose I’m writing about a new concert hall being built downtown. If I’m writing for people in the construction business, I’ll concentrate on how the concert hall is being built. They might want to know the logistics of getting tons of material into a small site in a crowded part of the city. They might appreciate a section on how the developer handled a sudden increase in the price of steel between the design phase and when construction started.
But I won’t have to introduce them to the idea of building codes, safety inspections or how a general contractor uses subcontractors.
If I’m writing about the same project for an arts magazine, I’m going to focus on a completely different set of details like sight lines and acoustics. Maybe a new generation of backstage electronics will allow the set designers to try things they couldn’t do before. But for this group of readers, it might be useful to explain how the latest building codes will affect the finished product.
When I wrote regularly for weekly business newspapers, I had another good reason to pin down the makeup of the audience. I needed to give my sources some clues about how to talk to me. At the start of the interview I’d often explain that the readers were “typically business owners and managers, a pretty sharp and educated group, but most of them don’t have much experience in your specific line of work.”
That told the sources that they could skip over the “Business 101” material, but they needed to explain jargon that was unique to their field.
In marketing, audience is equally important. Companies often make a list of “personas” that describe the main groups they are trying to reach, such as The Single Mom, or The Teen Athlete, or The Retired Boomer.
Typically, you’ll be targeting four or five different personas, each with its own set of interests. The Design Engineer will want to know the specifications of your new widget, but the Purchasing Agent will focus on cost, while the Installer will care more about the kind of support you provide.
Even in fiction, you probably have certain kinds of readers in mind whether you realize it or not. While it’s nice to think that we’re writing for “everybody,” it’s rare. There are a lot of people out there: third-graders and grad students, millionaires and homeless people, all manner of races, colors and creeds.
Sketch out a few personas before you get too far into a writing project, and they will help you figure out what you need to say.