One of the most basic principles of writing is to write for your reader. Yet often we become so entrenched in what we want to say, we lose sight of what our readers need to hear. Communicating is all about sharing our thoughts and ideas. When we write an email, report, proposal or procedure our goal is to transfer the thoughts in our mind into a written format that will be transferred to our readers’ minds. At least, that’s what we hope.
But can we be sure our readers’ minds work the same way as our own? Will they be receptive to our message or are they likely to reject it? If we use jargon, will our readers understand it or will they think we are trying to trick them? If the tone is formal and bureaucratic, will our readers relate to it or will they feel we don’t understand their needs?
Understanding your reader
There are many ways to lose our readers. Sometimes a reader gives up because the writing is not good – perhaps the structure is disorganised or the sentences are long and rambling. When a reader gives up reading it means we have failed to make a connection with them. If that happens, our whole communication will have failed.
Before you write the first word, try to put yourself in the shoes of your reader. At the very least you need to consider 3 key questions.
1. Who are your readers?
Rather than lumping your readers into a broad category like ‘members of the public’, ‘employees’ or ‘managers’, break down their demographics. For example, if you are writing for a broad audience find out whether there is a dominant age group or how culturally diverse they are. When writing to an individual, think about their personal preferences (e.g. do they like a warm and fuzzy tone or are they more of a ‘get to the point’ person?). All of this knowledge will help you choose appropriate words and adopt a style and tone your reader will relate to.
2. How is your reader likely to be feeling about your topic?
This is a critical consideration. Without understanding how your reader is feeling, you will be unable to adopt the appropriate tone. If your audience is likely to be unreceptive, you will need to adopt a more persuasive tone. If you anticipate a defensive reaction, your reader may interpret an attack when none was intended so you will need to choose your words carefully to help the reader become less defensive.
3. How much does your reader know about the subject already?
The easiest part of a report to write is usually the background which is often the first paragraph after the introduction. If your reader is already familiar with the background, you could lose their attention before you get to the important part. Technical terminology could alienate lay readers who don’t understand the jargon whereas a colleague who works in the same field as you is likely to be insulted if you use lay terms.
Adapting your writing style to your reader
Some topics can be more challenging to write about. For example, climate change is a subject that can elicit feelings of fear, guilt or denial with readers polarising into taking an entrenched position. With increased media coverage over recent years, many of us are becoming more knowledgeable about the topic but the science for most of us is still difficult to understand.
Compare the following examples about coral bleaching. Each has a different audience and different purpose. Notice the different writing styles and the effect these styles have on how you feel as a reader:
|Technical audience||‘It is proposed that emissions of volatile sulfur compounds by coral reefs contribute to the formation of a biologically-derived feedback on sea surface temperature (SST) through the formation of marine biogenic aerosol (MBA). The direction and strength of this feedback remains uncertain and constitutes a fundamental constraint on predicting the ability of corals to cope with future ocean warming.’1|
|General audience – journalistic style||‘The Great Barrier Reef is facing one of the most widespread coral bleaching events on record, as water temperatures in the Coral Sea spike … Speaking from Heron Island, marine biologist Aaron Chai said what concerned him most about the latest bleaching event was that it hadn’t occurred during an El Niño year, which normally brought warmer water.’2|
|General audience – conservation organisation website||‘Gorgeous, delicate coral reefs are home to millions of fish and fundamental to our own survival. Coral bleaching is a global crisis, caused by increased ocean temperatures driven by carbon pollution … The mining and burning of coal releases carbon pollution into the air, which is heating our planet and warming our oceans.’3|
The examples show a marked contrast in style but even small changes in style and tone can alienate your reader. Compare these examples written for people experiencing mental health issue:
|Appropriate tone||Bureaucratic tone|
|‘There is no one proven way that people recover from anxiety or depression, and it’s different for everybody. However, there is a range of effective treatments and health professionals and other support people who can help you on the road to recovery. There are also many things you can do to help yourself to recover and stay well.’ (Beyond Blue website)||How a person recovers from anxiety or depression can vary significantly. With a range of efficacious treatments, health professionals, support people and other stakeholders can help patients on the recovery journey to optimum health. There is a raft of interventions a patient can implement themselves to stay well and healthy.*|
Writing is highly subjective with no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to convey a message. Although your organisation may have a preferred style or tone of voice that forms part of their identity or branding, writing for your reader is critical. If you can’t engage your reader, if the shoe doesn’t fit perfectly, the communication will be dead in the water.
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1 Jackson, R., Gabric, A. & Cropp, R. Effects of ocean warming and coral bleaching on aerosol emissions in the Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Sci Rep 8, 14048 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-32470-7
2 Great Barrier Reef coral bleaching event linked to ‘anthropogenic climate change’ by Ben Deacon and Jess Davis, Australian Broadcasting Corporation News https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-06/great-barrier-reef-coral-bleaching-anthropogenic-climate-change/12029936
3 Australian Marine Conservation Society Fight for Our Reef website https://www.marineconservation.org.au/coral-bleaching/ Retrieved 8 May 2020