The #1 Secret to Better Writing

Know thy audience.

If you could take only one action to improve your work-related writing, understanding your readers is the one that delivers the greatest return. Answer this question before you begin any piece of writing (yes, even emails):

Who is my audience and what do I want him/her/them to know?

Does this sound like an obvious, almost automatic first step?

Far too often, people start out writing in hopes that what they intend to say will become clear as they type. This approach tries readers’ patience. Who has time to rummage through your heap of words to find the relevant nuggets?

You’ve got eight seconds to grab your readers’ interest. Make every second count by recognizing a foundation of modern business communication:

It’s all about them, not you.

Distractions are many, time is short, and your readers are self-centered out of necessity. To draw them in, convey right up front why they should continue reading. That applies as much to the quarterly report for the department head as it does to your organization’s website.

“I have some information that will bring value to your world.”

Is this the message conveyed by what you write at work? If not, you have a clue as to why your writing may not have the effect you desire. People are more likely to get the message when you deliver it in a style that engages them and considers their interests. That has always been a tenet of good writing. Now–in a world where people are primed to demand “personalized experiences”–it’s The Holy Grail.

To craft relevant content, you must first…

1. Define your audience.

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Are your readers professional peers, authorities in other fields, the general public?
  • How much do your readers already know about the subject? Are they experts, somewhat familiar with the topic, or new to the ideas you’ll present?
  • What is the “temperature” of your audience? Friend or foe, interested or indifferent, respectful or unreceptive?
  • Who are you to your audience? Mentor, colleague, advocate, authority?

2. Define your purpose.

What do you aim to accomplish? What effect do you want your words to have? What action do you want your audience to take when they’re done reading?

Be specific and concrete. If you don’t know where you’re headed, it’s going to be tough to take readers with you. Here are a few examples:

Vague:  Announce new research findings on addiction.

Better:  Describe new research findings on the neural mechanisms of addiction and how they may lead to more effective treatments.

Vague:  Compile your federal agency’s annual report to Congress.

Better:  Present the benefits delivered by agency programs and describe how they meet legislative mandates in order to justify continued funding by Congress.

When you get clear about your audience and purpose, you gain insight into the best medium for your message. You can evaluate the most effective length, tone, and writing style.

Here are examples of some possible audiences and venues for those research findings on addiction:

  • Neuroscience peers –, peer-reviewed journal article
  • MDs, psychologists, social workers – Features in association/professional magazines and websites, blog
  • General/specialized media – Web and mobile friendly news releases and fact sheets

When you know who your readers are, you can also scope out which social media channels your audience frequents–LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc.–and target posts accordingly.

Understand your audience and purpose and you’ll be closer to sharing your knowledge where and how it will have its greatest impact.

Further reading on the modern attention span:

Not quite the average: An empirical study of web use.

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