For most technical writers, audience (who you perceive to be reading or using your text) is the most important consideration in planning, writing, and reviewing a document. You “adapt” your writing to meet the needs, interests, and background of your readers. In reality, the lack of audience analysis and adaptation is one of the root causes of most problems you find in professional or technical documents.

Audience and the Rhetorical Situation

Audience is one element of the rhetorical situation. The “rhetorical situation” is a term used to describe the components of any situation in which you may want to communicate, whether in written or oral form. To define a “rhetorical situation,” ask yourself this question:  “who is talking to whom about what, how, and why?”

There are five main components of the rhetorical situation: purpose, writer, audience, message, and context/culture.

Writer refers to you, the writer/creator/designer of the communication. It is important to examine your own motivation for writing and any biases, past experiences, and knowledge you bring to the writing situation. These elements will influence how you craft the message, whether positively or negatively. This examination should also include your role within the organization, as well as your position relative to your target audience.

Purpose refers to why you are writing. Determining your purpose requires that you engage in task analysis that is, determine what you hope to accomplish by designing this document. Ask yourself what you hope the reader(s) will do/think/decide or how they will behave as a result of reading the text. Are you writing to create a record, to give or request information, or to persuade?

Message refers to the information you want to communicate. This is the content of your document. It should be aligned to your purpose and targeted to your audience. While it is important to carefully choose what content your audience needs, it is equally critical to cut out content that your audience does not need or want. “Time is money” may be a tired old cliché, but it is important to avoid wasting your audience’s time with information that is unnecessary or irrelevant to them. Your message should be professional and expressed in an appropriate tone for the audience, purpose, and context.

Context refers to the situation that creates the need for the writing. In other words, what has happened or needs to happen that creates the need for communication? The context is influenced by timing, location, current events, and culture, which can be organizational or social. Ignoring the context for your communication could result in awkward situations, or possibly offensive ones. It will almost certainly impact your ability to clearly convey your message to your audience.

Types of Audiences

One of the first things to do when you analyze an 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 are the people who know the business or organization (and possibly 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 research and development areas of the government and technology worlds.
  • Technicians are the people who build, operate, maintain, and repair the items that the experts design and theorize about. Theirs is a highly technical knowledge as well but of a more practical nature.
  • Executives are the people who make business, economic, administrative, legal, governmental, political decisions about the products of the experts and technicians. Executives are likely to have as little technical knowledge about the subject as nonspecialists. For many of you, this will be the primary audience.
  • Nonspecialists have the least technical knowledge of all. 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. Chances are that these readers will represent your secondary audience.

Audience Analysis

It’s important to determine which of the four categories just discussed represent your potential audience(s), but that’s not the end of it.

 example of a persona offering a variety of details about an audience members likes, goals, etc.
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 are 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 they will demand from it. For example, imagine you are writing a manual on how to use a new smartphone—what are your readers going to expect to find in it? Imagine you are under contract to write a background report on global warming for a national real estate association—what do readers 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 influence how you should design and write your document—for example, age groups, type of residence, area of residence, gender, 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 the audience, and unknown audiences.

  • More than one audience: You are 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 should you do in this case? You can either write all the sections so that all the audiences of your document can understand them. 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 find relevant information in your report.
  • Wide variability in an audience: You may realize that, although you have an audience that fits into only one category, its background varies widely. This is a tough one—if you write to the lowest common denominator of readers, you are likely to end up with a cumbersome, tedious book-like report that will turn off most readers. However, if you don’t write to that lowest level, you lose that segment of your readers. What should you 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.

The majority of this chapter was reused from Technical Writing by Allison Gross, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Text about the rhetorical situation was reused from Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last and Candice Neveu, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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