Writing tip: Audience awareness

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By: 
Theresa Bell

Understanding an audience’s needs and expectations is essential to creating effective communication. Crafting a message involves more than producing words; the message must also be presented appropriately. For example, writing a project proposal in limerick form might provide excellent information, but it’s unlikely the proposal would meet the expectations of the decision makers.

When deciding how to approach writing for a specific audience, authors need to consider many aspects of developing the message. For example, how much information does the audience already possess on the topic? An author may not need to provide detailed explanations to an expert, but explanations are necessary when the intention is to explain the author’s thinking or when the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter isn’t guaranteed. The formality of the structure, tone, and style also needs to align with the audience’s expectations. Finally, authors must determine whether a strictly objective perspective is necessary or if they can include some personal observations and emotion in the description.

How does the message change for different audiences?

Consider how you would describe a personal experience to the following audiences and how the content, structure, tone, style, and explanations would change for each audience:

You (e.g., diary entry)

  • Focused on personal details with little explanation; may be more focused on describing the event and resulting emotions
  • Informal structure, tone, and style

Close friend who shared the experience (e.g., a personal email or text)

  • Likely focused on personal details, such as the reaction to the event or resulting emotions, versus describing the event
  • Informal structure, tone, and style

Work acquaintance who wasn’t present for the event (e.g., work email)

  • Includes sufficient detail to explain what happened; may be more objective versus emotional
  • Semi-formal structure, tone, and style

Supervising manager (e.g., event report)

  • Provides sufficient, objective description to provide background details, describe the event, explain the outcome(s), and may include rationale for why the event happened
  • Formal structure, tone, and style, especially if the message is likely to be forwarded to senior managers

Senior executive (e.g., briefing note)

  • Provides necessary details to inform the individual on the event, including background details, a precise description of the event, rationale for why the event happened, options for follow-up, and recommendations for future similar events
  • Focuses on an objective presentation of only the essential details
  • Formal structure, tone, and style

Academic audiences

The intended audience will also influence an author’s approach in academic writing. For example, a post in a team Moodle discussion forum could be informal and personal if the audience is other students. However, if an instructor asked students to model formal academic writing in posts to him or her, the writing would instead have a formal structure, tone, and style, as well as clear explanations that demonstrate the author’s understanding of the topic. An informal reflective piece, such as a journal entry, might be written with the instructor as the intended direct audience, therefore the work could be more personal and without explanations of course concepts with which the instructor is familiar. In contrast, a thesis would be written for a direct audience of the thesis committee and an implied audience of the general academic and/or professional community. Accordingly, the document would have a formal structure, tone, and style and should present all the information necessary to understand the author’s research and discussion.

If you’re a student and you’re unsure of what approach you should take in a work, please consult your instructor. For more information and suggestions on tailoring a message to an academic audience, please visit “Audience” by the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Do you have questions about this tip or any other writing matter? Please contact the Writing Centre as we’d be pleased to assist you.

Theresa Bell
Writing Centre manager