A guy I know who works on classic cars made a social media post a while back that told everyone who follows him that he “picked up some Hookers” over the weekend.
Not one person shamed him online or forwarded the information to the guy’s wife. A lot of people responded with comments like “happy for you” or “so excited,” mainly because his audience was other car nerds.
Hookers, in car parlance, are exhaust headers named for their inventor, Gary Hooker, who constructed his first set of these back in the early 1960s. Headers like these provide your engine with more power because they help move the exhaust gas out of the engine more quickly.
In a more general context, it could appear that this guy was bragging about purchasing the services of prostitutes. In a car context, he was just making the engine more powerful.
And that is why understanding your audience matters.
News writers often cover topics that fall into “beats” when they work for general-interest publications like local newspapers or news magazines. Bloggers often have specific niches as do magazine writers for publications on health or hobbies. Public relations professionals have internal publics, who share an intimate understanding of how an organization works, and external publics, who often lack the detailed knowledge of a company or group. In each case, the writer has to understand what the readers know and don’t know as to best fine-tune the material and clarify the vocabulary.
Too often, we forget that people don’t know everything we know as writers, and thus we lapse into jargon, lingo and “alphabet soup” that can alienate the audience. Here are a couple thoughts to help you refine your writing as you work to reach your readers:
- Who is reading this? Don’t assume that you know your audience or that the audience is as informed as you are. Go check it out. Web analytics, market research and other similar data can help you figure out who is most frequently reading your work. This can help you determine if mostly local folks who know what “The Dean Dome” is or if the audience contains mostly out of state people who need the formal name (the Dean E. Smith Center) and some information about location and purpose.
- At what level are they reading this? A student once wrote an incredibly good piece for one of my writing classes on the issues surrounding raw milk. As I read it, I felt like I learned a ton and I suggested she get it published, probably in a local agricultural publication. The student, who grew up on a farm and had frequently read the publication, smiled at me like a parent smiles at an innocent child. “Um… This is really way too overly simplified for farmers…,” she explained.
For me, a non-farmer, she was writing at exactly the right level: Assume I’m somewhat educated but have spent no time on a farm. For farmers, this would have read like a “See Dick and Jane” book. Know how much your audience knows, how much background the readers will need and how slowly you need to walk into a topic to avoid losing anyone.
- Avoid alphabet soup for the most part. If your writing looks more like an eye chart than it does a story, you probably have a few too many abbreviations or acronyms in there. Some of these letter-based terms make sense within niche markets. If a business journal notes that a CPA for a B2B marketer uses GAAP, this will likely make sense to readers who know that CPA means “certified public accountant,” B2B means “business to business” and GAAP means “generally accepted accounting practices. However, for most of us, it looks like we would either need to spin the wheel again or buy a vowel. AP suggests using generic terms like “the organization” instead of using an abbreviation or acronym that would be confusing to readers.
(Case in point from “Good Morning, Vietnam.”)
- Help people out. In traditional media, it never hurts to include a brief definition or some context clues for audience members who might need a little help on an unfamiliar topic. If you’re working on the web, a link or two might make the difference between informed and lost readers. Always give people a chance to figure out what you’re telling them.
At the core of all storytelling is language and shared understanding. For health aficionados, adjusting your carbs might lead to weight loss, while car folks know adjusting your carb will help your engine run better. Somewhere in between, the rest of the world resides, so it’s on us as writers to make sure we make our message clear.