For engineers who may be more comfortable with exact specifications and predictable, scientific variables than more subjective, socially-influenced “soft” skills, questions about how to connect with particular audiences effectively can seem daunting.
Understanding the audience for communications is sometimes called “constructing” the audience . The idea of construction–rather than just identification–implies that there is more work to be done than simple identification of who you are writing for. In order to build a more helpful set of characteristics about the audience(s) and their respective assumptions, needs, and expectations, it is important to conduct an audience analysis. This analysis may be a more or less formal process, depending on the context of the situation, such as the medium of the communication, the relationship between writer/audience, and the amount of time available. Oregon State University students and employees can find a sample audience analysis form here.
Regardless of whether you fill out an audience analysis form, there are a few key areas that you’ll want to focus on getting information about as you construct your audience:
- technical abilities
- reasons for reading
- cultural impacts on information processing
Audiences may have similar technical backgrounds and abilities to writers, or they may have completely different levels of technical knowledge and areas of expertise.
- “High-context” or “Technical” audiences have much of the same background knowledge as engineer writers do.
- “Mid-context” or “Semi-technical” audiences have some level of shared background with the writers, but this knowledge is limited in some way.
- “Low-context” or “Non-technical” audiences generally come from backgrounds outside of engineering and have other ares of expertise .
Depending on how much knowledge (or context) your audience shares with you, your decisions about how much technical vocabulary or explanation to include will vary. In some cases, technical audiences will expect very detailed technical explanations and fewer general explanations, while less technical audiences will expect less technical jargon and more explanation in terms that are familiar to them.
For mixed-ability audiences, you may want to include a glossary of terms, more detailed technical explanations, or more comprehensive explanations in non-technical terms (or all of the above) as appendices to your documents. For shorter documents, you might consider making different versions for different audiences.
Reasons for Reading
The motivation that an audience has for receiving a communication may weigh heavily on their interpretation and processing of information included in the communication. Think first and foremost of the communication you are creating as being a potential transaction between yourself or your team and the audience. You are sending something out (a message) with a goal in mind, and the audience is also receiving that content or message with their own goal in mind. Your goals may be similar, but they are rarely exactly the same, and they may even be very different. While you may want your audience to understand and sign off on information or perhaps give you suggestions about how to improve a process, their goals may be to check the validity of technical blocks, to review your team’s progress, or to figure out they best ways that they can contribute to project success.
Keep these factors in mind so that you can direct and present the content or your message to accomplish everyone’s goals.
Cultural Impacts on Information Processing
Compounding various backgrounds, areas of expertise, and goals for communication, cultural/environmental factors will also impact your audience’s perspective. “Culture” or “environment” might mean the corporate culture in which the audience and/or the communication is situated, geographic location, timeframe, conventions, assumptions, and so on. For example, if you are writing in a professional setting for someone whose time is at a premium and whose opinion can make or break a project, it would be prudent to make sure that you don’t send him or her documents with obvious formatting or typographical errors in them. These types of errors can create a barrier between you and the audience based on a perceived lack of professionalism, and, potentially, competence.
There are many other situations where culture or environmental issues might have an influence on an audience’s reception of communication. It will be important for you and your team to at least be aware of and try to control for as many of these as possible to develop successful communications.
For more information on how to connect successfully with your audience, consult the resources below.
- Many articles on construction an audience in engineering communications can be found at ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers)
- There are also quite a few helpful articles on the IEEE Explore database.
- OWL Purdue (Online Writing Lab): Audience
- “3 Tips for Writing to a Global Audience.” [Online]. Available: https://www.asme.org/career-education/articles/business-writing/3-tips-for-writing-to-a-global-audience. [Accessed: 02-Nov-2016].
- “ASME – TRAINING & DEVELOPMENT – Communicating to a Non-Technical Audience.” [Online]. Available: https://www.asme.org/products/courses/communicating-to-a-nontechnical-audience. [Accessed: 02-Nov-2016].
- B. Haara, “Challenging the way we learn to write for a global audience,” in Professional Communication Conference, 1998. IPCC 98. Proceedings. 1998 IEEE International, 1998, vol. 2, pp. 293–303 vol.2.
- “Crafting a Credible Message – It’s No Time for LOL | ASCE News.” .
- R. L. Sullivan and J. L. Wircenski, Technical Presentation Workbook. Three Park Avenue New York, NY 10016-5990: ASME, 2010.
- J. M. Williams, “Writing for a non-technical audience: #x201C;Speak our language, #x201D; requests this layman interested in but wary of the technological world,” IEEE Potentials, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 9–9, Feb. 1986.
- M. C. Cosgrove, “Writing for ‘The Audience,’” J. Mech. Des, vol. 103, no. 2, pp. 342–345, Apr. 1981.
- I. G. Buican and M. I. Amador, “Writing in English for an international audience,” in Professional Communication Conference, 1991. IPCC ’91. Proceedings. The Engineered Communication., International, 1991, vol. 1 & 2, pp. 98–100 vol.1.
- D. F. Beer, Ed., “Proposals: Writing to Win the Customer,” in Writing and Speaking in the Technology Professions, Hoboken, NJ, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015, pp. 205–206.