Defining Your Target Audience

The characteristics of your readers

Four main considerations about your reading audience should guide your writing.

Size of your audience

It can be more difficult to write to multiple readers than to a single reader. If you have multiple readers, you should determine who your key readers are. Although you may include some extra explanation or definitions for other readers, this shouldn't become cumbersome for the key readers.

Gender of your reader

You need to know the gender so that you can use the appropriate title. This may require a phone call on your part – remember that many first names are used by both genders. If you address a female manager as "Dear Sir," for example, the reader may be offended. This indicates you haven't taken the time to do your research.

Knowledge level of your reader

The knowledge level should guide the content and style of your message. You should explain technical content simply and avoid using jargon in messages for readers who may not share your level of expertise. More technical content would be appropriate if you were writing to a peer or manager in your field. If you're addressing a message to multiple readers, you may not know their knowledge levels. Then it's generally best to keep things simple. If you assume your readers know more than they actually do, your message is likely to frustrate many.

Issues that are of concern to your audience

It's critical to know the issues of concern relevant to your audience. Always start a message with the information that's most important to the reader. Make it clear how your message will benefit them, rather than focusing on what you want to achieve. Generally, use the word "you" more often than "the company" or "I." You should also try to predict any questions the reader might have and acknowledge these in your writing.

Information about your audience can come from various sources. You might check a company web site before writing a business proposal for the company's management, for example. Or you might contact a conference organizer for details of who'll be attending the presentation you're planning to write.

You might not always know exactly who you're writing for. But the more information you gather, the better you'll be able to tailor your writing so it has the desired impact.

Your relationship to the reader

As well as identifying characteristics of the individuals you're writing for, you need to consider your relationship to your readers.

What is their level of authority in relation to yours?

It's important to tailor your messages based on whether they're for managers, colleagues, employees you supervise, or people outside your organization – like clients, suppliers, and the general public.

Consider how your level of authority in relation to that of your readers should affect the way you write:

  • generally, messages for those above you in your organization should be fairly formal but to the point
  • messages for colleagues, or peers, can be more informal
  • instructions for employees you supervise – in other words, your subordinates – should be clear and direct
  • a more formal style is usually appropriate for communicating with people outside your organization

Do you have a personal relationship with your readers?

You should also assess how well you know the person you're writing to. Is it someone within your department or perhaps a colleague you've known for many years? Do you have a social as well as business relationship with the reader?

If so, you can be slightly less formal. A tone that's too reserved may offend the reader or leave him feeling his personal relationship with you has been overlooked.

What level of interest do the readers have in what you need to write?

You need to consider the reader's level of interest in the subject you're addressing. Will your message have a direct effect on the recipient?

To write effectively in business, you should consider the size, gender, knowledge level, and issues of concern to your target audience.

In addition, you should tailor your writing based on the target reader's relationship to you and your message. This involves considering the reader's level of authority in relation to yours, any personal relationship you have with the reader, and the reader's level of interest in the subject you're addressing.