With this post I am starting a new series of posts which I have been delaying for so long. I would like to share my thoughts about science and technical writing, typography and document design – the topics that constitute my profession.
The first post is about audience analysis.
The audience analysis is an important task, which should be done at the very beginning of the writing process, but which is often overlooked in both scientific, technical, and technology writing.
Audience analysis is the very thing that determines three the most important features of the document:
- The choice of content – what information we want/need to give;
- The style – how we will present this information;
- The length of your document – how much information we need to give.
In this post I use the word “document” to address any type of writing – paper, presentation, tech manual, brochure, manuscript, web page, etc.
Let me talk about it a little more. When we write we want our opuses to be at least read. And we also hope (secretly) they will meet with some appreciation. The same applies to posters, presentations, web pages, videos, even pieces of art. Oh, I am not talking here about status reports and meeting notes, but it would be a great improvement in the human life, if we figure out how to write these in poetry, or may be make comics of them.
If we want our potential readers to pay attention, we need to know what is important to them what they want to know and what they want to avoid. The last is often even more important than the first.
It has been widely accepted and cultivated for centuries in scientific and technical literature that facts speak for themselves. But in our Internet era, when science and technology reaches out to wider audience those facts often do not say much for non-scientific and non-technical audiences which happen to stumble upon them. The audience could also be scientific and technical enough, but in a different field.
In today’s reality of funding shortages, knowing the potential audience and tailoring technical/scientific communication accordingly can make our work more compelling, and even more attractive to a larger group of fellow scientists/engineers/users/taxpayers, regardless of whether they work in the same field or not. This can translate into greater success at obtaining grants, publishing in high-quality journals, or attracting academic and industrial colleagues for collaborations.
Also we need to speak a language our auditory speaks in order to avoid misunderstandings, misinterpretation, misleading, or boredom (or all altogether).
Do we really need to write this document?
An effective way to begin thinking (not writing, not yet) about the future document (publication, article, report, presentation, whatever) is to perform the needs analysis. The needs analysis is intended to answer the simple question: “Do we need to write this document (make this presentation/report) at all???”
Of course many times we do not need – we have to, or even must to write that paper (document/report/piece of headache) in order to get money, avoid trouble, or please the boss. Still, the needs analysis might help even in these cases.
Who are you writing for?
What is the prior experience of the audiences in evaluating the information we give? Or in using the product, performing the process, etc?
What is the existing subject-matter knowledge of the audiences we address to? Expert? Novice? Somewhere in between? All of the above?
What data exists about the audiences’ needs/interests for the information we are going to provide?
What indicators exist that audience needs/interests are not being met?
What indicators exist that audience needs/interests are not being exceeded?
What profiles exist about the information needs/interests? Are they based on data or assumptions?
Actually, the set of questions to answer could be quite different to the one in the above example. Any set of questions is OK, if answering them helps to answer the bigger question:
Whom do I want to reach with my results/ideas/reports/documentation etc? What are potential collaborators, sponsors, users, critics, graduate students I want to reach?
Once we have identified the target audience, we need to become aware of just how diverse it can be- how to adapt our communication accordingly, so it can be compelling to all readers.
But that is a subject for another post. I am trying to keep each post short, which also a good strategy for a good writing.
Carrie Ann Koplinka-Loehr (1984). The Use of Educational Theory in Science Writing: Audience Analysis and Accommodation Cornell University
Kibiwott Peter Kurgat (2011). Needs Analysis in Writing: a study into academic writing needs of undergraduate students Lambert Acdemic Publishing DOI: ISBN: 978-3-8443-8735-3
- JoAnn T. Hackos (1994). Managing Your Documentation Projects, John Wiley & Sons
- “Tip Sheet Know Audience” from the Euroscience working group “Science Communication”