The audi­ence of a tech­ni­cal report—or any piece of writ­ing for that matter—is the intended or poten­tial reader or read­ers. For most tech­ni­cal writ­ers, this is the most impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion in plan­ning, writ­ing, and review­ing a doc­u­ment. You “adapt” your writ­ing to meet the needs, inter­ests, and back­ground of the read­ers who will be read­ing your writing.

Types of Audiences

One of the first things to do when you ana­lyze and audi­ence is to iden­tify its type (or types—it’s rarely just one type). The com­mon divi­sion of audi­ences into cat­e­gories is as follows:

Experts: These are the peo­ple who know the the­ory and the prod­uct inside and out. They designed it, they tested it, they know every­thing about it. Often, they have advanced degrees and oper­ate in aca­d­e­mic set­tings or in research and devel­op­ment areas of the gov­ern­ment and busi­ness worlds. The non­spe­cial­ist reader is least likely to under­stand what these peo­ple are saying-but also has the least rea­son to try. More often, the com­mu­ni­ca­tion chal­lenge faced by the expert is com­mu­ni­cat­ing to the tech­ni­cian and the exec­u­tive.

Tech­ni­cians: These are the peo­ple who build, oper­ate, main­tain, and repair the stuff that the experts design and the­o­rize about. Theirs is a highly tech­ni­cal knowl­edge as well, but of a more prac­ti­cal nature.

Exec­u­tives:These are the peo­ple who make busi­ness, eco­nomic, admin­is­tra­tive, legal, gov­ern­men­tal, polit­i­cal deci­sions on the stuff that the experts and tech­ni­cians work with. If it’s a new prod­uct, they decide whether to pro­duce and mar­ket it. If it’s a new power tech­nol­ogy, they decide whether the city should imple­ment it. Exec­u­tives are likely to have as lit­tle tech­ni­cal knowl­edge about the sub­ject as non­spe­cial­ists.

Non­spe­cial­ists: These read­ers have the least tech­ni­cal knowl­edge of all. Their inter­est may be as prac­ti­cal as tech­ni­cians’, but in a dif­fer­ent way. They want to use the new prod­uct to accom­plish their tasks; they want to under­stand the new power tech­nol­ogy enough to know whether to vote for or against it in the upcom­ing bond elec­tion. Or, they may just be curi­ous about a spe­cific tech­ni­cal mat­ter and want to learn about it—but for no spe­cific, prac­ti­cal reason.

Audi­ence Analysis

It’s impor­tant to deter­mine which of the four cat­e­gories just dis­cussed the poten­tial read­ers of your doc­u­ment belong to, but that’s not the end of it. Audi­ences, regard­less of cat­e­gory, must also be ana­lyzed in terms of char­ac­ter­is­tics such as the following:

Background-knowledge, expe­ri­ence, train­ing: One of your most impor­tant con­cerns is just how much knowl­edge, expe­ri­ence, or train­ing you can expect in your read­ers. If you expect some of your read­ers to lack cer­tain back­ground, do you auto­mat­i­cally sup­ply it in your doc­u­ment? Con­sider an exam­ple: imag­ine you’re writ­ing a guide to using a soft­ware prod­uct that runs under Microsoft Win­dows. How much can you expect your read­ers to know about Win­dows? If some are likely to know lit­tle about Win­dows, should you pro­vide that infor­ma­tion? If you say no, then you run the risk of cus­tomers’ get­ting frus­trated with your prod­uct. If you say yes to adding back­ground infor­ma­tion on Win­dows, you increase your work effort and add to the page count of the doc­u­ment (and thus to the cost). Obvi­ously, there’s no easy answer to this question—part of the answer may involve just how small a seg­ment of the audi­ence needs that back­ground infor­ma­tion.

Needs and inter­ests: To plan your doc­u­ment, you need to know what your audi­ence is going to expect from that doc­u­ment. Imag­ine how read­ers will want to use your doc­u­ment; what will they demand from it. For exam­ple, imag­ine you are writ­ing a man­ual on how to use a new microwave oven—what are your read­ers going to expect to find in it? Imag­ine you’re under con­tract to write a back­ground report on global warm­ing for a national real estate association—what do they want to read about; and, equally impor­tant, what do they not want to read about?

Other demo­graphic char­ac­ter­is­tics: And of course there are many other char­ac­ter­is­tics about your read­ers that might have an influ­ence on how you should design and write your document—for exam­ple, age groups, type of res­i­dence, area of res­i­dence, sex, polit­i­cal pref­er­ences, and so on.
Audi­ence analy­sis can get com­pli­cated by at least two other fac­tors: mixed audi­ence types for one doc­u­ment, wide vari­abil­ity within audi­ence, and unknown audiences.

More than one audi­ence. You’re likely to find that your report is for more than one audi­ence. For exam­ple, it may be seen by tech­ni­cal peo­ple (experts and tech­ni­cians) and admin­is­tra­tive peo­ple (exec­u­tives). What to do? You can either write all the sec­tions so that all the audi­ences of your doc­u­ment can under­stand them (good luck!). Or you can write each sec­tion strictly for the audi­ence that would be inter­ested in it, then use head­ings and sec­tion intro­duc­tions to alert your audi­ence about where to go and what to stay out of in your report.

Wide vari­abil­ity in an audi­ence.You may real­ize that, although you have an audi­ence that fits into only one cat­e­gory, there is a wide vari­abil­ity in its back­ground. This is a tough one—if you write to the low­est com­mon denom­i­na­tor of reader, you’re likely to end up with a cum­ber­some, tedious book-like thing that will turn off the major­ity of read­ers. But if you don’t write to that low­est level, you lose that seg­ment of your read­ers. What to do? Most writ­ers go for the major­ity of read­ers and sac­ri­fice that minor­ity that needs more help. Oth­ers put the sup­ple­men­tal infor­ma­tion in appen­dixes or insert cross-references to begin­ners’ books.

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