I’m currently listening to a book on CD (errr, rather .wma, since I’ve checked it out from my local public library via netLibrary and am listening to it via the DRM-filled magic of Windows Media Player – but that’s another post entirely) called “Way With Words: Writing, Rhetoric, and the Art of Persuasion” that brought up an interesting point in the 4th lecture on Audience. The professor, Michael Drout, used the term “common discourse” to explain why you should go beyond knowing who your audience is and actually understand what the common culture of the audience. He used magazine articles as an example – read the magazine and understand what type of language is used (jargon; plain English; first, second or third person; etc.) and what conventions the audience expects. Since you can’t know who exactly will be in your audience, the next best thing would be to cater to what they expect from you. This comes on the heels of a post by Aaron Schmidt, of the Walking Paper blog that gives tips for being a good presenter. Michael Stephens saw that post and pointed to his own collection of tips for presenting at Tame The Web.
All of these things came together for me this morning in a sort of synthesis of information – which I’m going to share with you. Dr. Drout was referring to audience as a writer or speaker, Aaron and Michael were talking about speaking and presenting and this blog tends to talk about (when it’s not overtaken by conference posts) web sites and web site design. All of these creative endeavors require that you take into account your “audience” – but none of them have a well-defined audience at all. Anyone can read a magazine article, show up for a presentation or visit a web site. You may have a vague idea of the type of people who will show up (librarians interested in webby 2.0 stuff, such as the last conference I attended), but even within a fairly limited audience range, you will find vast differences in technological abilities, interests and understanding. Because of this difference, “writing for your audience” becomes pretty much useless advice.
Instead of writing for a particular audience type, check out the audience’s expectations via the common discourse. Use Slideshare to see what kinds of presentations were given at the last conference at which you are speaking; read a back issue or two of a magazine for which you want to write; visit similar or competing web sites that do much the same thing as the web site you are about to design/write copy for/etc. This will require a bit more work on our part as content creators, but it will – hopefully – improve the effects our words/presentations/sites have on our audience – and that’s the point of doing all this writing/presenting/web site creating, right?