Know your readers

The importance of knowing your readers

Each person who receives your e‑mail, memo, letter, or report will understand it differently. You must know your reader well enough to have reasonable confidence that this reader will accomplish your goals and satisfy his or her own needs as a result of what you write. That means you must keep the reader at the forefront of your thoughts as you write.

Here are some examples of why that's important. Imagine that your company has a problem with some employees coming to work late. You write a short memo about the effects of tardiness on productivity and the importance of being at work on time. You send the memo to 500 line employees asking them to be at work by 8:00 in the morning. You write one memo. Your assistant makes 500 copies. You send out one memo to 500 employees. How many memos do the employees read?

Of course, the employees read 500 different memos. The memo text stimulates different thoughts in the minds of every employee:

Fran Loft - "Oh, being at work means I have to walk through the door at 8:00."

Don Frazier - "OK, being at work means I have to be at my desk going through claims by 8:00."

Larry Smith - "Got it. Being at work means I can be having coffee in the lounge with my buds at 8:00."

Penn McGee - Didn't read it. Never reads your memos.

And on and on, through 500 different employees. The memo text also brings up different feelings in the minds of the employees:

Mary Liston - "Great! It's about time they told those slackers to get to work on time."

Jim Dougherty - "What do you mean? I get to work on time every morning. How about some credit for doing it right!"

Thelma Birch - "Uh oh. This is a message to me. Man, I can't afford to lose this job and I must be on the brink. I didn't realize being two minutes late last Thursday would get me fired."

Penn McGee - Still hasn't read it and thinks you're an egghead anyway.

Only by knowing your reader as well as possible can you avoid the problem of not having the readers achieve your goals for the writing.

How to know your readers

Use the following sources to learn about your readers:

  1. Key words in the request
  2. Knowledge of the reader
  3. Clarifying with the reader
  4. Common senseóbut it takes work

Who are the readers?

  1. Identify all of the stakeholders.
    • Requester
    • Person originating the request
    • Reader
  2. Be aware of the secondary readers. These are people who only possibly might read the message, but you must be aware of their reactions if they do read it.

What are the readers' expectations?

  1. Identify the expectation key words.
  2. Use the requester's key words to assess what the reader expects.
  3. If you aren't sure what the reader expects, clarify it.
  4. Repeat the key words in the response.
  5. If the request is numbered, number the responses in the same way.
  6. If the requester is not the reader, identify the reader's expectations.

What are the readers' needs?

  1. Identify the need key words.
  2. Use the requester's key words to assess what the reader needs.
  3. Repeat the key words in the response.
  4. Use your understanding of the subject to satisfy reader needs.

How much do the readers know?

  1. What does this reader know about you? Start with an introduction to you if necessary.
  2. What does this reader know about the subject?
  3. What does this reader need to know?

What are the readers' education and expertise levels?

  1. What vocabulary does the reader use?
  2. What does this reader know about these types of subjects in general?
Score the readers' education and expertise.
  1. NaÔve, general public, not knowledgeable
  2. Some general knowledge, little understanding of jargon, able to understand some principles
  3. Astute, knowledgeable, understands the field, knows the jargon

What are the readers' positions or professional levels?

  1. Is the reader an executive or at the board of directors level?
  2. Does the reader expect a formal, professional presentation?

What are the readers' attitudes about you and the subject?

  1. Use the readerís key words to assess sentiments: comfort, eagerness, anxiety, or hostility.
  2. How does this reader feel about these types of subjects in general?
  3. How does the reader feel about you?
  4. What is threatening in this document?
Score the readers' attitudes.
  1. Very cooperative, congenial, partnering
  2. Willing, open
  3. Neutral
  4. Unwilling, fearful, or defensive
  5. Hostile


To see an example of a memo that is inappropriate for the audience and the revision that improves it, click on the "Example" button below. The information will appear in a new window. Close the new window when you're finished looking at the examples.




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