Target Audience

Markel, M. (2015). Technical communication (11th ed.).  Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.


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JASON FALLS, THE DIGITAL STRATEGIST for the online retailer CaféPress, writes frequently about how companies can use social media to create relationships with customers. what does he say is the key to using social media for business? Knowing your audience. in a 2013 blog post, Falls wrote about some of the electronic services that can help companies figure out who their customers are so that they can better appeal to their interests. one of the services he discussed is demographicsPro, which supplies information about your twitter followers. Figure 5.1 shows part of the report that demographicsPro supplied to Falls about his twitter followers.

organizations of all sorts, not just businesses, analyze their audiences. Government agencies that want to appeal to the general public—to urge them to eat better, get vaccinated, or sign up for health insurance, to name just a few campaigns—start by analyzing their audiences to learn how to motivate them. Political campaigns analyze voters to determine the issues they want to see addressed. Charities such as the March of dimes analyze their audiences to improve the effectiveness of their communications.

understanding Audience and purpose

Projects and campaigns of all sizes and types succeed only if they are based on an accurate understanding of the needs and desires of their audiences and have a clear, focused purpose. Because the documents and other com- munication you produce in the workplace will, more often than not, form the foundations of these projects and campaigns, they too will succeed only if they are based on an accurate understanding of your audience and have a clear purpose.

Although you might not realize it, you probably consider audience in your day-to-day communication. For example, when you tell your parents about a new job you’ve landed, you keep the discussion general and focus on the job details you know they care most about: its location, its salary and ben- efits, and your start date. But when you email a former internship supervisor with the same news, you discuss your upcoming duties and projects in more detail.

As you produce documents for this technical-communication course, you will of course consider your instructor’s expectations, just as you do when you write anything for any other course. But keep in mind that your instruc- tor in this course is also playing the role of the audience that you would be addressing if you had produced the document outside of this college course. Therefore, to a large extent your instructor will likely evaluate each of your course assignments on how effectively you’ve addressed the audience and achieved the purpose specified in the assignment.

Analyzing an audience means thinking about who your audience is, what they already know about your subject, how they feel about it, and how they are going to use the information you present. You analyze your audience as you plan your document so that it appeals to their interests and needs, is easy for them to understand, and motivates them to pay attention to your message and consider your recommendations.

The word purpose refers to what you want to accomplish with the docu- ment you are producing. Most often, your purpose is to explain to your audience how something occurs (how regenerative braking systems work in hybrid cars), how to carry out a task (how to set up a Skype connection), or why some situation is either good or bad (why the new county guidelines for water use will help or hurt your company). When your purpose is to explain why a situation is either good or bad, you are trying to reinforce or change the audience’s attitudes toward the situation and perhaps urge them to take action.

Before you can start to think about writing about your subject, analyze your audience and purpose. Doing so will help you meet your readers’ needs—and your own. For instance, you’re an engineer working for a consulting company. One document to which you might contribute is a report to the city planning board about how building a housing development would affect the natural environment as well as the city’s roads, schools, and sanitation infrastructure. That’s the subject of the report. The purpose is to motivate the planning board to approve the project so that it can begin. How does the audience affect how you analyze your purpose? You think about who the board members are. If most of them are not engineers, you don’t want to use specialized vocabulary and advanced engineering graphics and concepts. You don’t want to dwell on the technical details. Rather, you want to use general vocabulary, graphics, and concepts. You want to focus on the issues the board members are concerned about. Would the development affect the environment negatively? If so, is the developer including a plan to offset that negative effect? Can the roads handle the extra traffic? Can the schools handle the extra kids? Will the city have to expand its police force? Its fire department? Its sewer system?

In other words, when you write to the planning board, you focus on topics they are most interested in, and you write the document so that it is easy for them to read and understand. If the project is approved and you need to communicate with other audiences, such as architects and contractors, you will have different purposes, and you will adjust your writing to meet each audience’s needs.

What can go wrong when you don’t analyze your audience? McDonald’s Corporation found out when it printed takeout bags decorated with flags from around the world. Among them was the flag of Saudi Arabia, which contains scripture from the Koran. This was extremely offensive to Muslims, who consider it sacrilegious to throw out items bearing sacred scripture. As a result, McDonald’s lost public credibility.

Throughout this chapter, the text will refer to your reader and your docu- ment. But all of the information refers as well to oral presentations, which are the subject of Chapter 21, as well as to nonprint documents, such as podcasts or videos.

using an Audience profile sheet

As you read the discussions in this chapter about audience characteristics and techniques for learning about your audience, you might think about using an audience profile sheet: a form that prompts you to consider various audience characteristics as you plan your document. For example, the profile sheet can help you realize that you do not know much about your primary reader’s work history and what that history can tell you about how to shape your document. Figure 5.2 shows an audience profile sheet that provides important information about one of a writer’s most important readers.



FIGuRE 5.2

An Audience

Profile Sheet

Assume that you work in the draft- ing department of an architectural engineering firm. You know that the company’s computer-assisted design (CAD) software is out of date and that recent CAD technology would make it easier and faster for the draftspeople to do their work. You want to persuade your company to authorize buying a CAD workstation that costs about $4,000. To do so, you fill out an audi- ence profile sheet for your primary reader, Harry Becker, the manager of your company’s Drafting and Design Department.

You should modify this form to meet your own needs and those of your organization.


Reader’s Name: harry becker Reader’s Job Title: Manager, drafting and design department

kind of Reader: Primary _____ Secondary _____

education: bS, architectural engineering, northwestern, 1992. Cad/CaM Short Course, 1992; Motivating your employees Seminar, 1997; writing on the Job Short Course, 2002

Professional experience: worked for two years in a small architecture firm. Started here 16 years ago as a draftsperson. worked his way up to assistant Manager, then Manager. instrumental in the wilson project, particularly in coordinating personnel and equipment.

Job Responsibilities: Supervises a staff of 12 draftspeople. approves or denies all requests for capital expenditures over $2,000 coming from his department. works with employees to help them make the best case for the purchase. after approving or denying the request, forwards it to tina buterbaugh, Manager, Finance dept., who maintains all capital expenditure records.

Personal Characteristics: n/a Personal Preferences: likes straightforward documents, lots of evidence, clear

structure. dislikes complicated documents full of jargon.

Cultural Characteristics: nothing of note.

Attitude Toward the Writer: no problems.

Attitude Toward the Subject: he understands and approves of my argument.

expectations About the Subject: expects to see a clear argument with financial data and detailed comparisons of available systems.

expectations About the Document: expects to see a report, with an executive summary, of about 10 pages.

Reasons for Reading the Document: to offer suggestions and eventually approve or deny the request.

Way of Reading the Document:

Skim it ____ Study it __X__ Read a portion of it ____ which portion? Modify it and submit it to another reader ____ attempt to implement recommendations ____ use it to perform a task or carry out a procedure ____

use it to create another document ____

other ____ explain. Reading Skill: excellent Reader’s Physical environment: n/a

If your document has several readers, you must decide whether to fill out only one sheet (for your most important reader) or several sheets. One tech- nique is to fill out sheets for one or two of your most important readers and one for each major category of other readers. For instance, you could fill out one sheet for your primary reader, Harry Becker; one for managers in other areas of your company; and one for readers from outside your company.

When do you fill out an audience profile sheet? Although some writers like to do so at the start of the process as a way to prompt themselves to consider audience characteristics, others prefer to do so at the end of the process as a way to help themselves summarize what they have learned about their audi- ence. Of course, you can start to fill out the sheet before you begin and then complete it or revise it at the end.

determining the Important characteristics of Your Audience

When you analyze the members of your audience, you are trying to learn what you can about their technical background and knowledge, their reasons for reading or listening to you, their attitudes and expectations, and how they will use the information you provide.


For each of your most important readers, consider six factors:

• the reader’s education. Think not only about the person’s degree but also about when the person earned the degree. A civil engineer who earned a BS in 1995 has a much different background than a person who earned the same degree in 2015. Also consider any formal education or training the person completed while on the job.

Knowing your reader’s educational background helps you determine how much supporting material to provide, what level of vocabulary to use, what kind of sentence structure to use, what types of graphics to include, how long your document should be, and whether to provide such elements as a glossary or an executive summary.

• the reader’s professional experience. A nurse with a decade of experience might have represented her hospital on a community committee to encourage citizens to give blood and might have contributed to the planning for the hospital’s new delivery room. These experiences would have provided several areas of competence or expertise that you should consider as you plan your document.

• the reader’s job responsibility. Consider the major job responsibility of your reader and how your document will help that person accomplish it. For example, if you are writing a feasibility study on ways to cool the air for a new office building and you know that your reader, an upper-levelmanager, oversees operating expenses, you should explain how you are estimating future utility costs.

• the reader’s personal characteristics. The reader’s age might suggest how he or she will read and interpret your document. Because a senior manager at age 60 might know less about a current technology than a 30-year-old manager does, you might need to describe that technology in greater detail for the senior manager. Does your reader have any other personal characteristics, such as impaired vision, that affect the way you write and design your document?

• the reader’s personal preferences. One person might hate to see the first- person pronoun I in technical documents. Another might find the word interface distracting when the writer isn’t discussing computers. Does your reader prefer one type of application (such as blogs or memos) over another? Try to accommodate as many of your reader’s preferences as you can.

• the reader’s cultural characteristics. Understanding cultural characteristics can help you appeal to your reader’s interests and avoid confusing or offending him or her. As discussed later in this chapter (p. 95), cultural characteristics can affect virtually every aspect of a reader’s comprehension of a document and perception of the writer.


For each of your most important readers, consider why he or she will read your document. Some writers find it helpful to classify readers into categories— such as primary, secondary, and tertiary—that identify each reader’s distance from the writer. Here are some common descriptions of these three categories of readers:

• A primary audience consists of people to whom the communication is directed; they may be inside or outside the writer’s own organization. For example, they might include the writer’s team members, who assisted in carrying out an analysis of a new server configuration for the IT department; the writer’s supervisor, who reads the analysis to decide whether to authorize its main recommendation to adopt the new configuration; and an executive, who reads it to determine how high a priority the server project should have on a list of projects to fund. If you were producing text or videos for the Hewlett-Packard website, your primary audience would include customers, vendors, and suppliers who visit the site.

• A secondary audience consists of people more distant from the writer who need to stay aware of developments in the organization but who will not directly act on or respond to the document. Examples include managers of other departments, who are not directly involved in the project but who need to be aware of its broad outlines, and representatives from the marketing and legal departments, who need to check that the document conforms to the company’s standards and practices and with relevant legal standards, such as antidiscrimination or intellectual-property laws. External readers who are part of a secondary audience might include readers of your white paper who are not interested in buying your product but who need to stay current with the new products in the field.

• A tertiary audience consists of people even further removed from the writer who might take an interest in the subject of the report. Examples include interest groups (such as environmental groups or other advocacy organizations); local, state, and federal government officials; and, if the report is made public, the general public. Even if the report is not intended to be distributed outside the organization, given today’s climate of information access and the ease with which documents can be distributed, chances are good that it will be made available to outsiders.

Regardless of whether you classify your readers using a scheme such as this, think hard about why the most important audience members will read your document. Don’t be content to list only one purpose. Your direct supervisor, for example, might have several purposes that you want to keep in mind:

• to learn what you have accomplished in the project

• to determine whether to approve any recommendations you present

• to determine whether to assign you to a follow-up team that will work on the next stage of the project

• to determine how to evaluate your job performance next month

You will use all of this information about your audience as you determine the ways it affects how you will write your document or plan your presentation. In the meantime, write the information down so that you can refer to it later.


In thinking about the attitudes and expectations of each of your most impor- tant readers, consider these three factors:

• Your reader’s attitude toward you. Most people will like you because you are hardworking, intelligent, and cooperative. Some won’t. If a reader’s animosity toward you is irrational or unrelated to the current project, try to earn that person’s respect and trust by meeting him or her on some neutral ground, perhaps by discussing other, less volatile projects or some shared interest, such as gardening, skiing, or science-fiction novels.

• Your reader’s attitude toward the subject. If possible, discuss the subject thoroughly with your primary readers to determine whether they are positive, neutral, or negative toward it. Here are some basic strategies for responding to different attitudes.

• Your reader’s expectations about the document. Think about how your readers expect to see the information treated in terms of scope, organizational pattern, and amount of detail. Consider, too, the application. If your reader expects to see the information presented as a memo, use a memo unless some other format would clearly work better.


In thinking about how your reader will use your document, consider the fol- lowing four factors:

• the way your reader will read your document. Will he or she

— file it?

— skim it?

— read only a portion of it?

— study it carefully?

— modify it and submit it to another reader?

— try to implement its recommendations?

— use it to perform a test or carry out a procedure?

— use it as a source document for another document?

If only 1 of your 15 readers will study the document for details such as specifications, you don’t want the other 14 people to have to wade through them. Therefore, put this information in an appendix. If you know that your reader wants to use your status report as raw material for a report to a higher-level reader, try to write it so that it can be reused with little rewriting. Use the reader’s own writing style and make sure the reader has access to the electronic file so that passages can be merged into the new document without needing to be retyped.

• Your reader’s reading skill. Consider whether you should be writing at all or whether it would be better to use another medium, such as a video, an oral presentation, or a podcast. If you decide to write, consider whether your reader can understand how to use the type of document you have selected, handle the level of detail you will present, and understand your graphics, sentence structure, and vocabulary.

• the physical environment in which your reader will read your document. Often, technical documents are formatted in a special way or constructed of special materials to improve their effectiveness. Documents used in poorly lit places might be printed in larger-than-normal type. If documents are to be used on ships, on aircraft, or in garages, where they might be exposed to wind, water, and grease, you might have to use special waterproof bindings, oil-resistant or laminated paper, color coding, and unusual-sized paper.

• the digital environment in which your reader will read your document. If you are writing a document that will be viewed online, consider the platforms on which it will be accessed. Will readers be viewing it on mobile devices? Desktop computers? Both? How can you design the document so that it is easy to access—easy to get to, to see, to navigate, and to use—in these environments?

techniques for learning About Your Audience

To learn about your audience, you figure out what you do and do not already know, interview people, read about them, and read documents they have written. Of course, you cannot perform extensive research about every pos- sible reader of every document you write, but you should learn what you can about your most important readers of your most important documents.

DeTeRMINING WHAT YOU ALReADY kNOW AbOUT YOUR AUDIeNCe Start by asking yourself what you already know about your most important readers: their demographics (such as age, education, and job responsibilities); their expectations and attitudes toward you and the subject; and the ways they will use your document. Then list the important factors you don’t know. That is where you will concentrate your energies. The audience profile sheet shown in Figure 5.2 (p. 86) can help you identify gaps in your knowledge about your readers.


For your most important readers, make a list of people who you think have known them and their work the longest or who are closest to them on the job. These people might include those who joined the organization at about the same time your readers did; people who work in the same department as your readers; and people at other organizations who have collaborated with your readers.

Prepare a few interview questions that are likely to elicit information about your readers and their preferences and needs. For instance, you are writing a proposal for a new project at work. You want to present return-on- investment calculations to show how long it will take the company to recoup what it invested, but you’re not sure how much detail to present because you don’t know whether an important primary reader has a background in this aspect of accounting. Several of this reader’s colleagues will know. Interview them in person, on the phone, or by email.


If you are writing for people in your own organization, start your research there. If your primary reader is a high-level manager or executive, search the organization’s website or internal social network. Sections such as “About Us,” “About the Company,” and “Information for Investors” often contain a wealth of biographical information, as well as links to other sources.

In addition, use a search engine to look for information on the Internet. You are likely to find newspaper and magazine articles, industry directories, websites, and blog posts about your audience.

SeARCHING SOCIAL MeDIA FOR DOCUMeNTS YOUR AUDIeNCe HAS WRITTeN Documents your readers have written can tell you a lot about what they like to see with respect to design, level of detail, organization and development, style, and vocabulary. If your primary audience consists of those within your organization, start searching for documents they’ve produced within the company. Then broaden the search to the Internet.

Although some of your readers might have written books or articles, many or even most of them might be active users of social media, such as Face- book. Pay particular attention to LinkedIn, a networking site for professionals. LinkedIn profiles are particularly useful because they include a person’s current and former positions and education, as well as recommendations from other professionals. Figure 5.3 is an excerpt from the LinkedIn entry written by Mike Markley, a technical communicator at Aquent.

Markley begins his LinkedIn biography with these paragraphs:

Mike Markley serves as Managing director for aquent Studios, a professional services firm, and manages a team of technical communicators, designers, project managers, and account managers throughout the united States and india. Prior to joining aquent, he worked at Micron technology and lionbridge in multiple content development and management roles.

Mike holds a bachelor of Science degree in Communication from university of idaho and a Master of arts in technical Communication from boise State university, where he currently serves as an adjunct instructor of technical communication.

These two paragraphs suggest a couple of points about Markley’s credentials:

• He has an extensive background, not only in writing and editing but also in various levels of management. You can expect that he knows project management, budgeting, and human resources. He understands both how to make documents and how to lead teams that make documents.

• He has experience overseeing project teams in India. This experience gives him a broad perspective not only on how two very different cultures see the world but also on how to supervise people from other cultures so that they work effectively and efficiently.

In short, when you read Markley’s comments on LinkedIn, you get the clear impression that he is an experienced, versatile, and highly respected technical communicator.

A typical LinkedIn entry directs you to a person’s websites and blogs and to the LinkedIn groups to which the person belongs. You can also see the person’s connections (his or her personal network). And if you are a LinkedIn member, you can see whether you and the person share any connections.

In addition, the person you are researching might have a social-media account on which he or she posts about matters related to his or her job. Reading a person’s recent posts will give you a good idea of his or her job responsibilities and professionalism, as shown in Figure 5.4.


Private companies and public agencies alike analyze social media to better understand their audiences. Private companies use these data primarily to determine who their customers are, how they feel about various marketing messages, and how these messages influence their buying behavior. Public agencies use these data to help them refine their own messages.

For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a U.S. federal agency, analyzes social media to improve the quality and effective- ness of its public health information. The agency starts by classifying people into various categories by age (such as tweens, teens, baby boomers) and determining which media each group uses most. On the basis of these data, the agency designs and implements health campaigns on such topics as cancer screening, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, vaccines, and smok- ing cessation.

Then the CDC monitors social media to determine how many people are seeing the agency’s information, how they are engaging with the informa- tion (whether they share the information or follow links to other sites), and whether the information is changing their behavior (Centers for Disease Con- trol, 2013). Among the data the CDC analyzes each month are the following:

• the number of visitors to each of the CDC web pages

• the most popular keywords searched on CDC pages as well as on selected other sites and popular search engines such as Google

• the numbers of Facebook fans and Twitter followers • the number of click-throughs to CDC web pages from Facebook and Twitter

On the basis of these data, the CDC adjusts its social-media campaigns to use its campaign resources most effectively.

communicating Across cultures

Our society and our workforce are becoming increasingly diverse, both culturally and linguistically, and businesses are exporting more goods and services. As a result, professionals often communicate with individuals from different cultural backgrounds, many of whom are nonnative speakers of English, both in the United States and abroad, and with speakers of other languages who read texts translated from English into their own languages.

The economy of the United States depends on international trade. In 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States exported over $2.5 trillion of goods and services (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012, p. 792). In that year, direct investment abroad by U.S. companies totaled more than $4.4 trillion (p. 796). In addition, the population of the United States itself is truly multi- cultural. Each year, the United States admits more than a million immigrants (p. 46). In 2010, 12.5 percent of the U.S. population was foreign born; of those foreign born, almost a third had entered the country since 2000 (p. 43).

Effective communication requires an understanding of culture: the beliefs, attitudes, and values that motivate people’s behavior.

UNDeRSTANDING THe CULTURAL vARIAbLeS “ON THe SURFACe” Communicating effectively with people from another culture requires under- standing a number of cultural variables that lie on the surface. You need to know, first, what language or languages to use. You also need to be aware of political, social, religious, and economic factors that can affect how readers will interpret your documents. Understanding these factors is not an exact science, but it does require that you learn as much as you can about the cul- ture of those you are addressing.

A brief example: an American manufacturer of deodorant launched an advertising campaign in Japan in which a cute octopus applied the firm’s product under each of its eight arms. But the campaign failed because, in Japan, an octopus is viewed as having eight legs, not eight arms (Bathon, 1999).

In International Technical Communication, Nancy L. Hoft (1995) describes seven major categories of cultural variables that lie on the surface:

• political. This category relates to trade issues and legal issues (for example, some countries forbid imports of certain foods or chemicals) and laws about intellectual property, product safety, and liability.

• economic. A country’s level of economic development is a critical factor. In many developing countries, most people cannot afford devices for accessing the Internet.

• social. This category covers many issues, including gender and business customs. In most Western cultures, women play a much greater role in the workplace than they do in many Middle Eastern and Asian cultures. Business customs—including forms of greeting, business dress, and gift giving—vary from culture to culture.

• religious. Religious differences can affect diet, attitudes toward individual colors, styles of dress, holidays, and hours of business.

• educational. In the United States, 40 million people are only marginally literate. In other cultures, the rate can be much higher or much lower. In some cultures, classroom learning with a teacher is considered the most acceptable way to study; in others, people tend to study on their own.

• technological. If you sell high-tech products, you need to know whether your readers have the hardware, the software, and the technological infrastructure to use them.

• linguistic. In some countries, English is taught to all children starting in grade school; in other countries, English is seen as a threat to the national language. In many cultures, the orientation of text on a page and in a book is not from left to right.

In addition to these basic differences, you need to understand dozens of other factors. For instance, the United States is the only major country that has not adopted the metric system. Whereas Americans use periods to sepa- rate whole numbers from decimals, and commas to separate thousands from hundreds, much of the rest of the world reverses this usage.

united states 3,425.6

europe 3.425,6

Also, in the United States, the format for writing out and abbreviating dates is different from that of most other cultures:

united states March 2, 2015 3/2/15

europe March 2 2015 2/3/15

japan March 2 2015 15/3/2

These cultural variables are important in obvious ways: for example, you can’t send a file to a person who doesn’t have access to the Internet. However, there is another set of cultural characteristics—those beneath the surface—that you also need to understand.

UNDeRSTANDING THe CULTURAL vARIAbLeS “beNeATH THe SURFACe” Scholars of multicultural communication have identified cultural variables that are less obvious than those discussed in the previous section but just as important. Writing scholars Elizabeth Tebeaux and Linda Driskill (1999) explain five key variables and how they are reflected in technical communication.

• focus on individuals or groups. Some cultures, especially in the West, value individuals more than groups. The typical Western employee doesn’t see his or her identity as being defined by the organization for which he or she works. Other cultures, particularly those in Asia, value groups more than individuals. The typical employee in such cultures sees himself or herself more as a representative of the organization than as an individual who happens to work there.

Communication in individualistic cultures focuses on the writer’s and reader’s needs rather than on those of their organizations. Writers use the pronoun I rather than we. Letters are addressed to the principal reader and signed by the writer.

Communication in group-oriented cultures focuses on the organization’s needs by emphasizing the benefits to be gained through a cooperative relationship between organizations. Writers emphasize the relationship between the writer and the reader rather than the specific technical details of the message. Writers use we rather than I. They might address letters to “Dear Sir” and use their organization’s name, not their own, in the complimentary close.

• distance between business life and private life. In some cultures, especially in the West, many people separate their business lives from their private lives. When the workday ends, they are free to go home and spend their time as they wish. In other cultures, particularly in Asia, people see a much smaller distance between their business lives and their private lives. Even after the day ends, they still see themselves as employees of their organization.

Cultures that value individualism tend to see a great distance between business and personal lives. In these cultures, communication focuses on technical details, with relatively little reference to personal information about the writer or the reader.

Cultures that are group oriented tend to see a smaller distance between business life and private life. In these cultures, communication contains much more personal information—about the reader’s family and health— and more information about general topics—for example, the weather and the seasons. The goal is to build a formal relationship between the two organizations. Both the writer and the reader are, in effect, on call after business hours and are likely to transact business during long social activities such as elaborate dinners or golf games.

• distance between ranks. In some cultures, the distance in power and authority between workers within an organization is small. This small distance is reflected in a close working relationship between supervisors and their subordinates. In other cultures, the distance in power and authority between workers within an organization is great. Supervisors do not consult with their subordinates. Subordinates use formal names and titles—“Mr. Smith,” “Dr. Jones”—when addressing people of higher rank.

Individualistic cultures that separate business and private lives tend to have a smaller distance between ranks. In these cultures, communication is generally less formal. Informal documents (emails and memos) are appropriate, and writers often sign their documents with their first names only. Keep in mind, however, that many people in these cultures resent inappropriate informality, such as letters or emails addressed “Dear Jim” when they have never met the writer.

In cultures with a great distance between ranks, communication is generally formal. Writers tend to use their full professional titles and to prefer formal documents (such as letters) to informal ones (such as memos and emails). Writers make sure their documents are addressed to the appropriate person and contain the formal design elements (such as title pages and letters of transmittal) that signal their respect for their readers.

• need for details to be spelled out. Some cultures value full, complete communication. The written text must be comprehensive, containing all the information a reader needs to understand it. These cultures are called low-context cultures. Other cultures value documents in which some of the details are merely implied. This implicit information is communicated through other forms of communication that draw on the personal relationship between the reader and the writer, as well as social and business norms of the culture. These cultures are called high-context cultures.

Low-context cultures tend to be individualistic; high-context cultures tend to be group oriented. In low-context cultures, writers spell out all the details. Documents are like contracts in that they explain procedures in great detail and provide specific information that indicates the rights and responsibilities of both the writer and the readers. In high-context cultures, writers tend to omit information that they consider obvious because they don’t want to insult the reader. For example, a manual written for people in a high-context culture might not explain why a cell- phone battery needs to be charged because everyone already knows why.

• Attitudes toward uncertainty. In some cultures, people are comfortable with uncertainty. They communicate less formally and rely less on written policies. In many cases, they rely more on a clear set of guiding principles, as communicated in a code of conduct or a mission statement. In other cultures, people are uncomfortable with uncertainty.

Businesses are structured formally, and they use written procedures for communicating.

In cultures that tolerate uncertainty, written communication tends to be less detailed. Oral communication is used to convey more of the information that is vital to the relationship between the writer and the readers. In cultures that value certainty, communication tends to be detailed. Policies are lengthy and specific, and forms are used extensively. Roles are firmly defined, and there is a wide distance between ranks.

As you consider this set of cultural variables, keep four points in mind:

• each variable represents a spectrum of attitudes. Terms such as high-context and low-context, for instance, represent the opposite end points on a scale. Most cultures occupy a middle ground.

• the variables do not line up in a clear pattern. Although the variables sometimes correlate—for example, low-context cultures tend to be individualistic—in any one culture, the variables do not form a consistent pattern. For example, the dominant culture in the United States is highly individualistic rather than group oriented but only about midway along the scale in terms of tolerance of uncertainty.

• different organizations within the same culture can vary greatly. For example, one software company in Germany might have a management style that does not tolerate uncertainty, whereas another software company in that country might tolerate a lot of uncertainty.

• An organization’s cultural attitudes are fluid, not static. How an organization operates is determined not only by the dominant culture but also by its own people. As new people join an organization, its culture changes. The IBM of 1995 is not the IBM of 2015.

For you as a communicator, this set of variables therefore offers no answers. Instead, it offers a set of questions. You cannot know in advance the attitudes of the people in an organization. You have to interact with them for a long time before you can reach even tentative conclusions. The value of being aware of the variables is that they can help you study the communica- tion from people in that organization and become more aware of underlying values that affect how they will interpret your documents.


The challenge of communicating effectively with a person from another cul- ture is that you are communicating with a person, not a culture. You cannot be sure which cultures have influenced that person (Lovitt, 1999). For exam- ple, a 50-year-old Japanese-born manager at the computer manufacturer Fujitsu in Japan has been shaped by the Japanese culture, but he also has been influenced by the culture of his company and of the Japanese computer industry in general. Because he works on an export product, it is also likely that he has traveled extensively outside of Japan and has absorbed influ- ences from other cultures.

A further complication is that when you communicate with a person from another culture, to that person you are from another culture, and you cannot know how much that person is trying to accommodate your cultural patterns. As writing scholar Arthur H. Bell (1992) points out, the communication between the two of you is carried out in a third, hybrid culture. When you write to a large audience, the complications increase. A group of managers at Fujitsu represents a far more complex mix of cultural influences than one manager at Fujitsu.

No brief discussion of cultural variables can answer questions about how to write for a particular multicultural audience. You need to study your readers’ culture and, as you plan your document, seek assistance from someone native to the culture who can help you avoid blunders that might confuse or offend your readers.

Start by reading some of the basic guides to communicating with people from other cultures, and then study guides to the particular culture you are investigating. In addition, numerous sites on the Internet provide useful guidelines that can help you write to people from another culture. If possible, study documents written by people in your audience. If you don’t have access to these, try to locate documents written in English by people from the cul- ture you are interested in.

Writing for Readers from Other Cultures

the following eight suggestions will help you communicate more effectively with multicultural readers.

limit your vocabulary. every word should have only one meaning, as called for in Simplified english and in other basic-english languages.

Keep sentences short. there is no magic number, but try for an average sentence length of no more than 20 words.

define abbreviations and acronyms in a glossary. don’t assume that your read- ers know what a GFi (ground fault interrupter) is, because the abbreviation is derived from english vocabulary and word order.

Avoid jargon unless you know your readers are familiar with it. For instance, your readers might not know what a graphical user interface is.

Avoid idioms and slang. these terms are culture specific. if you tell your Japa- nese readers that your company plans to put on a “full-court press,” most likely they will be confused.

use the active voice whenever possible. the active voice is easier for nonnative speakers of english to understand than the passive voice.

be careful with graphics. the garbage-can icon on the Macintosh computer does not translate well, because garbage cans might have different shapes and be made of different materials in other countries.

be sure someone from the target culture reviews your document. even if you have had help in planning the document, have it reviewed before you publish and distribute it.

USING GRAPHICS AND DeSIGN FOR MULTICULTURAL ReADeRS One of the challenges of writing to people from another culture is that they are likely to be nonnative speakers of English. One way to overcome the language barrier is to use effective graphics and appropriate document design.

However, the most appropriate graphics and design can differ from culture to culture. Business letters written in Australia use a different size paper and a different format than those in the United States. An icon for a file folder in a software program created in the United States could confuse European readers, who use file folders of a different size and shape (Bosley, 1999). A series of graphics arranged left to right could confuse readers from the Middle East, who read from right to left. For this reason, you should study samples of documents written by people from the culture you are addressing to learn the important differences.

Applying What You have learned About Your Audience

You want to use what you know about your audience to tailor your commu- nication to their needs and preferences. Obviously, if your most important reader does not understand the details of DRAM technology, you cannot use the concepts, vocabulary, and types of graphics used in that field. If she uses one-page summaries at the beginning of her documents, decide whether they will work for your document. If your primary reader’s paragraphs always start with clear topic sentences, yours should, too.

The samples of technical communication shown in Figure 5.7 illustrate some of the ways writers have applied what they know about their audiences in text and graphics.



a major theme of this chapter is that effective technical communication meets your readers’ needs. what this theme means is that as you plan, draft, revise, and edit, you should always be thinking of who your readers are, why they will read your document, and how they will read the document. For example, if your readers include many nonnative speakers of english, you will adjust your vocabulary, sentence structure, and other textual elements so that readers can understand your document easily. if your readers will be accessing the document on a mobile device, you will ensure that the design is optimized for their screen

Meeting your readers’ needs does not mean writing a misleading or inaccurate document. if your readers want you to slant the information, omit crucial data, or downplay bad news, they are asking you to act unethically. you should not do so. For more information on ethics, see Chapter 2.

Writing for multiple Audiences

Many documents of more than a few pages are addressed to more than one reader. Often, an audience consists of people with widely different back- grounds, needs, and attitudes.

If you think your document will have a number of readers, consider mak- ing it modular: break it up into components addressed to different readers. A modular report might contain an executive summary for managers who don’t have the time, knowledge, or desire to read the whole report. It might also contain a full technical discussion for expert readers, an implementa- tion schedule for technicians, and a financial plan in an appendix for budget officers. Figure 5.8 shows the table of contents for a modular report.

determining Your purpose

Once you have identified and analyzed your audience, it is time to examine your purpose. Ask yourself this: “What do I want this document to accom- plish?” When your readers have finished reading what you have written, what do you want them to know or believe? What do you want them to do? Your writing should help your readers understand a concept, adopt a particu- lar belief, or carry out a task.

In defining your purpose, think of a verb that represents it. (Sometimes, of course, you have several purposes.) The following list presents verbs in two categories: those used to communicate information to your readers and those used to convince them to accept a particular point of view.

Communicating verbs

authorize define describe explain illustrate inform outline present review summarize

Convincing verbs

assess evaluate forecast propose recommend request

This classification is not absolute. For example, review could in some cases be a convincing verb rather than a communicating verb: one writer’s review of a complicated situation might be very different from another’s.

Here are a few examples of how you can use these verbs to clarify the pur- pose of your document (the verbs are italicized).

• This wiki presents the draft of our policies on professional use of social media within the organization.

• This letter authorizes the purchase of six new tablets for the Jenkintown facility.

• This report recommends that we revise the website as soon as possible.

Sometimes your real purpose differs from your expressed purpose. For instance, if you want to persuade your reader to lease a new computer system rather than purchase it, you might phrase the purpose this way: to explain the advantages of leasing over purchasing. As mentioned earlier, many readers don’t want to be persuaded but are willing to learn new facts or ideas.

In situations like this, stick to the facts. No matter how much you want to convince your readers, it is unacceptable to exaggerate or to omit important information. Trust that the strength and accuracy of your writing will enable you to achieve your intended purpose.

gaining management’s Approval

After you have analyzed your audience and purpose, consider gaining the approval of management before you proceed. The larger and more complex the project and the document, the more important it is to be sure that you are on the right track before you invest too much time and effort.

For example, suppose you are planning a proposal to upgrade your com- pany’s computer-assisted-design (CAD) equipment. You already know your audience and purpose, and you are drafting a general outline in your mind. But before you actually start to write an outline or gather the information you will need, spend another 10 or 15 minutes making sure your primary reader, your supervisor, agrees with your thinking by submitting to him a brief description of your plans. You don’t want to waste days or even weeks working on a document that won’t fulfill its purpose. If you have misunder- stood what your supervisor wants, it is far easier to fix the problem at this early stage.

Your description can also serve another purpose: if you want your reader’s views on which of two strategies to pursue, you can describe each one and ask your reader to state a preference.

Choose an application that is acceptable to your reader, and then clearly and briefly state what you are trying to do in the project. Here is an example of the description you might submit to your boss about the CAD equipment. In composing this description of her plan, the writer drew on audience profile sheets for her two principal readers. She describes a logical, rational strategy for proposing the equipment purchase.


Please tell me if you think this is a good approach for the proposal on Cad equipment.

outright purchase of the complete system will cost more than $1,000, so you would have to approve it and send it on for tina’s approval. (i’ll provide leasing costs as well.) i want to show that our Cad hardware and software are badly out of date and need to be replaced. i’ll be thorough in recommending new equipment, with independent evaluations in the literature, as well as product demonstrations. the proposal should specify what the current equipment is costing us and show how much we can save by buying the recommended system.

i’ll call you later today to get your reaction before i begin researching what’s available. Renu

Once you have received your primary reader’s approval, you can feel confi- dent about starting to gather information.

revising Information for a new Audience and purpose

Chapter 2 introduced the concept of boilerplate information: standard text or graphics that are plugged into various documents published by your organi- zation (see p. 24). Often, however, when you write to a new audience or have a new purpose, you need to revise the information.




Following is a checklist for analyzing your audience and purpose. Remember that your document might be read by one person, several people, a large group, or several groups with various needs.

Did you fill out an audience profile sheet for your primary and secondary audiences? (p. 85)

In analyzing your audience, did you consider the following questions about each of your most important readers:

What is your reader’s educational background? (p. 87)

What is your reader’s professional experience? (p. 87)

What is your reader’s job responsibility? (p. 87)

What are your reader’s personal characteristics? (p. 88)

What are your reader’s personal preferences? (p. 88)

What are your reader’s cultural characteristics? (p. 88)

Why will the reader read your document? (p. 88)

What is your reader’s attitude toward you? (p. 89)

What is your reader’s attitude toward the subject? (p. 89)

What are your reader’s expectations about the document? (p. 90)

How will your reader read your document? (p. 90) What is your reader’s reading skill? (p. 91)

What is the physical environment in which your reader will read your document? (p. 91)

In learning about your readers, did you

determine what you already know about them? (p. 92)

interview people? (p. 92)

read about your audience online? (p. 92)

search social media for documents your audience has written? (p. 92)

analyze social-media data, if available? (p. 94) In planning to write for an audience from another culture,

did you consider the following cultural variables: political? (p. 96)

economic? (p. 96)

social? (p. 96) religious? (p. 96) educational? (p. 96) technological? (p. 96) linguistic? (p. 96)

In planning to write for an audience from another culture, did you consider other cultural variables:

focus on individuals or groups? (p. 97) distance between business life and private life? (p. 97) distance between ranks? (p. 98) need for details to be spelled out? (p. 98) attitudes toward uncertainty? (p. 98)

In writing for a multicultural audience, did you

limit your vocabulary? (p. 101)

keep sentences short? (p. 101)

define abbreviations and acronyms in a glossary? (p. 101)

avoid jargon unless you knew that your readers were familiar with it? (p. 101)

avoid idioms and slang? (p. 101)

use the active voice whenever possible? (p. 101)

use graphics carefully? (p. 101)

have the document reviewed by someone from the reader’s culture? (p. 101)

In writing for multiple audiences, did you consider creating a modular document? (p.107)

Did you state your purpose in writing and express it in the form of a verb or verbs? (p. 108)

Did you get management’s approval of your analysis of audience and purpose? (p. 109)


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