Text only


In Chapter 1 of Workplace Communications, Searles provides an excellent list of questions that a writer should answer about his or her audience.  Those questions include "Why do they need this information?" and "What do they already know about the specific situation?"

Searles also breaks up workplace communications into four broad categories: upward communication--intended for those above you in the workplace hierarchy, lateral communication--intended for those at your own level, downward communication--intended for those below you in the hierarchy, and outward communication--intended for those outside your workplace.

Both of these approaches provide ways for writers to gauge who their audience is and to write a letter or memo or some other type of document with that audience in mind--in terms of factors like format, content, diction (word choice), and tone.


Here is one more approach to audience Searles notes that may add to your understanding.  This categorization is one that is used widely and combines concerns with what an audience knows and that audience's relationship to the writer.  Here, then, is another way to look at audience types, including a couple of types in addition to the ones Searles mentions:

1) Expert--has substantial previous knowledge of the topic

Example: If you are using an e-mail message to send a new idea to a colleague who has been working with you to improve the communication system at your workplace, chances are that the colleague knows a great deal about the project--what's been done so far, what the goals are, etc.  In that sense, your audience is an expert.  There's no need to cover the basics, just the new idea.

2) Layperson--has little or no previous knowledge of the topic

Example: If you are writing a letter to a customer about a brand new service your company is offering, that customer probably knows nothing about the service because it is new.  In this case, your audience is a layperson.  You'll need to be careful to explain even the most basic details about the new service.

3) Executive--has decision-making power (perhaps even over the writer's career)

Example: You are writing a letter to your supervisor recommending that he or she adopt the new sick leave policy that you and your committee have hammered out.  Since your supervisor will make the final decision, he or she is an executive audience.  You'll want to provide enough information so that your supervisor can make an informed decision.  You'll also need  to demonstrate respect and tact, since this reader is above you in the workplace hierarchy.

4) Technician--a hands-on operator of equipment or one involved in the execution of a technical process

Example: If you are writing a set of instructions to someone for operating a new piece of equipment, you are writing to a technician

5) Complex--a combination of an expert and an executive

Example: If your supervisor from the executive example (#3 above) happens to have worked with you on the project or has dealt extensively with such policies before, then you have a complex audience on your hands.  Not only will you need to be informative and respectful, but you better know your stuff and be careful not to waste space on details with which your reader is already familiar.

Of course, any given audience probably is a combination of one or more of the types listed above.  The technician may or may not be an expert on the type of machine for which you have written instructions.  Or your supervisor may, in fact, be a layperson, a reader who has very little knowledge of your committee's work.  It's also a short step to realizing how these audience types and Searle's categories of communication overlap.  For instance, an executive reader would indicate that you are involved in upward communication, a layperson might involve upward, lateral, downward, or outside communication, and so on.


Here is one other issue to consider--a distinction between primary and secondary audiences.  One of Searles's audience questions is "Am I writing to one person or more than one?"  Often, your reader won't be a single individual and may even involve readers of more than one type.  Here are a couple of additional definitions:

1) Primary audience--the reader(s) for whom your document is primarily intended
2) Secondary audience--other reader(s) who may have reason to read part or all of your document.

Example: Your committee is nearing the end of its work on the new pay schedule.  As chair, you are putting together a list of work completed and work remaining for your committee members (your primary audience).  As you are working, your supervisor asks for a copy of that document.  Your committee members are experts and probably are below you in the workplace hierarchy.  Your supervisor (now a secondary reader), not having worked on the committee, is a layperson and above you in the hierarchy (an executive reader).  What do you do here?  You need to address both audiences.

For instance, you know that you can't just mention the "lateral move issue" (which your committee members know all about) without offering at least a brief explanation (for your supervisor)--probably no more than a simple sentence that clarifies the basics for your supervisor without cluttering the list for your committee members.  Similarly, you might want to mention that the committee has done a very good job in sorting through all of the issues related to the pay schedule--not just as a compliment to them, but as a plug for them (and you) to your boss.  And while you certainly can mention to your committee members that you still have quite a bit of work to do in the next couple of weeks, you'll want to explain that claim positively for your boss, if possible, maybe something like the following: "In light of the progress that we've made so far, I'm confident that we can re-double our efforts in the next two weeks to complete the important tasks that remain."

The important point that both Searles and I are making is this: Know your audience.  The more you know about them, the better you can tailor the format, content, diction, and tone to meet their needs and to reach them with your message.