Writing for General Audiences

, , , &

Chapter header

Learning Outcomes 

What the Heck Are General Audiences?

This might come as a surprise, but when you graduate, you'll not only be expected to write in the specialized language of your field, but you'll also be expected to write for audiences outside of your field, in other words General Audience [https://edtechbooks.org/-pwry] or public audiences. In fact, just because most of you are young, people will automatically assume that you're tech savvy and an expert at posting on social media. And this will most likely lead to you being tasked with writing posts and blogs for your company, program, or department--even if you've never done it before. But don't panic! Instead, get good at it!
Even if you're skilled at following celebrities on Twitter or posting cat memes on Instagram, that doesn't mean that you know how to represent your company online or report on research published by your favorite professor. So we want to arm you with strategies to tackle the tricky task of writing for people not in your field because there are actually tried-and-true strategies you can use to make the biggest impact. And understanding these strategies could make or break your job search, your career, or possibly even your love life. 
If you need more convincing that improving your communication skills could improve your life--especially your love life,--watch what happened when Jimmy Fallon failed to understand the rhetorical situation when he met Nicole Kidman a few years ago. (Watch at least through minute 3:00.)
[Add Triangle icon]
Remember the good ol' rhetorical triangle [https://edtechbooks.org/-KDGX]? Well Jimmy made some classic mistakes when he analyzed the rhetorical situation before meeting Nicole Kidman. He clearly didn't understand his audience (a sophisticated, talented woman who was interested in him), he clearly misinterpreted the purpose and context (movie meeting vs date), and he clearly blew the message (wearing sweats and playing video games). No amount of brie cheese could salvage that meeting, and even years later he had to ask, "Did I date Nicole Kidman?"
What your staunchest, most serious professor might look like at a dinner party.
Don't be like Jimmy--recognize when you're on a date! You've learned tools for analyzing your situation; use them! It pays to learn the best tools for translating your message to a general audience. It turns out even your staunchest, most boring, serious professor--you know the one who has a monotonous voice and always puts you to sleep--has to be able to explain their job to their next-door neighbor or at a dinner party or to their significant other (unless their significant other is also an expert in the same field, which means they can talk to each other but no one else can understand them--and they probably have really boring, serious children. But I digress.).
If, on the other hand, the love of your life is in a different field from you like, say, the field of mechanical engineering and neuroscience while you teach English literature and writing classes (just to pick a random example), then you need to learn how to translate the work you do to a more general audience in order to keep your relationship strong and show that you care. And that takes a new set of strategies that help bridge the gap between you and your general audience like metaphors, stories, and even humor. See, I told you this chapter would be good for your love life!
In addition, if you want your work in your field to make a big difference and get attention, you need to know how to highlight it so that people will listen. That's why these days so many people post articles on LinkedIn and Medium.com and even Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter--to highlight what they do for the greater public to understand, which in turn increases their reputation and personal brand. You, too, can get the attention you deserve! But you have to learn how to appeal to a general audience. And that's where we're going to start: audience.

Audience in the Real World

The most important thing we can teach you about writing for general audiences is to analyze your audience. Companies spend millions of dollars a year analyzing their audiences to convince people to buy their products. They've learned that understanding their audience's preferences, motivations, and values is a key to good sales. This is often called Market Research. For example, here's a one-minute ad from IBM for an Artificial Intelligence-Powered Marketing platform whose sole purpose is to try to help companies understand their audience better:  
Watch this video to see how you become a company's target audience.
It makes you re-think how you spend your time (and clicks) online, doesn't it? Or at least how many times you post on social media about eating waffles. The bottom line from IBM and this section on audience is that audience matters--if you can really understand who you're presenting to, you can make your message appealing to them and in turn effect the change you'd like them to make. 
So when you think about your audience, spend some time trying to imagine them. Consider demographics. Age. Gender. Socioeconomic status. What other companies would your target audience follow? Consider where your audience gets their social media content. Do they spend their time on Facebook? Do they get their information from Instagram or Twitter? Do they use the Google App or the News App on their iPhone? Consider "problems." What problem are you providing a solution for? You should empathize with their dilemmas and provide an answer to their issue. Let's practice.

Audience Analysis

Nike Audience Analysis

For this assignment, let's look at Nike. Go to nike.com and see if you can answer the following Audience Analysis Questions. Note that you might not be able to answer all of them. Thinking through all of this information, write a short paragraph 3-4 sentence analysis of Nike's audience here.

  1. What is the approximate size of Nike's audience? Are they addressing a small population or a sizable group?
  2. Who, specifically, are they targeting? (Think demographics)
  3. What is the demographic makeup of Nike's audience (age, gender, education level, ethnicity), and how might they use that information to develop and shape their content?
  4. What personal and professional traits does Nike have in common with the members of their audience?
  5. What common values does Nike share with their audience? 
  6. Are there any cultural considerations that may influence how their audience responds to their content?
  7. Does their audience expect to be entertained as well as informed?
  8. Does Nike target certain members of their audience, and if so, which members? 
  9. How does Nike earn their audience’s trust? How do they demonstrate their knowledge or expertise?
  10. What preconceptions or biases might be held by some members of their audience?
  11. What expectations will their audience have regarding Nike's social media content?
  12. What expectations does their audience have regarding the format of their social media content?
  13. What key questions does Nike's audience expect them to answer?
  14. What key objections are audience members likely to raise?
  15. To connect to the needs and interests of their audience, what particular appeals does Nike include in their social media content?
Now that you understand Nike's audience, you are much better prepared to know how to appeal to them, what tone to use with them, and how to present information so they will pay attention. You can and should analyze your audience in similar ways before you communicate to them. Now let's talk about the characteristics most general audiences share.

Strategies for General Writing

Where academic audiences are made up of people who generally study the same things as you, general audiences are just that--general. You can assume that your readers/listeners have generic knowledge about many different subjects, but they don't know any particulars about your field, so you'll have to fill in those gaps. But be careful not to use jargon from your field because they'll get lost in the language and ignore your message. The best way to figure out what strategies work best for general audience writing is to see this kind of translation writing in action.
[Expert Quote icon]

Academic vs General Audiences: Reporting on Research

We're going to use our analytical skills again to figure out what characteristics are best used in general writing. Here's an example of how writers have translated academic research into the public sphere. First, read the abstract of this academic article called "There's No Place Like Home: The Associations Between Residential Attributes and Family Functioning" [https://edtechbooks.org/-VepY] (click on the link or scroll down below). 
Now read this newspaper article [https://edtechbooks.org/-ZAM] that introduces this research to a general audience (scroll down). Note the tools the author uses to appeal to this broader, less academic audience.
Make the Connection

List 2-3 strategies that the author of the newspaper article used to translate the academic research article to a more public audience? Which strategies do you think are the most helpful and that you can use when you write for a general audience?

I hope you noticed things like the use of good visuals to draw the reader in, the conversational tone, the easy explanations of the research, the lack of jargon, and the use of direct quotes from the author himself. This made it feel like they were telling the story of how the research came to be rather than just reporting on data. These are all strategies that can come in handy when you're translating something academic into something for the public.
Here's a table that sums up the contrasting strategies generally used in these two types of writing:
Academic Audience Writing vs General Audiences Writing
Academic Audience Writing
General Audience Writing
Long paragraphs
Short paragraphs
Serious academic tone 
Engaging, friendly tone      
Synthesized claims/heavy referencing
Logical progression/light referencing
Clarity to avoid misunderstanding
Clever wording to encourage insight
Focus on knowledge and scientific advancement
Focus on practical application
Objective writing with solid backing
Passionate writing with conviction
Focus on data, methods, and results
Focus on narrative and relevance to audience
Most appeals are to logic and authority/character
Most appeals are to emotions and authority/character
APA in-text citations and reference lists
Hyperlinks or endnotes for references
As you can see, when you change audiences, you need to change your strategies. Some of these differences might not be as pronounced in some genre outlets, for example, some blogs operate more like academic outlets, are serious in tone, and require heavy, scholarly referencing. However, this is generally a good rule to follow. Which brings me to this textbook.

Under the Hood

When we decided to write this textbook, we had a dilemma: should we model academic writing by using a formal, serious, and academic tone? Or should we use a less formal, conversational tone that would appeal more to a general audience?
The first thing we authors did was analyze you--our audience. We talked about what type of textbook would appeal to you, what kind of content we should include, and what kind of strategies we should use in our approach. We looked at previous textbooks, talked to our students, talked to other instructors, and even read a book explaining research people have done about your generation: iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us [https://edtechbooks.org/-vqjz]. How does it make you feel to know that people are studying you and talking about you? I hope it makes you feel good. Our audience analysis was very enlightening. 
We came to the conclusion that even though lots of other textbook writers choose to model a stiff, academic tone, you probably wouldn't like that. Instead, we thought you'd appreciate if we wrote to you in our own voices as if we're having a conversation, as if you're sitting right there. That meant that we chose to keep the paragraphs short, include personal stories, add images and videos, incorporate lots of headings, and perhaps most importantly of all, make the textbook free of cost. We did all this for you! We hope you'll let us know in the surveys at the end of the chapters if we hit our mark. If we didn't, please tell us how we can improve! The beauty of an online textbook like this is that we are continually revising and improving it, so bring on the feedback.
Like our audience analysis of you, your analysis of your own audience will help you develop effective strategies to get your message across.

Purpose, Context, and Message

As Jimmy Fallon taught us, when we communicate it helps to think through the rhetorical situation first. When you're writing to general audiences, once you have a sense of your audience and their values, you also need to think about the context you're writing in and delineate your purpose [https://edtechbooks.org/-Pwam]--why are you communicating? Generally, most public communication falls into three categories: 
  1. informative
  2. persuasive
  3. a mix of the two
Either you're trying to 
  1. explain something--like reporting on the latest research coming out of computational linguistics
  2. or you're trying to argue for something--like getting your city to install a stoplight at a dangerous intersection
  3. or you're mixing the two--like explaining how germs are spread during flu season in order to persuade your audience to get a flu shot.
 Ask yourself, what exactly do I want my audience to think after reading/hearing this?

Informational Writing

If your goal is to inform, your focus will be on clarity. Keep the language simple, think through how much background information you need to give your audience, and use strong visuals--especially if you want to portray data. Informational writing relies on facts, data, and statistics, but these need to be portrayed in easy, understandable ways, and visuals really help with that. Choose clear diagrams, tables, figures, and/or images to illustrate your point. Document design can also help--things such as bullets, headings and subheadings, bolded key terms or definitions, call-out boxes, color, and even white space. 
You can quote from experts--general audiences love appeals to character--as long as you keep the jargon to a minimum and explain where your information is coming from. You'll probably want to draw your reader/listener in with some kind of hook or interesting fact that introduces the topic and catches their attention. Then as you proceed, make sure there's a logical progression through your points. One way to test this is to have people read it and give you feedback--find people who fit the demographics of your audience if possible. 
Even in informational writing, you can appeal to the emotions of your audience. For instance, consider including some type of story [https://edtechbooks.org/-CMg], example, or case study that connects with your audience because it will help them see the relevance of your point. You can even consider whether adding some humor would be appropriate. When you conclude, try to tie in your conclusion to your introduction and leave your audience with something memorable. Ask yourself, "What do I want my audience to remember?" End with that.

Persuasive Writing

As opposed to informational writing, if your goal is to persuade or get your audience to do or think something, then you're making an argument. There's a whole field of study called Rhetoric that goes back to ancient times where people examine the best ways to persuade or influence others. When writing an argument, your objective is to propose a solution to a current problem, to have your audience see your opinion, point, or research claim as valid, true, and valuable. In other words, your purpose is to persuade, convince, motivate, or move readers toward a certain point of view or action. In fact, a lot of persuasive writing ends with a "Call to Action" where you overtly ask your audience to--you guessed it--take some kind of action.
In academic circles, persuasion is best done through published articles or presentations that focus on methods, data, results; but when it comes to general audiences, the focus changes first, to catching people's attention and then to convincing them with a mix of appeals to logic, character, and emotion.

A Word on Narrative

One particularly poignant tool to use in general audience writing is narrative--especially personal stories. A mentioned in Chapter 5: Style [https://edtechbooks.org/-CMg], we as humans are hard-wired to remember stories. Narratives that are personal, detailed, and interesting can be a point of convincing evidence that has the power to mold and change your readers' thinking much more than statistics or data alone can. 
Watch this 3-minute video about the power of storytelling from one of the greatest group of storytellers in modern times: Pixar. Click here to watch [https://edtechbooks.org/-FwfV]. Harness the power of storytelling by adding global storytelling (having an arc to your writing with a beginning, middle, and end, etc.) and local storytelling elements (like including an incident that happened to you). Review Chapter 5: Style [https://edtechbooks.org/-CMg] for more ideas.

Context and Genre

One last consideration to keep in mind is the context in which you're communicating and whether there's an established genre or form your writing needs to fit into. To review the concepts of genre and context, see Chapter 2: Writing Tools [https://edtechbooks.org/-Kze]. Whether it be an online blog post, a resume, a poster presentation or a tweet, you need to understand the conventions people usually use when communicating. In fact, sometimes knowing the genre is all the information you need to understand the message.
For example, in the town where I live, there's an odd tradition that when high schoolers ask someone to a school dance, they usually do so in a creative way. Like, really creative. Instagram and Pinterest have really encouraged this practice. So one day, we found this message on our doorstep.
Photo by the author, used with Abby's permission.
Even though the words of Abby's message themselves weren't clear, we immediately understood the message because we understood the genre (when items are left on doorsteps, it's most likely a dance invitation) and the context (we've seen the movie The Guardians of the Galaxy, so we caught the reference to the plant creature who speaks using only one phrase: "I am Groot."). In fact, by referencing a popular movie and challenging the typical genre of dance invitations, Abby made a better--and funnier--invitation than if she'd simply said her message straight. This is why understanding genre and context can really help you get your own message across.
The rest of this Unit is devoted to specific genres of general audience writing, so for help with particular types of communication like resumes, blog posts, or presentations, go to those chapters.

Representing a Company or Group

In some cases you will be writing under your own name; other times you'll be writing for a company or group. You always want to consider what your writing tells the reader about yourself and if you're building and protecting your reputation. But once we're writing on behalf of a company or group we have the added responsibility of representing them as well. If we can consciously keep these things (purpose, audience, genre, and context) in mind every time we send out an email or text or post or reply on Slack, we will become much more adept at using the rhetorical situation for our benefit. Try to use the mindful writing techniques [https://edtechbooks.org/-yfr] from Chapter 3 and imagine you're reading your piece from your audience's perspective. Or even better, test your piece on actual readers and get feedback. Either way, you'll want to make sure you follow any Style Guides or standards that your company has.

Top Seven Hints for Writing for General Audiences

Here are some last tips that will help your writing shine.
  • Anchor each new point, taking the reader on a journey. Use the first part of the sentence and subject skillfully to keep your audience engaged (sometimes flip the order of the sentence to achieve this level of engagement); be aware of the same principle as you transition from paragraph to paragraph. Use one-sentence zingers and varied sentence and paragraph length to maintain high interest from point to point. 
  • Ax anything unessential. Look at writing through the metaphor of finding a pot of gold in the woods. It can be found within 400 feet, but in the searching for it, you walk a mile. Which does your audience want--the 400 feet or the mile? When you have to cut things out, you are often cutting out the mile. These parts are hard to cut because they were personal to you and to the journey of finding the pot of gold, but the audience is not part of that journey. They generally want your message in the 400 feet. 
  • Attribute sources with very short, but impressive elements. When citing a source and choosing what to include (e.g., author’s name, credentials, affiliation with an institution, professional background, name of recent article or book, etc.), try to include no more than two attributions and use those that are most impressive for the audience of your piece. Add quotes in places that are consistent with the original text to not misuse another author’s intent.
  • Angle your insights to help readers gain a new perspective. Know the point you are driving towards, even if the reader does not see it from the beginning. Consider starting with some of the most interesting parts of the idea or a story or place them closer to the first of the article (once interested, the reader can better deal later with the less interesting parts of the topic if they are already “hooked” on the article). Refine the ending to make sure readers finish with an unstated invitation to continue to think about your point. Don’t “overstay your welcome” by doing too much of a summary.
  • Allow authentic use of narrative to be real and to touch readers. Paint a picture by using great adjectives; don’t be afraid to add emotional words to human experience to bring it to life. At times, this means that you slow down the pacing in order to give rich detail. If you begin or end with examples or stories, make sure that the tone stays consistent throughout, so the story is woven into the piece, rather than used as a stand-alone piece. Carefully consider the use of “you” and “your” since this speaks directly to the reader. When you choose to speak “second person” be sure you are speaking generally enough to include all of your audience, that you don’t inadvertently offend them by putting on a label or suggesting a belief or behavior they have that might not be very complimentary (to avoid making sweeping or inaccurate judgements). With a call to action, also be aware of how this might be taken by your audience.
  • Analyze or interpret data or statistics to guide readers. When describing research, simplify (t may help to think of a friend or neighbor); state findings in present tense and explain the conducting of a study in the past tense. Be careful about “dumbing down the research” so much that it confuses terms or overgeneralizes findings (e.g., consider whether the original researchers would be happy with your clarity and accuracy in describing their work). For your most important points that hinge on research or when introducing charts or graphs, take time to guide readers through complicated findings with helpful analysis, rather than assuming they will get the point if you only just mention the presence of findings in this area.
  • Apply good APA protocols & hyperlinks to build transparency and trust. Use a good variety of resources that would be considered credible by your audience. Where you can, hyperlink to the original, using a key word or two to hyperlink the resource. In those cases and in other cases where the source is not internet based (e.g., a book), provide an endnote. (See this video with brief information about how to insert endnotes [https://edtechbooks.org/-ETR] in Word.) Key points need good references to build credibility, but in public scholarship pieces, synthesis is not generally needed, nor is it necessary to be obtrusive about a heavy focus on naming or explaining sources in general--just be transparent and wise in the selection of sources (e.g., if all your sources are blogs that no one has heard of, the piece may not feel very authoritative). 

Choose an Example 

One of the best ways to learn how to write for a general audience is to read pieces written for general audiences. Shocking, I know. As a last exercise, choose of these examples of articles by undergraduate students in BYU's School of Family Life written and published for a general audience. Notice the strategies they use to make their article more appealing for a general audience, even when they're reporting on academic research that's been done on their topic.
Undergraduate Examples

Which article did you read? What strategies did the author(s) employ to appeal to a general audience? How can you incorporate these strategies into your own writing?

With practice, you'll learn how to easily transition between writing for an academic audience versus a general audience. See the last three chapters of this textbook for examples of how to write in particular genres:
Chapter 14: Professional Portfolio
  • Resume
  • Cover Letter
  • Interview
  • Graduate School Application Letter
  • CV (Curriculum Vitae)
Chapter 15: Public Texts
  • Memos and Email
  • Social Media
  • Online Writing
  • Infographics and Data Visualization
  • Opinion Editorials
Chapter 16: Presentations
  • Oral Presentations
  • Poster Presentations

End-of-Chapter Survey

Please rate your general experience reading this chapter. (Choose one.)

  1. Not Awesome
  2. Somewhat Not Awesome
  3. Neutral
  4. Somewhat Awesome
  5. Awesome

Did this chapter support your learning?

  1. Did Not Support Learning
  2. Somewhat Did Not Support Learning
  3. Neutral
  4. Somewhat Supported Learning
  5. Supported Learning

Suggested Citation

, , , & (2019). Writing for General Audiences. In , Writing in the Social Sciences. EdTech Books. Retrieved from https://edtechbooks.org/writing/general_audiences