Whether it’s our social media posts, emails, brochures, press releases or even documents like memos, your approach to writing itself can become a stumbling block to audiences, especially if it lacks clarity.
Usually when someone talks about writing for different audiences, they focus on differing demographics. Baby Boomers versus Millennials, for example. Sometimes when people talk about different audiences, they mean political or cultural views, or things like ethnicity or gender.
What I want to focus on is something a little more basic, since stumbling blocks in your writing can be an issue no matter what your audience looks like. So, for this purpose the “different audiences” I am referring to are readers who take in content at different “readability” levels and experience your writing in different ways.
Now please don’t misunderstand me – I am not making any judgments on the ability of any given reader type. I am just focused on what it takes to make your content more readable in general, to all audiences. And this starts with what I call stumbling blocks.
What are stumbling blocks?
A stumbling block is anything that gets in the way of helping your audience understand what you are trying to say or write. Here are some easy examples: Taking too long to make a point; overusing jargon or unfamiliar words; using an inappropriate tone; and unclear or confusing language.
All of these problems cause an audience to be confused, resulting in misunderstanding and frustration for the reader.
So what is readability and why is it important?
One factor that affects how hard or easy something is to read and understand is called readability. There are two factors that most influence readability: Sentence length and word length. Also, often more important than word length are word familiarity and meaningfulness to the reader.
The good news is that readability can be measured. Robert Gunning’s Fog Index, for example, measures long words and sentence length to determine readability. Without going into too much detail, the Fog Index comes up with a measurement to see if your writing is accessible to different education levels, from sixth grade through college graduate.
Besides measuring, there are other techniques to improve readability for audiences. These include creating well-organized paragraphs, using transitions to connect various ideas, creating head or sub-heads and using lists to make your point. These approaches all have one primary function: conveying your ideas so clearly that no further explanation is necessary, no matter the audience.
For many using a template can help organize their writing, especially when it comes to things like specific business writing like memos, reports or executive summaries.
One template is a technique known as the “inverted pyramid.”
How an inverted pyramid works
The inverted pyramid presents information organized in descending order of importance, centered on what’s known as the five Ws (and one H). No matter the audience, these answer six basic questions: who, what, when, where, why and how.
A key feature of the inverted pyramid style is the beginning (the “lead” in journalism parlance). Think of the lead as your opening statement, sentence or idea. Typically, it tries to answer the 5Ws and 1H in the first paragraph (or first few paragraphs).
Sharing the most important information up front reduces confusion. Sure, we often want to “back in” to our point and sometimes even show how skilled we are at crafting ideas and sentences, but all too often key information is hidden or difficult to find.
For social media especially, it’s important to use a quick, clear message without all of the distractions flowery language or overwritten sentences create. But for all writing, the 5Ws and 1H can reduce confusion and allow all your audiences to better understand what you are trying to explain.
Tone is more important than your think
Tone in writing reflects how a receiver feels upon reading or hearing a message. Why does tone matter? It shows that we, as the writer, care about clearly communicating our message to the reader. It also reflects upon us, our department, and our company.
Other impacts in reaching different audiences include how tone can help get people to do something (like hire your company or buy your product).
Here are some simple ways to create a positive tone:
- Spotlight benefits to the receiver of the message (what’s in it for them?)
- Frame your ideas positively
- Cultivate a “you” attitude
- Avoid gender, racial, age and disability bias
- Be courteous. Avoid words and phrases that will upset, annoy or anger people.
- Use familiar words
- Choose precise words
Besides readability, using a proper tone can be one of the most difficult skills writers learn. It requires focus, an understanding where your audience is at (this is where things like audience demographics or life experience come into play) and a sensitive style that is genuine and honest.
When you want to write for different audiences you should think about all of these elements, from stumbling blocks and tone to clarity through the inverted pyramid and, yes of course, your reader, how educated they are, young or old, and from various demographic backgrounds.
If you need assistance with any of these ideas, the Logos team is ready to help. Reach out and we’ll be glad to assist in creating readable communications that reach all of your audiences.