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Do you know who you're talking to?

Experts estimate that up to 50% of your time at work is spent on written communication, even if that's not strictly your job. So it's absolutely vital to develop your writing skills - not only because of the time involved, but also because your success may depend on it.
Do you know who you're talking to?

One of these skills is reader analysis or more specifically, knowing who you're talking to, so you can a) give them what they need, b) get them to do what you want them to, and c) let them get on with their lives. After all, they're busy and important, aren't they?

Step 1: Define your readers

Your readers will evaluate your writing according to how well it answers these questions:

  1. How usable is the information?
  2. How relevant and timely is it?
  3. How long will it take me to read?

So when putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard, stop for a moment and ask yourself:

  1. Who will be the primary readers of this document?
  2. Who will be the secondary readers?
  3. And, will there be any other readers?

The key is to focus on the primary readers, with slight attention to the secondary readers. Obviously, there's almost no way of knowing who else may stumble across your document. Here are some things to think about when defining your audience:

  • Can I describe my readers?
  • What is their position in the family, in the company or in general?
  • What is their background?
  • How much do they already know about this particular topic?
  • What are their information needs?
  • Can I guess what their feelings toward my document will be?

Once you have a basic picture of your readers, it's time to understand how they operate.

Step 2: Understand how readers read

Your readers seldom read your offerings word by word. They scan, choosing individual keywords, sentences and paragraphs of interest, and skimming over the rest. Morkes and Nielsen claim that only 16% of readers read every word on a new page; 79% scan.

Why scan?

  1. First, it can be uncomfortable for the eyes to read reams of text. Think about it.
  2. Second, the reading experience fosters a certain amount of impatience.
  3. Third, most readers are ‘busy and important' - they want to get to the facts.

Keeping this in mind, there's a critical writing tip for all business communicators:

Put the conclusion first!

The Inverted Pyramid is the style of writing developed by newspapers - another medium where readers use scanning. Using this style, journalists put the most important bits of the story at the beginning, so the first sentence conveys the most important ideas:

"After a long debate, Parliament voted to increase taxes by 10%.”

Start with conclusion

In other words, journalists start the article with the conclusion, followed by the most important supporting information and then the background. There are two reasons for using the same method in your writing:

  1. Newspaper readers may not read the whole story, but we know that 79% of your readers don't read the whole story, so we want them to get the most important information first.
  2. Stories in print need to fit into a given space and they're cut from the bottom, where the waffle is. Similarly, long documents are a death-trap, so it's a good idea to put the most important information first.

Whatever your background is, it's fairly easy to grasp news writing if you imagine how a friend would tell you about a shooting he or she has just witnessed. Would your friend say this…?

“I'd just come from Woolworths, where I'd bought fruit, wine and some really nice French bread. I was walking towards my car. Suddenly, a car drove by. Somebody got out and pointed a gun…”

Highly unlikely. Anxious to share the news, your friend would probably get right to the point:

“A man was just shot in the back outside Woolworths!”

Who, what, when, where and why/how

When someone is waving a loaded gun, even a non-journalist instinctively knows how to construct the lead. In your friend's report are responses to the questions that news reports are traditionally expected to answer: who, what, when, where and why/how.

Bottom line? Your job may not involve actual news writing, but you should still follow the ‘5/6 question' process when analysing information and deciding how to proceed.

And in short, before applying your mind (or your fingers) to a piece of communication, be sure that you: have identified your readers, are able to write from the readers' collective point of view, know why you're writing and have started with the best bit: the end bit.

About Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman (www.tiffanymarkman.co.za) is a corporate trainer, copywriter and editor. Over the last nine years, she's trained the staff of over 90 companies - producing better, more confident and more powerful writers and communicators. Contact Tiffany on cell +27 (0)82 492 1715 or email for more information.

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