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What Does Your Reader Look Like?

My 11-year-old daughter and I were watching a movie The Art of Violin. (She had talked me into watching it as part of her violin practice time.) In it, we watched several famous violinists playing–Yehudi Menuhin, Fritz Kreisler, Isaac Stern, Jascha Heifetz–with commentary about their technique, uniqueness, and particular gifts.

After about 15 minutes, my daughter asked, “Why don’t they show any woman violinists? I’m a girl. I would like to see girls playing.”

Beyond the world of violinists and my daughter, there is a whole world of people like her–people who are looking for images, words, and sounds that speak to them. Just as she needed to see people like her in the movie, worldwide audiences need to find themselves in websites, annual reports, magazine and news stories, recommendations, advertisements, donor solicitations, and more.

As business writers, we need to see those readers when we write. We need to know or imagine what our readers look like, think like, and understand. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Use language for readers around the globe. Know that if you write to groups, some of the individuals in the groups will speak English as a foreign language.
  2. If you use photos of people in your annual reports, newsletters, and websites, use photos that look like your readers, customers, and people you want to attract.
  3. Unless you have a solid business reason not to do so, use photos of both genders. Use both men and women as the experts you quote, the people you describe, and the examples you provide.
  4. Avoid jargon unless you are certain that only those who understand it will read your document.
  5. Tell stories to illustrate difficult concepts–stories that will be universally understood.
  6. Spend time learning about your readers–especially those who are different from you.
  7. Make the effort to take the steps above. They do require effort and time, but the investment pays off when you engage many more people (perhaps many more millions) with your message.

Think beyond today. Even if today all your readers speak the same language, grew up in the same country, have the same skin color, and are one gender, tomorrow they may not be. Be prepared. When those 11-year-old violinists around the world grow up and start reading your reports, newsletters, and weblogs, you will want to be ready for them.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

One comment on “What Does Your Reader Look Like?”

  • Thank you so much for the reminder to think about the diversity of our audience when we are writing (or any time we are communicating). I recall receiving an invitation to a leadership conference years ago at which all the presenters were men. I telephoned the conference organizer to suggest that perhaps they should identify a few women leaders and invite them to speak if they wanted to reach a broader audience. His response ran something along the lines of “We looked but we didn’t find anyone.”

    Beyond gender differences, there can simply be style differences that need to be respected and reflected in our written and verbal communication. At NetSpeed Leadership, one of our 23 training modules called Working with Communication Styles explores these style differences. And as I’m typing this comment, I’m remembering that you, Lynn, were the training designer who created that module!

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