Skip to content

How Do You Write to Many Readers?

This past week I led business writing classes for two groups, one in the insurance industry and the other in banking. In both groups the same question came up:

How do you write a document for many different kinds of readers, especially if the content is complex?

The insurance group’s readers of the same document could be customers (policyholders), insurance agents, attorneys, other insurance carriers, the insurance commissioner, and future readers of the file.

The banking group wrote documents for customers, account officers, loan committee members, attorneys, real estate agents, managers, and future readers of the file.

How do you write a complex document when customers or clients and people in different jobs will read it? Do you do something special so that all readers will get what they need quickly and easily?

Please tell how you handle such challenges. Then I will share what I told my insurance and banking clients.

Syntax Training

Posted by Avatar photo
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.

8 comments on “How Do You Write to Many Readers?”

  • I think context and purpose will determine whether one document will suffice. It’s not hard to imagine scenarios where a level of information suitable for consumers would be inappropriate for attorneys, for instance, and vice versa.

    The basic assessment must be around what you can reasonably expect your audience to know already. The more complex or specialised the topic, the less likely a common base of knowledge exists across disparate audiences.

    Separate sections for each distinct audience in one document is one way, and has the advantage of easier control over versioning. I think such a segmented document is a compromise that doesn’t communicate as well as you’d like to any of the audiences, so I’d go with a number of audience-specific versions of the document.

  • If you are not sure who your readers will be – and even if you think you are – define all acronyms, eliminate or define jargon and provide context. Business writers generally overestimate their readers’ background knowledge. A simple example: writers often omit a city’s state or country, even though it may be unclear to some readers.

  • I’m in the insurance industry myself and I have seen this challenge before. I’ve come to understand that you must cope with the fact that your document will be lengthy. You have to expand everything. All terminology must be defined in some way. You must also be clear on references. If I say to a patient that he would owe $5,000 for the service, I have to break down the price and show where everything comes together. Or, I might have to explain to them that this is the deductible that their insurance company charges.

    All in all, in this style, I’ve learned to never fear over overwriting.

  • Thank you for sharing your views, Terry, George, and Vincent.

    Terry, I agree that different messages for different audiences is an efficient solution. However, the people in my classes said that they frequently must create one document for all. Given that, your suggestion about different sections for different audiences is valuable.

    George, thanks for the excellent reminder. I myself have been confused when a city is mentioned in an article or an advertisement, and I don’t know where it is. And I am not talking about famous or large cities.

    Vincent, you understand the challenge facing the people in my classes last week. I like your suggestion that writers simply cope with the fact that the message will be long.

    I will wait to see whether more people weigh in, and then I will share ideas.


  • I am not faced with this problem often (thankfully), but when I am I will usually create an Executive Summary (your name for it might vary) at the beginning of the document. This will give an outline of what is to follow, but will summarize detailed sections in a bullet point, sentence, or short paragraph. I think of a specific senior executive as I write this section and tailor the tone to her or him.

    An example from my experience would be a project proposal. The key people weighing in on the decision want to see the most pertinent points up front and summarized. Since this section follows the flow of the rest of the document, they can easily find any detail they are seeking. They might just want to know that the details support the summary, or they might want to probe one of the arguments further. It doesn’t matter – they should be able to find what they need.

    The Executive Summary is the last section I write – sort of. I’ll draft it and revisit that section throughout the writing process. I like to make sure that the Executive Summary flows well and can stand on its own; but the rest of the document must flow well too. Clear headings that connect the Executive Summary to the sections in the remainder of the document are a must. If it’s a lengthy document, it needs section numbering as well.

    For the non-executive, the Executive Summary often provides context. It will tell them what to look for in the rest of the document and helps them orient themselves to the overall flow. It models what many public speakers try to do: 1) tell them what you’re going to tell them, 2) tell them, and 3) tell them what you told them. It doesn’t really include item 3, but you get the idea.

    I hope this helps; I’ve found it to be a useful technique.

  • Hi, Randy. Nice work! You have covered what I was planning to say. You have made my job too easy, but I appreciate it.

    I too would use the term “executive summary.” Your idea about linking the points in the executive summary to the sections of the document is excellent.

    In a long document, a brief table of contents may come before the executive summary. If its section headings are descriptive rather than generic (not “Background,” “Problem,” “Solution,” etc.), it will help varying readers find what they need.

    In my business writing class last week, the insurance company attendees suggested previewing or reviewing a complex document by phone. Although this step is often not possible, it helps an important reader such as a client focus on the appropriate parts of a message.

    I appreciate your detailed description of the executive summary. Lately I have been seeing sections labeled “Executive Summary” that are actually background. Your description points writers in the right direction.

    Thank you, Randy, for doing my job! Now I can go to sleep early.


  • Our company strives to write one piece of research for each of our standard audiences, because each audience has unique needs. We try to confine our analysis and recommendations to the needs of that audience alone.

    This means that we sometimes write three similar pieces: a high-level piece for top executives, a strategy piece for the next level down and a how-to piece for the bottom tier.

    This policy means more work for everyone, but it makes sense for our business.

  • Hi, Diane. I appreciate your brief description of what you provide for each group of readers. Your method makes great sense.


Comments are closed.