The Inside Audience

In college, a major emphasis of my technical writing classes was focusing on the audience. Specifically, those courses taught a skill called audience analysis. Using audience analysis, a writer begins the process of creating documentation by studying the audience and understanding their needs, desires, and expectations. Audience analysis, idealized, works something like this:

Suppose a writer trained in audience analysis is asked to create a tutorial for some software application. She might begin by looking at the members of her audience, identifying tasks the people in that audience want to achieve, and recognizing what skills and limitations they already have. The writer might learn that a subset of the audience has visual impairments and requires additional accessibility affordances. Or she might learn that the audience is made up of expert Linux users who prefer instructions for the command-line interface instead of the graphical interface. Whatever she learns, she uses it to produce documentation tailored to her audience. And, hopefully, that audience finds her documentation to be a delightful, helpful tool in completing the tasks they set out to achieve. Then there are high fives all around.

At the time I was learning this skill, I supposed, somewhat cynically, that there was a sort of pleasant fiction to the instruction, in that the skill wasn’t meant to be directed toward the ostensible audience of technical communications. Rather, I thought the purpose was to do audience analysis on the person who wants the work done: a professor, a boss, or a client. It would be rational to value my client’s appreciation for my deliverables more than my audience‘s appreciation for my deliverables. The incentives would be arranged such that my success is tied mostly to what a client, not an audience, thinks of my work.

And now that I’ve put a few years between me and my introduction to audience analysis, I’ve found that though my cynicism was misplaced, my estimation of the incentives was correct. But I was wrong in supposing there was a dichotomy between applying audience analysis to the ostensible audience or the paying client. There just happens to be a larger number of audiences than I was trained to expect. In practice, there’s an official outside audience of customers and users, for whom a writer ostensibly produces documentation. And then there’s an unofficial, inside audience of check-cutters.

The desired deliverable for the outside audience is likely to be a manual or screencast or some other thing that will instruct them in some task. Meanwhile, the desired deliverable to the inside audience is actually a kind of performance. If the interests of my audience and my client are perfectly aligned, the performance is creating the deliverable. But if not, it’s not really a problem: the interests don’t actually compete.

Suppose the client’s interest is in lowering support costs. The desired performance is doing things, creating deliverables, that lower support costs (in as much as those costs can be identified). It doesn’t necessarily follow that writing for the outside audience is a path to successfully completing that performance. The work that needs to be done may be improving searchability (e.g., SEO), deleting cruft, or writing primarily for the benefit of an internal audience (e.g., support team members). Some “real” audience ultimately gets a deliverable, but the client gets the performance they need.

And this approach fits with the idea that many, many technical writers have been emphasizing for so long: making the business case for your work. It’s just that this way, we’ve arrived at the business case by reverse. Rather than looking for ways to justify existing work to the people who write checks, it’s about looking for ways to work directly toward the satisfaction of the people who write checks. Or to put it another way, the audience analysis skills that are the core of technical communication education and the core competency of technical communicators is a skill that can be handily deployed to satisfy the needs of the audiences inside and out.