Technical writers often find themselves having to make important recommendations to clients or business readers, who often have little or no technical knowledge. Being able to get through to a non-technical audience is crucial because you need them to quickly make the right decisions for the right reasons. Missing the mark can derail important projects, hinder progress and erode your credibility.
The secret to communicating with your non-technical audience is having a deep understanding of their needs and prior knowledge, and using this knowledge to plan your message strategically. Knowing your audience helps you satisfy their needs without compromising the integrity of your message.
The following questions come from Wavelength’s situational analysis, a tool for analyzing your purpose, audience and context as you create your message.
1. What does your audience know about the topic?
Assume they know much less than you do, even if they are technical. As the person preparing the recommendation, you have the advantage of having immersed yourself in the topic, so you know more than anybody. We recommend assuming your audience is ignorant, but not stupid. There’s a big difference in this distinction! Even another technical person won’t know as much as you do and will appreciate being brought up to speed. By assuming ignorance and not stupidity, you give your audience the information they need without dumbing it down or being disrespectful.
2. How much detail do they want?
As the writer, you probably find your topic interesting and you’ve invested a lot of time and energy in it. It’s human nature to want to share. But your audience is not as interested as you are, so don’t burden them with too much detail, especially up front. They don’t want to follow your thought process, so avoid structuring your message in a way that traces your analysis. They only want to know the results of your analysis, so put your findings up front. Tell your audience what you want from them, how they will benefit and, if relevant, what it will cost. Then, in the body of your talk support your recommendation and its benefits with the necessary detail.
3. What are their strategic goals?
Consider how your recommendation will further your audience’s agenda. Are they looking to improve productivity? Increase revenue? Solve a specific problem? Improve business unit or customer satisfaction? Have you identified an opportunity? Link your recommendation explicitly to your audience’s strategic goals.
4. What are their fears and frustrations?
What do they need to be successful? Your decision makers want to look good to the people they report to—shareholders, senior executives, or clients. They want to make good decisions as quickly and painlessly as possible. Give them the confidence they need to know they’re making the right decision.
5. What objections do you anticipate?
As you build a comprehensive profile of your audience you’ll begin to see your message from their point of view. You’ll be able to anticipate and address their questions and concerns. This deep preparation gives you confidence in your message and gives your audience confidence in you.
Using these questions to profile your audience before you start writing your report or presentation is the best way to stay focused on what they need to hear as opposed to what you want to say.
Do you have other strategies that help you meet the needs of your non-technical audience? Please share!
Wavelength is a Litcom partner that specializes in providing communication skills training. They provide workshops that coach participants on how to write useful technical specifications for their colleagues, and recommendations to management. Specifically, participants learn how to write reports that both technical and non-technical readers can understand.