Same subject, different audience
I’ve spent the last few days working on the design of a component for a training programme that aims to train four distinct groups of people in the same subject area. It has been a fascinating project from the perspective that each group has very specific needs and the application of the information will be different for each of them.
I have again become aware of the how important it is to understand not only the subject, but the audience too. I am also reminded of all those times in technical report writing workshops when we talk about audience awareness and people ask if I’m suggesting that they write a separate report for each audience. (This question is usually asked with a slightly elevated tone.)
The answer is, “yes and no”. Today, I’m going to focus on the “yes” part of that answer. It is yes, because the different people you might write for or speak to have different needs and will be applying the information in different ways. You need to to present information in ways that will be of greatest use and value to them.
Just last week, Creamer Media published an article entitled “Engineers urged to assertively infuse social debates with technical insight” (Read it here) The article is about the open lecture delivered by Wits University School of Governance professor Mike Muller at the South African Academy of Engineering in Johannesburg. At one point is his lecture, Professor Muller reportedly observed, ““For roads, power and water projects, we typically plan up to a decade ahead – five years is short term. Current water resource planning looks to 2035 and 2040. Meanwhile, for politicians, short term means this week, long term is until the next election. This short horizon inevitably shifts priorities.”
His primary point, as I understand it from the article, was that technical professionals shuold have a greater say in debates and decisions that fall within their area of expertise. But his comment above illustrates beautifully the challenge of reconciling different perspectives and priorities. For me as a technical communication coach, this quote stands out because if I was an engineer looking to have greater influence in the big debates of infrastructure, my first thought would be how to address the difference in perceived timeframes for short term and long term planning. As Professor Muller points out different time horizons mean different priorities.
I remember talking to an engineer once who approached a city councillor to ask if the city was thinking about how it might need to adapt its storm water infrastructure to what appears to be changing rainfall patterns. The discussion went nowhere because it simply did not fit with the council’s political agenda at that point.
So how do technical professionals who have enormous value to add to civil society get their voices heard above raging party politics and strong wills and, dare I say it, egos? Step One: Take time to understand how they think. Talk to them on informal occassions through courtesy calls or stopping by their office where you are there to see someone else. Talk about your work in casual contexts and find out about theirs. Work on creating mutual understanding. Note I didn’t say “agreement”. We begin by first understanding eachother’s perspectives and needs.
Once you have understood your audience and how they might think and what they need most to make good decisions, craft your argument in a way that will make sense to them. Not just the content, but the style of your presentation with affect the value of your input. Having a clear picture of the desired outcome and how you plan to get there is also important.
All this to say, the report you write for your technical director about increased stormwater runoff in your city, for example, will be very different to the presentation that you give in the city council meeting. Politicians, developers, environmentalists all look through different lenses. When you talk to them about water, think about how they will receive your words through their filter and cater for that. That way you will hopefully increase the perceived relevance and value of the important information that you know they need to know and consider.
If this sounds confusing, think back to your school days. In junior school you learned about fractions when their primary application was sharing. At this age, fairness and generosity are important lessons. In seniour primary you learned about fractions as a way to scale things, this opened up a whole new world of possibility: ratios. High school continued your development as you started to see the spread of one concept to other areas. Small circles have as many degrees as big circles – microcosms reflecting macrocosms. You understand the magnitude of historical events when you here that a political force took over three-quarters of a territory. You understand what it means when 80 000 hectares of a 100 000 hectare area is destroyed by fire, it’s bad.
Each group of learners has different needs. The subject is fractions, but it is presented in terms of what they do or don’t already understand and what they will use the knowledge for.
Getting back to my project. My challenge is to present a particular subject to four distinct groups of people so that each of them can do their part to make the larger system work. For each group I have been asking myself questions like:
- What will they do with this information?
- What decision or behaviour do I want to trigger with this information?
- How do I present this information in a way that will make the most sense to them?
- What do they already know?
- What will help them most to play their part so that the whole system works?
Understanding my potential audience’s perspective and priorities is key to communicating effectively with them. And when I say “effectively” in the technical communication space, I mean getting stuff done to standard, on time and within budget.