What Does it Mean to “Know Your Audience”?

At least a few times per semester at my Esteemed Place of Employment, I will have a conversation with a student in the Writing Lab that goes about like this:

“Who’s the audience for this paper?”  I ask.

“Mr. Johnson,” replies the student, if the student replies.*

“Okay.  What does it mean to write something for Mr. Johnson?”

Beat.  “Huh?”

“Do you think Mr. Johnson is going to like what you’ve written?  If so, why?”

Sometimes, at this juncture, the student will show me Mr. Johnson’s essay prompt or rubric, which in this case is not the worst substitute for actually knowing a darned thing about Mr. Johnson.  More often, the student will go blank for a moment, as she realizes that she in fact does not know what it means to write a paper for Mr. Johnson.

When we teach writing, one of our absolute non-negotiable must-dos is to teach audience awareness.  Unfortunately, we (okay, I, but I can’t be the only one) have a nasty, nasty habit of neglecting that responsibility, often because we assume it has already been taught.  And it probably has!  I first learned the term “audience” in a writing context in fourth grade.  But audience is a sneaky beast, the kind that escapes every time it gets caught.  You are never done teaching it, or for that matter, learning it.  Audience awareness and audience knowledge must be taught, and retaught, each time the student writes for a new audience.

I want to differentiate between two related but separate terms that I have already used: audience awareness versus audience knowledge.  Audience awareness, as I use the term, is a broader concept: the understanding that your writing has an audience, and that you will communicate with that audience differently than you would if you were writing for a different audience.  Audience knowledge is the application of audience awareness to your particular audience right now.  Audience knowledge requires you to gather information about your audience that will help you communicate with them as clearly and effectively as you can.  Awareness is the theory; knowledge is the practice.

I know we in the English teaching world – including me – like to scoff at the notion that what we teach needs to be “relevant,” especially “to the real world,” but audience knowledge is a boon to us in that debate, because it’s very easy to explain to students why they need to learn it.  An entrepreneur must research his business’s target market.  A doctor must establish strong relationships with patients; a lawyer, with clients.  Any sort of creator – artist, software developer, inventor – must learn who is likely to get the most benefit from their product and be able to clearly communicate why and how.  If you don’t do these things, your potential audience will likely find you ineffective at best and repulsive at worst.

Over at Project Forever Free in an article entitled “COVID Facts and Figures Will Not Build Trust with Terrified Parents,” Erika Sanzi powerfully demonstrates the high stakes of audience knowledge when making or communicating major policy decisions:

It is becoming increasingly clear that pundits and well-meaning education advocates fail to fully grasp the deep distrust that some parents have long had for their children’s schools. A steady stream of articles, op-eds and twitter threads tell us that closed schools are doing the most damage to children of color, children from low income families, and children with special needs. Yet many parents of the children who fall into one or more of those categories do not want their schools to reopen and say that if they do reopen, they will not send them. This is a major head scratcher for people who have never been zoned to an unsafe or chronically underperforming school.

It is inevitable that readers familiar with “the science” will be tempted to immediately start sharing links to studies from Europe or pieces by Brown professor Emily Oster about the low risk of catching COVID at school. And that makes perfect sense because they are not looking at the pandemic through a prism of decades of distrust and educational failure. What may look like ignorance or an anti-science mindset to the highly educated, including physicians and scientists, is the actual life experience of the parents and caregivers for whom they advocate. Failure to understand and address these very real fears of parents will be a disastrous mistake with long term consequences.

Sanzi writes here about a disconnect that she has observed between “pundits and well-meaning education advocates” and the parents whom they very much would like to convince to support school re-opening efforts and sending their children back to school.  To put it briefly and bluntly, the pundits and advocates assume that these parents are like them.  They assume that the parents will find convincing and reassuring what they themselves have found convincing and reassuring.  The parents, on the other hand, clearly aren’t convinced or reassured.  The lack of audience knowledge present here means that the argument not only fails to convince its target, but may push its target further in the other direction.  Anyone who has ever tried to convince another person to change a political viewpoint, especially on a personal and emotionally charged topic like abortion or the death penalty, has had the experience of running headlong into a brick wall when their audience knowledge ran out.

So there you have the extremely persuasive case for the importance of knowing, really knowing, your audience.  Once your students are sold on needing to know it – for once, the easy part of the job! – you can start teaching it to them.  Here are my biggest tips on how not to screw it up.

We’ve all been there.
  1. Teach your students who their audience really is.

Back when I taught writing in college, I told my students that the audience for their papers was “educated people,” the sort of people who might read academic journals.  That was a terrible way to teach audience awareness.  First of all, extremely few people read academic journals (sorry, grad school friends, you know it’s true), and even fewer read journals in whatever super esoteric subject matter you’re having the college students write about.  Second, and much worse, that explanation was artificial and dishonest.  The only person who was ever going to read their papers was me.  Their audience was me.

In my defense, I was afraid that telling them the truth about their audience would make them write only what they thought I wanted to hear.  As an older and more experienced teacher, I stumbled upon a brilliant (in the sense of “obvious”) solution: tell them what I really wanted to hear.  I now spend a day of class at the beginning of the year telling my advanced students what I want to see (unconventional interpretations of literature, extensive use of primary texts, readability, clever turns of phrase) and don’t want to see (excessive passive voice, refusal to own their arguments, unfounded stereotypes and generalizations, abuse of reflexive pronouns) in their writing.  There’s no point in pretending that writing for one teacher is the same as writing for any other teacher.  I’m their teacher right now, I know what I like, and we’re all going to be happier if I just tell them.

  1. Assign your students to write about their audience.

Ideally, your students will write for a variety of audiences.  If there’s no time (because there’s never time), give your students an assignment that allows them to choose from a variety of audiences with different characteristics.  They could choose, for example, an audience of their friends’ parents, an audience of third graders at the local elementary school, an audience of police officers, an audience of Cuban immigrants, or an audience of TikTok users.  When I give this sort of assignment, my students’ first step is to write a profile of their audience.  Their profile should be a portrait of a typical member of their audience group and should include, but not be limited to:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Temperament
  • Socio-economic status
  • Education level
  • Living situation
  • Occupation
  • Political leanings or views
  • Likes
  • Dislikes
  • Interests

I tell them, get to know your audience like you would get to know a friend, or even a potential romantic partner.  The more you know about them, even if some of it turns out to be irrelevant later, the easier you’re going to find it to communicate your ideas to them.

  1. Make audience knowledge an explicit part of their grade.

Once they know their audience, make them remember their audience.  If you like to use rubrics, include a section on the rubric for demonstrating audience knowledge.  If you ask students to write reflections on their assignments, ask them to devote part of the reflection to their success in communicating with their chosen audience.  Regardless of how you do it, let them know that you will be playing the part of their chosen audience, and that you expect their writing to resonate with you.  Content, evidence, organization, and structure are all important components of a paper, but leave some room in your evaluation for the paper’s ultimate goal: clear communication with an audience.

  1. Play a game.

I have played Snake Oil with my students to teach them about audience awareness and why it matters, and it’s been a hit (and good for laughs) every time.  Buy a copy for your classroom.  If you can, make school buy it for you!

Once I dropped the pretense and snobbery that all too often surrounds it, audience awareness and knowledge became two of my favorite things to teach, and they’ve also become some of my students’ favorite things to learn from me.  Trust me on this.  I know my audience.

*I have no colleagues named Mr. Johnson.

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