by Jody Bruner
Technical writers often find themselves needing to make important recommendations to clients or business readers who 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 our Writing Technical Reports workshop’s Situational Analysis. It’s a tool for analyzing your purpose, audience and context as you create your message.
- 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! By assuming ignorance, you give your audience the information they need without dumbing it down or being disrespectful.
- How much detail do they want?
As the writer, you likely find your topic interesting and have invested a lot of time and energy in it. It’s human nature to want to share and take your audience through your thought process. But they are not as interested as you are, so don’t burden them with too much detail, especially up front. The audience is most interested in the results of your analysis, so put your findings up front. Tell them what you want from them, how they will benefit and, if relevant, what it will cost. Then, in the body of your talk or report, support your recommendation and its benefits with the necessary detail.
- 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? Have you identified an opportunity? Link your recommendation explicitly to your audience’s strategic goals.
- What are their fears and frustrations?
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. A clearly presented proposal gives your audience the confidence they need to know they’re making the right decision.
- What objections do you anticipate?
As you build a comprehensive profile of your audience, you will 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.
If you or your team could benefit from learning more about this and other tools for communicating to non-technical audiences, please contact us to learn more.