Knowing Your Audience

The TAP Triad, from New University's website
The TAP Triad, from New University’s website

The document I’m editing is a case-in-point reminder of something Anne Hungerford taught us last year about Rhetoric: the importance, in communication, of knowing your audience. Who will be watching, reading, or listening to your product?

The document is the “Welcome to the Neighbourhood” package that goes to new residents of the townhouse complex my parents live in. It’s not the official by-laws, past council minutes, and other legal stuff; that comes from the property management company. This is the “hey, neighbour, come for coffee on Mondays”, peer-to-peer invitation to be part of the community. The by-laws outline what you need Strata Council permission for; the Welcome Package says where the application forms are kept, and how to get them to the Council. The by-laws outline expectations; the Welcome Package extends  invitations.

This document’s audience is “homeowners in an adults-only housing complex”. These are relatively affluent adults with an average age of 74 years. They are retired employees and/or employers, parents and grandparents. Some are members, officers, and elders at churches, golf and tennis clubs, and service clubs like Elks, Moose, and Lions. Some are  former service personnel and current members of the Legion. They probably have good driving records and no criminal history. This audience is well-acquainted with the concepts of community, responsibility, and consideration for others.

This document’s purpose is to be inclusive; to build and maintain community, and encourage participation, including volunteering. Thus, its tone should be friendly, welcoming, and encouraging. Unfortunately, much of it reads as if it’s directed at ne’er-do-well layabouts, aged 25 and under, whose natural inclination is to disoblige their quiet, law-abiding neighbours. It is patronizing and emphasizes what is not allowed, not possible, or not tolerated, rather than what is available and encouraged.

My mom knew she didn’t care for the tone when she asked for my help, but she wasn’t sure why she found it problematic. The answer: wrong audience and purpose = wrong tone.

We’ve all encountered (or produced) communications that missed the audience mark, haven’t we? Tell me about one of yours!

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