03 September 2012

Meet the audience

Many years ago, I had my own radio show with WONB. It was great fun, and I still have the ability to write copy that takes exactly 30 seconds to read out, amazing memories and a fairly eclectic knowledge of music pre-2003.

Listeners used to phone in and sometimes send letters or cards. One old man sent a nice card after I’d played a song that reminded him of a girlfriend from the 60s, whereas others would request songs or phone in with jokes and comments on the day’s news. The fact is, with any broadcast medium – and I’d include blogs and technical documentation in this category – the audience for our message remains largely unknown. There is therefore an inherent danger in these little glimpses into our audience. In the case of the old man who sent me a card, I had to consciously resist the desire to play all the songs he would like and ignore the silent majority of listeners. Similarly, although one esteemed friend from Pakistan has identified himself as a reader, and Google tells me I have readers from a host of different parts of the world using a variety of browsers (hello to all those reading this from France!), I am resisting the urge to write for him or any of the others I know are reading this blog. Instead I write for the generally educated reader, who has some curiosity about the working life of a technical communicator.

This brings me nicely onto the subject of analysing readers. I’m sure many of us have had the opportunity to meet a selection of end users, particularly when working on internal documentation or planning a training course. Although valuable, I feel this experience should be approached with caution, primarily because I’ve often been the guy who’s been nominated to speak to the “special visitor”. The fact is that unless the client’s business is staffed by Oompa Loompas, or the Borg, the individuals you meet will be probably be outliers. The same happens when shooting TV commercials. A company that uses its own staff rather than actors in commercials may still choose their more attractive staff or those who represent the aspirations of the company rather than the reality.

How can you tell whether the people you meet are outliers? First, look at the room where you're meeting them. Does it resemble a scene from Mary Poppins, or Columbo? If there are cakes, biscuits and drinks available then you may be talking to the cream of the crop who’ve been given a “bit of a treat” by the boss; alternatively if the room is bare apart from a tape recorder and a panic button, you could have been given someone from the bottom of the pile. The other way is politely enquire, “I do hope this isn’t taking you away from anything else important?” If they respond that it’s just a normal working day and they’re pleased for the break, then this is a good sign... if the suspect person helping with enquiries explains that today’s the day the entire office was due to abseil down the side of the building in aid of a children’s charity, then you’re either faced with an above average “job comes first” individual, or the one who’s rarely left alone with his own thoughts and shoelaces, much less climbing equipment. Despite these observations, what you learn from the process will be valuable. These observations serve to temper and qualify the data collected and ensure you are broadcasting a message, not unicasting.


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