Welcome to Not So (Small) Stories, Edition Thirteen! This week I’m writing about writing for your audience. Or, at least, with your audience of readers in mind. Should you actually try to write FOR them? How can you know them? Let’s take a look.
I still vividly remember the first time I taught Sunday School when I was a fresh-faced assistant youth director here in Texas. I do not recall the subject or Bible passage, only that I felt really pleased with how it went. I love teaching and spoke from the heart while the students (from 6-12th grade) listened intently. For 9am on a Sunday morning, I felt like I had captivated them with my message. Afterward, my boss pulled me aside and I prepared for a glowing review.
“Well,” Brian said, “that wasn’t a bad lesson. But you should probably not say ‘crap’ and ‘sucks’ so much when teaching Sunday School.”(Click to Tweet)
As soon as he said it, I was mentally tracing back my words, which I realized were riddled with language that wouldn’t have made a ripple among my college friends, but might have explained why I had rapt attention so early in the morning. Maybe not the best start to my career as a youth worker.
This, my friends, illustrates the importance of audience. I knew my audience in that case—I stared straight at them from a few feet away. But I hadn’t been tailoring my words with them in mind or hadn’t been in control enough of my diction for that group. Public speaking is perhaps harder for this because things like nerves can get in the way. Or, if you’re like me, you don’t read a script, but plan an outline and go.
Writing affords us a chance to better plan for our audience. Or does it? It all depends on if you know your audience and if you can find a way to tailor your words to them. Here are a few tips to write with audience in mind.
1. Identify Your Audience.
Writing a blog is an odd thing in terms of audience. You can track your readers in some ways via comments or shares or people telling you that they’ve read. But ANYONE CAN BE READING. I’m often surprised to get a comment on Facebook or have someone approach me in real life to tell me they enjoyed my latest post. Often not who I expected. When I write I am thinking of all those people—the ones I know. But how to find those who are reading and lurking without commenting? (I have a lot of lurkers.)
One thing to consider is a simple survey using something like Survey Monkey. I have done these periodically and plan to do one again, both with my blog readers and my email subscribers. Ask a bit about them, where they came from, why they read, what things they like and don’t like reading. Get to know your audience by seeking them out. Not everyone will respond, but perhaps enough to gauge your readers a bit better.
2. Write with Them in Mind.
I have a good sense of much of my audience, and I have attracted quite a sundry bunch. (Yes, I realize you are reading this, sundry bunch. I think of that as a compliment. And I <3 you big time.) How can I write for my audience? I don’t. It can be a huge mistake to write simply for your audience. After all, you can’t please everyone all the time. Maybe we should also think of the chicken and the egg concept here: which came first, the content or the audience?
Though in some ways we come with a ready-made audience of friends and family or contacts, the content is what draws the audience. Audience, then, should be considered, but perhaps not catered to. Can you ever make all readers happy? No. But you can write with them in mind.
An example from my blog would be my posts about faith. I don’t write about my faith that often, though it’s quite central to my life. When I DO write about it, I write considering that about half my audience (as far as I have identified) does not share the same faith as me. This does not mean that I’m less bold or try to hide the differences, but I try not to use church-y terms and I think of how my words might have hit me at 13, the year before I came to believe. Surprisingly, I have found that a lot of my readers who don’t share this same belief system will comment and tell me they read those faith-y pieces. I’m sure they turn some people away from the get-go, but to have people reading them who aren’t in that same boat? I LOVE IT.
That should be the goal: to write considering our readers, but not simply to please them. (Click to Tweet)
3. Engage Your Audience.
As I mentioned, I have a lot of lurkers. I lurk around a lot of blogs, so I am cool with those who read without commenting. (Silent digital fist bump, lurkers!) I don’t tend to garner tons of comments, even when I have a very popular post. There are tips and tricks to get more comments like having a great question or call to action, but so far none of those seem to snag my brand of readers. But I have found that encouraging my email subscribers to reply has been getting results. And when someone emails me? You better believe I email them back. Unless I become some kind of insane giant with too many replies, I will be responding to my readers.
Whatever way you can connect with your readers, it creates community. It tells your readers that you listen too. It humanizes you and bridges the gap between anonymous blog-writer (that is, if your readers don’t know you) and real person. That kind of connection keeps people coming back, whether you are responding to emails or to comments on your blog.
Things to consider: Do you have a commenting system that alerts people when you respond to their comments? That is also a big help! But make sure they can see a response without seeing EVERY response or comment after theirs. I made a mistake of clicking a box to see follow-up comments (which I thought meant only replies) on a large blog and then got several hundred emails as other people commented. Yikes! Connect with your readers in ways that feels organic to you. (Click to Tweet)
So, readers—a call to action! This week, try to identify your audience a bit more whether through a survey or something else. Consider them as you write and find ways to engage and connect. As you link up here, you can know that part of your audience is this little community, and we’re really nice. There is no prompt this week, so link up a post with some recent writing you want to share. Go visit the other writers over the week and share the love if you like what you read!
I’ll leave you with this quote I love from Patricia T O’Connor in her book Words Fail Me:
“You can’t always hold the audience in your lap, even mentally. Unless you’re writing to just one person, the audience will be made up of individuals, no two exactly alike. Still, they’ll have certain things in common. Determine what those things are and keep them in mind as you writer. You’ll be surprised how much clearer your thinking and your writing will be. You may even make readers feel you’re talking to each one alone.”