By William Pass
I was late. My uncle had expected me to be in Shakopee by five o’clock, and it wasn’t until five-thirty that I decided I really was lost. I decided to set my pride aside and ask for directions. Besides, I was low on gas.
I was on a country back-road when I pulled over and asked a farmer how to get to Shakopee. “Shakopee’s easy,” he told me. “Just stay on this road for like five minutes or so, and there’ll be a fork in the road with a green silo to the right. You wanna take the left there, then drive another ten minutes until you come to this big log cabin. Take the right after that cabin and that’ll get you there.”
I understand this man was only trying to help me. But by giving the directions he gave me, he only confused and misguided me. Ten minutes later I pulled over again and asked another farmer how I could get to a green silo next to a fork in the road.
The problem is that neither he nor I first analyzed the audience; we were thinking in two separate mind frames. I’ve lived in cities my whole life and I’m dependent on street names and numbers to get to where I’m going. He, on the other hand, lives in the country, where there are few road signs to memorize and much less change taking place in the environment. He would remember a path much easier by making a mental note of his surroundings.
Analyzing the audience is a fundamental element of all forms of technical communication. In his textbook Technical Communication, Mike Markel states that the first step in creating any form of technical communication is to analyze the audience (Markel 2004, 33). Communicators need to get a sense of direction regarding what information the audience needs. Though I cannot place all the blame on the farmer for getting lost, if he had first assessed me and my personal learning habits, he could have given me much more concise directions. I’m not expecting him to
get to know me in-depth, but he could have asked me right away what type of directions I was looking for.
The benefits of audience analysis are not limited to giving directions. A bartender, for instance, can help a new customer find a good drink just by asking what the customer likes. A clerk at a used CD store can learn the musical tastes of a regular customer and make suggestions when new shipments come in.
Most of us use audience analysis every day without consciously thinking about it. When I talk to my boss at work, for instance, I would focus our conversation on work-related topics. When talking to my grandma I would refrain from talking dirty. The variations are almost endless.
An important thing to note is that audience analysis can only be done by the person or people who are trying to communicate information. If they leave the audience out of the process of communicating, they leave the audience guessing. The audience, therefore, sometimes needs to speak up and tell the communicator what information is needed.
The next time I’m lost and ask for directions, I’ll remember to ask for what I need: “directions by street name, please.”
Markel, Mike. Technical Communication. Bedford: St. Martins, 2004.