Audience Awareness

Knowing your audience—whether readers or listeners—will help you determine what information to include in a document or presentation, as well as how to convey it most effectively. You should consider your audience when choosing your tone, content, and language—or else your message may seem unfocused or inappropriate.

In the classroom, your audience is often your professor. However, some assignments are designed so that you are addressing a secondary audience such as an expert in the field or the general public. Even when your audience is your instructor, tailor your communication to meet expectations. For example, your professor may expect you to demonstrate critical thinking or to employ an academic style.

Audience Awareness in the Composing Process

You should consider your audience early in the course of writing documents or speeches, but not necessarily as the first step. Worrying too much about accommodating an audience can inhibit early stages of composition. Do some research and prewriting first. Once you’re knowledgeable about the topic and confident you have something to say about it, consider how to make it interesting and significant for specific readers or listeners.

Here are some questions to ask when analyzing your audience:

The Effect of Audience on Style

Your style is determined in part by your audience. Together, the following elements constitute style; adjust them to reach your intended audience:

Reaching Out to the Audience in the Introduction

The introduction helps the audience decide if a text is worth reading or a speech is worth their attention. Consider the choices the author makes in the following introduction:

Ex.1 Natalie, 11, is a timid kid, and her parents, though possessing the best of intentions, aren’t making it any easier for her. The Portland, Maine, sixth grader says, “I hate it when Mom and Dad get all supercheery and say, ‘Don’t be shy. See how your sister Tracy does it? Just go up to that kid and say hi.’ But I’m not Tracy. It’s really hard for me. I feel like everyone is watching me and waiting for me to mess up.”

The above is from a Good Housekeeping article, “10 Smart Ways to Help a Shy Child” by Beth Johns (March 2001, page 89). The intended audience is middle-class American women with at least a high school education. The readers have children and know ways to deal with them, but are looking for something new. The writer presents herself as a peer and draws interest immediately by using a human interest story about a particular child to introduce the topic. Her tone is informal and her language is casual: “kid” instead of “child,” a contraction for “are not,” and slang (“supercheery”). She uses active voice and short sentences.

Compare Johns’ introduction with “An Ambulatory Physiological Monitor for Animal Welfare Studies” in the scholarly journal Computers and Electronics in Agriculture (2001, Volume 32, pages 181-194):

Ex.2 A fundamental problem in recording continuous and rapidly varying physiological signals such as the electrocardiogram (ECG), electromyogram (EMG), or electroencephalogram (EEG) from freely-moving subjects over extended periods of time is the large volume of data that must be collected. This problem is further exacerbated when a number of signals and/or subjects are monitored simultaneously. In animal welfare studies, researchers often wish to record multiple signals from multiple animals while the animals are subjected to various stressors over periods of several weeks (Krantz and Falconer, 1995; Rollin, 1997).

Phillip J. Harris, Peter N. Schaare, Christian J. Cook, and Jon D. Henderson, the research team who wrote this, are clearly addressing fellow researchers who want to gain detailed knowledge on a topic they’re familiar with. Because these readers expect that the authors have read the most current literature on the topic, careful documentation is provided within parentheses. The authors use formal language, passive voice (“data must be collected”), jargon (“stressors”), and acronyms (“ECG”). Sentences tend to be long and use many modifiers. For example, the opening sentence has 26 words separating the subject from the predicate.

Addressing a Diverse Audience

An additional but important factor to consider when writing a document or preparing a speech is the differences that exist in our diverse society. Your goal should be to not only address your audience accurately and clearly, but also in a socially acceptable and professional manner. The following are suggestions to help you adapt your document or speech to meet this goal:


Axtell, Roger E. Gestures: The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.

Lucas, Stephen E. The Art of Public Speaking: Ninth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Maggio, Rosalie. Talking About People: A Guide to Fair and Accurate Language. Westport, CT: Oryx Press, 1997.