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Writing for Your Target Audience

An old story once told in public relations firms is about the publicist who sent a press release on a medical break-through to The Christian Science Monitor. Christian Scientists believe that prayer alone heals, not medicine. The hapless publicist clearly had no idea who the Monitor's audience was. One hopes that most publicists and writers are savvy enough to know their audience.

The harder challenge—one that is often overlooked—is writing for an audience whose scope of knowledge varies greatly. One example would be websites of non-profit organizations that focus on specific diseases, i.e., diabetes, MS, or asthma. In general, these sites seek to educate the general public about a disease, its treatment options, and current research. However, visitors will range from those who have coped with the disease for many years and who have a solid knowledge base to those who are neophytes. The writer has to be aware of this disparity and explain medical terms such as biomarkers or pathogenesis.

Even more accessible articles must to take into account what the author can reasonably expect the readership to know. In an article on the stock market written for the general news media, would it be reasonable to expect readers to understand a reference to tulipmania? Economists would know that you were referring to the development of a bubble such as the housing bubble of 2006, but the general public probably would not. If you want to retain the reference, then explain that tulipmania was the famous 17th century bubble in the Dutch tulip market and a fine example of “irrational exuberance,” a phrase coined by Alan Greenspan during the dot.com bubble of the 1990s.

Similarly, be careful when you use acronyms. Will your readership know what a ROI is? It stands for "return on investments." If in doubt, use the full phrase and include the acronym in parenthesis the first time you reference it. Afterwards you may simply use the acronym.

Finally, when writing for the general public avoid using jargon. I recently received a newsletter from my State senator that referred to “electeds.” Now maybe that is an acceptable term in the State House, but it makes the writer sound as if she is illiterate. Why could the writer not have used the correct term, namely, elected officials? Another term that is not a word and should never be used—at least not outside of marketing departments, unless you are Granny in a revival of the “The Beverly Hillbillies” sitcom—is “learnings.” Even less offensive words such as “outcomes,” which is often used in the field of medicine, should be avoided when writing for the general public. The word “results” will make more sense to your readers.

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