Lend an Ear to Your Readers

What do your readers actually need? 
As a business writer, I’m sure you know how important it is to listen. Everything we do begins with a conversation and our job is to make sure the conversation leads to understanding.

Here’s a simple truth: People don’t read technical content that is not useful to them. If within the first few paragraphs, they don’t find what they need, they will put the document away and probably never look at it again.

Before you draft an outline or start to research, make sure you understand who you’re writing for and what they need. It’s not enough to list their job titles and typical credentials. You need to know as much about your readers as you do about colleagues you’ve worked with for years.

This involves establishing a relationship of trust, using active listening, and asking probing questions. You also need to talk to a variety of interest groups. Depending on the project, this may involve customers, staff, management, and subject matter experts.

Ask the difficult questions 
Many organizations use a survey to do this needs analysis. While a survey does provide a solid base, for a more in-depth understanding, you’ll want to go further. Brief conversations with key people are the best way to uncover underlying needs. In a one-on-one situation, you can ask the difficult questions and you can follow lines of inquiry.

This is not an easy task. You’re looking for pain points, sources of frustration, and areas of confusion. In other words, you’re looking for the things people would change if only they dared. A problem that has lingered can begin to feel unmoveable. Your job is to awaken hope and dare to envision a better way.

Business writing does not exist to entertain. It exists to help people solve problems. You can’t do that if you don’t understand the problems.

Seven questions to help you dig
Here’s a list of questions to help you find out what your readers really need:

  1. What do they already know? Are they experts, people with basic skills, or novices?

  2. What knowledge and skills do they need to do their job well?

  3. What causes them stress and frustration? If you could do something really useful to help them with their job, what would it be?

  4. What are their values, interests, and experiences? What do they care about?

  5. What is working well? Which tools, processes, and sources of knowledge do they want to foster and sustain?

  6. Will your document introduce an organizational or process change? What do they need to help them transition?

  7. When will they be reading the material? How will they read it—as a reference source, from cover-to-cover, on the internet, on their phone, as a printed document, and so on?

Keep an open mind 
The best questions will be the ones you discover as part of the conversation. As you explore ideas and issues together, stop now and then to make sure you have understood. Summarize the points made so far, and give them an opportunity to expand or explain.

As humans, we love to organize the world and how we think about it. Unfortunately, this can lead to false assumptions. Even the best of us may hold preconceptions that could impact the conversation about needs. Before you start, check your perceptions and get ready to welcome fresh ideas.

It is worth the effort 
While this may seem like a lot of work, it yields genuine results. People will be grateful you took the time to understand what they need. They will read what you wrote. You will be helpful. The next time you start a new project, they’ll be knocking on your door, eager to share ideas.

©Debbie Bateman 2019. Image purchased from Adobe Stock.

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