Why Focus on Audience?

Audience is one of the most important rhetorical concerns for technical communicators. Technical information may need to be conveyed, but if information does not appropriately address an audience, the communication opportunity may have been lost. Audience especially becomes highlighted when technical communicators are required to convey the same information to different audiences. For example, how would a technical communicator communicate similar technical information to the following different audiences?

  • colleagues, or persons with similar education, training, and work background
  • fourth grade students
  • non-native speakers of English

Ways to address these different audiences may include changing vocabulary (from specialized vocabulary to general vocabulary); using concrete examples appropriate to the background and education of audience members; using visual aids to communicate technical information.

Similarly, communication may change in situations that involve an audience of various organizational positions. How might you communicate bad news (for example, lack of funds to support a project) to the following audiences?

  • your co-worker
  • your boss
  • your company president

Levels of Audience

Audience may consist of several persons. Persons in an audience may involve initial, primary, secondary, or external readers.

Initial audience is the person or persons that may see a message for the first time before a message is sent to primary readers. For example, colleagues are an initial audience when a writer gives them a document to proofread or provide feedback.

Primary audience consists of person(s) to whom a message is directed. For example, a letter or memo is addressed to a specific person or persons. The persons that are directly addressed make up the primary audience.

Secondary audience consists of persons who may not be direct recipients of communication, but may have some interest in the message for record-keeping or other reasons.

External audience consists of those who may have distant interest in a message, and often these persons might be outside of a workplace community (from a different company, for example).

Factors of Audience (Burnett, 1997)

When considering audience, it is helpful to consider the following factors of communication such as attitudes and motivations, education, experience, reading level, organizational role, and environment. Writers are encouraged to ask these questions about their audience when creating a message.

Attitudes and Motivations

  • What are the attitudes of the readers?
  • How will these attitudes influence the way they read the document?
  • Are the readers motivated to read the document?
  • How could you increase the motivation?


  • How much formal knowledge about the subject do the readers have?
  • How does this affect your plans for the document?  


  • How much on-the-job experience do the readers have?
  • What education do you anticipate that the readers have? (highest level? major? theoretical or practical focus?)

Reading level

  • What is your best estimate about the level of material the readers can handle without difficulty?

Organizational Role

  • What are the readers' positions in the organization?
  • What professional experiences and organizational roles do the readers have? (job title? areas of responsibility? years of experience? familiarity with the subject?)


  • Where will the readers use the material?
  • What distractions will readers face?

10 Questions about Audience

  • Who will read what you write?
  • What will the readers' initial reaction be to the message?
  • How much information does the reader need?
  • What obstacles must you overcome?
  • What positive aspects can you emphasize?
  • What expectations does the reader have about the appropriate language, structure, and form for messages?
  • How will the reader use the document?
  • What is the situation that led to the need for this document?
  • Who will act on what you write?
  • Who else may read what you write?

Source: Burnett, Rebecca E. Technical Communication . 4th edition. New York: Wadsworth, 1997.