Experts vs beginners: know your audience

You cannot write well if you don’t know your audience. It’s one of the first questions we ask our clients. The same point can and should be conveyed completely differently, depending on who will be reading it.

In the most recent episode of Wired’s new 5 Levels of Difficulty series, ‘musician, composer and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier explains the concept of harmony to 5 different people: a child, a teen, a college student, a professional, and jazz legend Herbie Hancock’.

His explanation to the child is simple, and requires no technical knowledge whatsoever. He first plays just the melody of ‘Amazing Grace’, then adds the harmony. “Which one do you prefer?” he asks. The kid: “The second one.”

Collier has an advantage that writers don’t, however. When he’s speaking to the teenager, he asks “Have you ever heard of major chords and minor chords?” When you’re writing, you’re not able to check in on people’s knowledge levels. You have to guess. Aim too high and you’ll confuse your readers. Aim too low and you’ll insult them. Imagine if he’d asked Herbie Hancock if he’d ever heard of major and minor chords. Ouch.

When he moved on to the college student and the professional musician, I got lost. “G flat major 7 – G flat diminished” he says, and the musician laughs and nods. And that’s wholly appropriate: I’m not a trained musician. By pitching his explanation above my head, he’s delighted the professional and taught him something new.

The Herbie Hancock section is different though. For a start, Hancock does most of the talking. Collier doesn’t really have anything to teach him. You can cater to different audiences by changing the level of complexity and technical depth to your language, but you also need to consider your content. What value can I give to this audience?

When Collier does speak to Hancock, he’s not really explaining harmony, but his own personal approach to harmony. He talks about music as a journey, and harmony as a way of bringing the audience back home – and some of the challenges he’s faced doing that. Even experts are interested in other experts’ idiosyncratic takes on their field. They may not learn anything new, but it can be fascinating to look at something you know well through a new lens.

Before you start any piece of writing, or hire a professional to write something, you need to be clear on the following:

  • Who is going to be reading this?
  • Are they industry insiders or the general public?
  • What do they already know?
  • What value can you give them?

Image credit: Live at J&R Herbie Hancock LIVE AT J&R via photopin (license)

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