Who do you think you’re talking to?

As any good copywriter will tell you, nothing’s more essential than knowing your audience. Yes, accurate spelling and a half-decent grasp of grammar are important, but a mastery of the semicolon isn’t going to win you any more readers (it might even lose you some, if this blogger, with whom I tend to agree, is to be believed). What matters is understanding what makes your reader tick – knowing what it is that gets her up in the morning or keeps her awake at night.

But if you’re a comms professional working in a large organisation, turning this knowledge into compelling copy can be a real struggle, because there’s so much pressure on you to write for the wrong reader.

Let me give you an example – an extreme one, and invented by me – but fairly typical of the sort of thing you’ll find in many a large corporation’s staff magazine:

In response to the firm’s long-term growth plans, the Talent Recruitment team, which plays a key role within the Global HR team, is delighted to announce that, in a major step forward for its ambitious 2010 strategy for attracting the very best talent into the organisation, a brand-new programme launches today, which will provide a cash reward to all employees who successfully refer a friend or family member to the organisation.

That the sentence is 71 words longs rings immediate alarm bells – most of the time you should be aiming for maximum of 25 words. Worse still, it’s clear that the writer is trying to cram too many ideas into one sentence. Let’s look at those ideas in the order in which they appear:

1. The Talent Recruitment team is responding to the firm’s long-term growth plans 2. The Talent Recruitment team is part of HR 3. The Talent Recruitment team is announcing something 4. The Talent Recruitment team has a strategy for attracting employees 5. The company will give you dosh if it recruits someone you recommend

Looking at this, it’s obvious which audience the author under is pressure to write for: the Talent Recruitment team. Who else cares about the team’s strategy, its position in the organisation and its contribution to the long-term goals of the company?

The interests of the other audience – the staff member who stands to benefit from the new reward scheme – have been relegated to an afterthought. Here’s what that reader’s interested in:

I’ll get cash for getting my mates jobs. How much can I earn? Where do I sign up? Er, that’s it. The stuff about the Talent Recruitment team is irrelevant to me.

Whenever you find news buried under contextual preamble in this way, it’s a sign of a writer under pressure to please the wrong audience. And while, in this instance, the Talent Recruitment team may be delighted to have their trumpet blown in such a way, they’re not being terribly well served by said trumpet blowing. How successful will their recruitment strategy be if no one bothers to read to the end of the torturously tortuous paragraphs they force their comms colleagues to write?

In future posts I’ll explore more examples of this all-too-common phenomenon of writing for the wrong audience – and offer some strategies for preventing it.