How hard can it be? Adjusting difficulty for your audience

I can read. If you are here, you can read, too. How hard do you want to work to do it?

This is a regular lesson for my media writing students – the wants of the audience. And they vary both by who the audience is and how they are reading you. In some cases, like when I am writing for fellow academics, a great deal of precision in thinking and language is absolutely required. In others, like if I am updating a Facebook status, not so much.

I saw a promoted Tweet from Yahoo about a recent email outage that led to this statement of explanation and apology. It seems sincere and accurate. It also requires a high school senior’s level of reading ability to understand.  That might work for some readers, but I am going to guess that not everyone who uses Yahoo mail can understand the whole message. Some may not have enough education. Others may have enough education, but aren’t reading in the high-concentration mode. For both, a complicated message isn’t helpful.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What can my audience do? How difficult a material are they capable of reading? In the Yahoo example, do they know what IMAP is?
  • What will my audience do? How willing are they to spend time figuring out what I am saying? In the Yahoo example they willing to look up what IMAP is if they don’t know?
  • How important is precision? Are there legal aspects or high stakes if understanding isn’t detailed and perfect?
  • What impression do I want my audience to have of me/my organization/my brand? I want go back because I learn things? I want to go back because it’s always correct? I want to go back because it’s fun?

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