Knowing your Audience

When I worked in IT, one of our US clients, who was completely unaware of that variety of English often referred to as ‘British’ or ‘International’, wrote to us to say, “If you can’t even spell properly, how do you expect us to trust your products?” 

While I struggled to formulate an appropriate response my manager said, quite simply, “Give him what he wants.  In fact, let’s adopt US English for all of our collateral, to reflect the fact that we’re international players.”  I needed to lie down.  “What about our British clients?” I pleaded.  He pointed out that we didn’t have a single customer that would object to US English but at least one, possibly more, who needed it.  He was right of course; I was so busy indulging my fondness for the mother tongue that I had forgotten to pay any attention to my target audience. 

Whether writing for a mass market or a limited niche, it is important to appeal to as many of your readers as you can and alienate as few as possible, even if that means writing in a style you’re not accustomed to.  I am sure that the local authorities that controversially “banned” Latin expressions such as ‘QED’ and ‘quid pro quo’ were simply trying to put this principle into practice.

Another manager of mine took this one step further and asked me to avoid using certain words of Latin (Romance) origin, suggesting that “prior to” could be replaced by “before”.  I was taken aback at first but finally conceded that he had a point, I was writing a technical manual after all.

Part of the beauty of the English language is that it has such a rich variety of influences.  The downside is that it can offer us too many choices!  Indulge your passion for rich and flowery words and you risk sounding pompous; simplify your message too much and there’s a danger of patronizing your readers.  If you are struggling to set the tone, why not see who else is writing successfully for your target audience and the type of language they are using? 

My dad writes a regular magazine column.  When writing a feature about conkers one day, he spent far too long agonizing over whether to use the word ‘quad’ or ‘quadrangle’.  Eventually, he settled on ‘playground’ and I’m sure that 99% of his readers would have approved!

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