2 – Rhetorical Situation


Annemarie Hamlin; Chris Rubio; Michele DeSilva; David McMurrey; Anonymous; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt

The audience of technical and professional writing—or of any writing, for that matter—is the intended or potential reader(s) or listener(s). For most technical communicators, audience is the most important consideration in planning, writing, and reviewing a document. You adapt your writing to meet the needs, interests, and background of your readers. Giving attention to this aspect of the rhetorical situation will allow you to gain insight into how to craft your message before you present it.

Audience Analysis

Analysis is the process of breaking something larger down into its smaller parts. In audience analysis, you are looking for traits that your audience possesses in order to better appeal to them in your written or spoken communication. Every audience has expectations, prior knowledge, and experience. When they read your documents or listen to your speech, they have a purpose or reason for doing so, such as needing to know the schedule for next week’s lab meeting or finding sources for a research report. They also have a wide range of characteristics including social class, gender, age, race and ethnicity, cultural background, and language that make them unique and diverse. What kind of audience will you be speaking to? What do you know about their expectations, prior knowledge, or backgrounds? How do they plan to use your information?

The lack of audience analysis and the failure to adapt to audience needs and expectations are major causes of most problems you find in professional and technical documents. The sections below offer a method for analyzing your audience, step by step.

Types of Audiences

One of the first things to do when you analyze an audience is to identify its type or types. The following categories describe some of the main audiences you will encounter:

Experts. Experts know the theory, business, organization, subject, or product inside and out. They design it; they test it; they run it; they know everything about it. Often, they have advanced degrees and operate in academic settings or in research and development areas of the government and technology worlds.

Technicians. Technicians build, operate, maintain, and repair the items that the experts design and about which they theorize. Technicians possess highly technical knowledge, but of a more practical, hands-on nature than that of theoretical experts.

Executives. Executives make business, economic, administrative, legal, governmental, and political decisions about the products of the experts and technicians. Executives are likely to have as little technical knowledge about the subject as non-specialists. For many writers, this will be a primary audience.

Non-specialists. Non-specialists have the least technical knowledge of all. They want to use the new product to accomplish their tasks; they want to understand the new power technology enough to know whether to vote for or against it in an upcoming election; or they may just be curious about a specific technical matter and want to learn about it. Chances are, these readers will represent a secondary audience for you.

Important Audience Characteristics

It is important to determine which of the preceding four categories represents your potential audience(s), but that’s not the end of it. Audiences, regardless of category, must also be analyzed in terms of other characteristics such as those listed below.

Background (Knowledge, Experience, Training)

As a writer, you will want to know just how much knowledge, experience, or training you can expect in your readers. If you expect some of your readers to lack a certain background, do you automatically supply it in your document? Consider an example: imagine you are writing a guide to using a software product that runs under Microsoft Windows. How much can you expect your readers to know about Windows? If some are likely to know little about Windows, should you provide that information? If you say no, then you run the risk of customers getting frustrated with your product. If you say yes to adding background information on Windows, you increase your work effort and add to the page count of the document (and thus to the cost). Obviously, there is no easy answer to this question—part of the solution may involve just how small or large a segment of the audience needs that background information.

Needs and Interests

To plan your document, you need to know what your audience is going to expect from that document. Consider how readers will want to use your document and what they will demand from it. For example, imagine you are writing a manual on how to use a new smartphone—what are your readers going to expect to find in it? Or imagine you are under contract to write a background report on global warming for a national real estate association—what do readers want to read about, and equally important, what do they not want to read about?

Other Demographic Characteristics

And of course there are many other characteristics about your readers that might have an influence on how you should design and write your document—for example, age groups, type of residence, area of residence, gender, political preferences, and so on.

Complicating Factors in Audience Analysis

Audience analysis can be complicated by at least two other factors: multiple audiences and mixed audience types (or wide variability within the audience).

More Than One Audience

You are likely to find that your report is for more than one audience. The people whom you are directly addressing are your primary audience. Other people who are involved in the situation and who can be expected to read the document (such as technicians, experts, administrators, or people in another department) make up your secondary audience. The tertiary audience might consist of people who are somewhat removed from the situation but may have cause to read the document at some point. Depending on the context, these readers might include lawyers, accountants, journalists, shareholders, or the public.

What should you do in this case? Either you can write all the sections so that all the audiences of your document can understand them, or you can write each section strictly for the audience who would be interested in it and then use headings and section introductions to alert your audience about where to find the information most relevant to their area of interest within your report. See Chapter 20: Recommendation Reports for additional information.

Wide Variability in an Audience

You may realize that although you have an audience that fits into only one category, its background varies widely. If you write to the readers with very little or no technical knowledge, you are likely to end up with a cumbersome, tedious, book-like report that will turn off the majority of readers. However, if you do not address the needs of those readers, you will lose that segment of your audience.

What should you do? Most writers focus on the majority of readers and sacrifice that minority who needs more help. Others put the supplemental information in appendices or insert cross-references to beginners’ books.

This text was derived from

McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

University of Minnesota. Business Communication for Success. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing, 2015. https://open.lib.umn.edu/businesscommunication/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Gross, Allison, Annemarie Hamlin, Billy Merck, Chris Rubio, Jodi Naas, Megan Savage, and Michele DeSilva. Technical Writing. Open Oregon Educational Materials, n.d. https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/technicalwriting/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.



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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication Copyright © 2022 by Annemarie Hamlin; Chris Rubio; Michele DeSilva; David McMurrey; Anonymous; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.