A LinkedIn colleague recently posed a question about the fundamentals of communication. Frank wanted to know when “communication standards … [could be] strained to the varying levels of receptive ability in audiences.”
I’ve had this discussion with other colleagues in two contexts, first with a Plain Language course and second with Scientific Writing for Publication. Both raise unique challenges because I work with government scientists who are writing about technical subjects to a broad audience.
So in contemplating my colleague’s question, I returned to one of the fundamental tools of my work, the Writer’s Triangle, to consider how it might be able to assist us in formulating a thoughtful and useful response.
The first thing I notice is that the Triangle is contiguous with the circle of Context. In an ideal message, the points of the triangle – Author, Audience, and Purpose – touch the circle of Context.
When communication breaks down, the triangle and the circle are separated, divorced from one another, existing on alternate planes.
I’m sure you’ve experienced this kind of disorientation. Perhaps you’ve received a memo from a superior and wondered what it had to do with you. Or maybe you’ve wandered into a scientific article, only to become lost in a world of photons and neurons. Have you ever stumbled upon a website whose purpose you cannot immediately discern?
These are all instances of a separation between context and message. And that’s something we as writers want to avoid.
To do so, we must engage in constant conversation with our audience. It’s not enough to have a theoretical concept of AUDIENCE. We need to know them personally. Audience analysis is something that has to be ongoing and organic.
I know who will be reading this blog post. It will be Frank. There will be others as well, but I’m not writing for them. I’m writing this blog post for Frank. And I told you that at the beginning of the post. You have an anchor. You know where I’m coming from.
The next thing that I notice about the Triangle is that its shape is flexible. It rests on a base of Purpose, but the relationship between the Author and the Audience can be stretched to meet the needs of the message. Let me show you.
In a message of this sort, the emphasis is on the audience. This is appropriate for documents like letters to a client; or marketing messages; perhaps a briefing paper to a superior, a regional director, or a vice president. In these situations, the author’s voice, tone, or personality is less important than the audience’s need for information.
So when we write these messages, we think about what the audience already knows. What does the audience need to know? What are the audience’s drivers? Why are they reading this message?
That’s different than another triangle that would look something like this:
In this triangle, all the sides are fairly even. Most business reports would fall into this category, because they’re supposed to be unbiased. Things like a real estate appraisal, or the Management Discussion and Analysis section of a financial report, policy debates that are wending their way through Congress, memos that are circulating their way through an office – all of these would fall under the category of an evenly shaped triangle.
Now I’m sure that you immediately thought of some memos you’ve read that weren’t evenly shaped. Perhaps they were too audience-centered, or maybe they looked like this example, where the focus is entirely upon the author:
That’s because all sorts of messages fail. Failed messages are skewed by either focusing too heavily on the audience or the author when they should be neutral (see purpose-centered message), or by focusing too heavily on the author when they should be focused on the audience (see audience-centered message).
But let me return to a moment to what I think Frank was asking, because Frank is a scientist, and he and I were talking about science writing. In the world of science writing as well as academia more broadly, there are two different kinds of research – applied and pure (also called basic).
Applied research should look like the purpose-centered message. It should be fair, neutral, and unbiased. But pure research, in my humble opinion, should look a little more like the author-centered message.
Yep, you read that right – the author-centered message.
People conduct pure research because they’re curious. So the object of pure research is not actually the phenomenon being studied, but the mind of the researcher itself. Ergo, the final written product should be an exploration of the researcher’s mind.
This makes publication of pure research a particularly difficult task, because all too often those researchers are taught to make their documents look neutral and unbiased. In fact, if they would acknowledge their own bias, in other words, if they would explore the true subject of their research – their own curiosity – they would write, I think, a document that is more transparent, more authentic, and that would stand a better chance of reaching their audience at a place that’s true. That’s communion – where real communication takes place.
Of course the result will be a backlash. The audience will respond to that honestly, and they will reshape the message. But as I indicated in my previous post, Are You Ready for Your Public, that’s the purpose of published research.
Open discussion will allow the hypotheses derived from pure research to be examined from various perspectives and therefore to be put to better use. It remains to be seen whether researchers in the 21st century will commit themselves to their work with that sort of integrity. I hope at least that these sorts of discussions will spur us all on toward that goal.