Know Thine Audience

My old-timey-speak is a little rusty. So I looked up the difference between “thy” and “thine” and discovered that they work kind of like “a” and “an”: “thy” goes before a word starting with a consonant, and “thine” is used before a vowel. Hence “thine audience.” Neat!

Anyway, today’s post is about knowing who you’re making content for before you make it. If you were to write a blog post that heavily references Old English grammar for an audience that couldn’t care less, for example, you might find that you have made a grave error in judgement.

FREE WORKSHEET: Identify your nonprofit's audiences

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Every graph is a dialogue: you present information to meet your audience’s needs. That means that to identify those needs, you need to properly identify your audience.

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Graphing for unicorns

So who is your audience? “The general public,” you say? Well I have some bad news for you.

Like the mighty unicorn, “the general public” doesn’t exist. It basically means “the whole world.” But let’s be honest – most of the 6 billion+ people on this planet aren’t going to care about your graph. So who are you actually trying to reach?

Since this principle applies to any kind of media, I’ll go first. My audience for this post (my whole enterprise, really) is as follows:

  • People who make graphs
  • who work at a non-profit or social enterprise
  • and want to improve their data visualization skills
  • are probably in their 20s – 40s
  • are probably college-educated
  • probably live in North America
  • and have a deep, abiding passion for Old English pronouns

That last one may pigeonhole me a bit, but at least I know who I’m writing for. It’s no longer a random shot into the internet void; it’s a targeted message to a targeted group. This could definitely end up being read by someone who doesn’t fit this demographic, but (nothing personal) that wasn’t my original intention.

“That’s fine and dandy,” you say, “but what does that have to do with graphs?” Well, if I were making a graph for you, I would already know a few things:

  • Because you work in non-profits, I don’t have to explain how the industry works. Any graph about a non-profit-related topic wouldn’t need to be accompanied by a primer on the industry; I could start out at a much higher level of technical detail.
  • Because you probably have a college degree, you’re probably more comfortable reading graphs. That means I don’t need to label things as much, and I have a little more leeway to go beyond the typical line and bar graphs and use more unusual styles.
  • Because you are here to improve your data visualization skills, I know structure and aesthetics will be very important to you. That means I don’t get to slack off on design by using an Excel default!


Profiling your people

Now it’s your turn.

Who is your audience? Consider:

  • Geography
  • Age group
  • Areas of expertise
  • Education level
  • Occupations
  • Interests

The more specific you can be about your readers, the more likely you’ll be to meet their needs and produce effective graphs. Depending on your available time and resources, you could even do separate media for different audiences within your broad target group.



Now that you’ve identified your audience groups, you’re basically ready to go… except even a detailed, itemized profile can still seem broad and anonymous.

I’ve found that adding one extra step to audience identification can make a world of difference: pick a proxy.

Think about your audience profile. Do you know anyone specific who fits most of your audience’s characteristics?

For my work in fisheries and science communication, I use one of two proxies. If I am writing for an audience that doesn’t know much about fisheries but nevertheless has a strong science background, I write for my father. If the audience doesn’t have much formal science training, I write for my husband.

Having a specific person in mind makes it much easier to write for different groups. Your vast, faceless audience suddenly becomes real. You know what they know, you know what they like – you can capture their interest and communicate your message much more effectively.


In short

Verily, thou shouldst totally learn as much as thou can about thine audience for maximum success.

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