You Talking To Me?

You probably think I work from home. It’s a reasonable assumption; most solos do.

But I’ve always had an outside office.

I think it’s mostly because when I started my business in 2000 I had three children under the age of seven. At that point, I was just looking for an excuse to get the hell out of the house.

But it’s not far; my office is less than three miles away in the center of our little town.

One of the cool things about it is that it’s right next door to our town’s kindergarten and first grade. And so as you can imagine, there are little kids all over the place, throughout the day.

Which means that when I leave my parking lot and take a left in front of the school, I go very, very slowly. I mean like four miles an hour slowly (that’s 9,200 cubits per fortnight, for those of you on the metric system).

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Do I drive at that speed all the time?

Of course not. I speed up when I get past the school and drive even faster when I get on the highway.

Which is why it makes no sense to ask someone, “How fast do you drive?” It’s a meaningless question since the answer in all cases is, “It depends.”

It depends on the road. It depends on the traffic. It depends on the weather conditions. It depends on whether or not there are six-year-olds wandering around.

You can’t answer the speed question without knowing the particulars of the situation.

Likewise, you can’t write something (that’s any good) without also knowing some particulars.

Audience is a particular that matters a lot.

And that’s why when I begin a content project for a company, my first question is always the same: “Where’s my check?”

As is my second question: “Who’s the audience?”

Interestingly, the initial kneejerk response is nearly always an enthusiastic, “Everybody!” But it doesn’t take long before we all agree that “everybody” is pretty much the same as “nobody.”

Like figuring out the appropriate driving speed, you want to match your words to your audience.

These are the three audience-related questions I try to clarify early on:

  1. How familiar are they with the subject matter?
    Using acronyms that only the experts understand (for example) is confusing to novice readers. Explaining things that “everybody knows,” on the other hand, is annoying.

    When you get specific about the audience, you quickly figure how “inside baseball” you can afford to be.

  1. Why do they care about the topic?
    In a perfect world, readers would care about everything we wrote. Of course in a perfect world, harp-playing unicorns would leave chocolates on our pillows every Tuesday morning.

    Neither one is going to happen; most people don’t care about most things.

    So unless you can figure out why your target audience cares about the topic at hand, you’re out of the game before it even begins.

  1. What do you want them to feel/do when they’re done reading?
    Think of you as an expert? Worry that maybe they need more help than they realized? Pick up the phone and call you? Click a button on a page? Decide that they can trust you?

    Whatever outcome(s) you’re hoping for, it’s extremely helpful to figure it out before you sit down and start typing away. Not only does it make the end result better, knowing where you’re headed makes the writing easier.

Here’s the bottom line. Writing is a solitary thing; it’s easy to forget that the whole point is to connect with a human on the other end.

And, as with effective driving, one size doesn’t fit all … try and answer these three important questions before you leave the parking lot!

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you had a unicorn, would you teach him to play the harp? Explain.

  1. Do you think I use too many semicolons; I really like them.

  1. Are there other considerations you rely on in pinpointing your target audience?

Share your comments below!


27 thoughts on “You Talking To Me?

  1. Jean Gogolin

    1) Of course I would teach the unicorn to play the harp, which should be easy because said unicorn would have not only her hoofs but her horn to pluck the strings. Tra la!

    2) I love semicolons. I use a lot of them myself.

    3) The milieu where the message will be received — what kind of room if it’s a speech; the office if it’s a marketing piece, and so on. As I recall.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Ah, good point about the setting, Jean! And extra credit for your use of “milieu,” a word I have trouble pronouncing with what’s left of my Long Island accent.

  2. Jim Domanski

    Michael, perhaps this is one of your BEST articles among the many, many that are very good; I like them all. But this timely message really hits the nail on the head; focus on your target, not yourself or your product or your process etc.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks so much Jim, I’m glad it hit the spot. (And believe me, this time yesterday it was quite the mess, so I appreciate it!)

  3. Sharon Brodin

    1. I wouldn’t have a unicorn. I’d have a flying horse, like Pegasus. But no harp playing either way.

    2. I read once only pretentious people use semi-colons 🙂 That person apparently didn’t like semi-colons as much as you do.

    This wasn’t a question but: “that’s 9,200 cubits per fortnight, for those of you on the metric system” is one of the best lines I’ve read in a long time!

    I especially need to keep in mind point 2 – Why do they care about the topic? I tend to assume they’ll just figure it out. I need to keep following the So What? trail instead.

    Thanks for another great article!

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hi Sharon!
      Good point on the flying horse. I’ll trade the horn for flight any day!

  4. Davis

    1. If I could play the harp I would absolutely teach my unicorn to play. But, I suppose the first thing I would need to do is learn to play the harp myself… and then go about acquiring my very own unicorn.

    2. Semicolons are one of the more interesting bits of punctuation; they’re highly convenient and appreciated when used properly.

    3. Remember that when people are reading your content they are always looking for a takeaway- they want to get something out of what they’ve just spent their time (and brain cells) processing. Content cannot be for content’s sake; it must give the reader a solution, an answer, a piece of inspiration, a learning moment. No one cares what you got out of writing something-they only care about what they got out of reading it!
    (As someone in advertising sales I have to remember this for my sales calls: no one cares about my products or services themselves- they care about what the end game is if they use them. No one wants to spend money on advertising, they want to make money and advertising is what helps them do that!)

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      1. I can recommend a great harp teacher for that unicorn of yours:

      2. Well played.

      3. A great reminder. I tend to be more interested in the flow of the words than the purpose, so I also have to keep this in mind!

  5. Doug Johnson

    1,) Yes, since my horse keeps asking to learn to play the guitar (my other horse thinks he’s a drummer) and he says his brother, who is over the Rainbow Bridge (that means he’s in heaven for you non-animal people) is definitely playing the harp. So, why wouldn’t I teach the unicorn… except for the fact that it’d be hard teach him since I don’t play the harp myself. Is Harpo Marx available to help?
    2.) I like it when you use semicolons. It feels like you’re winking (or you have something in your eye).
    3.) I try to find out what common interests the audience may have, even beyond that of what the client is offering.

    Now I would like to know something Michael. Why only Tuesdays for the chocolates on the pillow? Are the unicorns hoarding them? Do we need to teach them to be better at sharing?

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      You’re making some excellent points today, Doug!

      And I will check on the unicorn’s chocolate schedule and get back to you.

  6. Leah

    1. I’d probably be too busy eating the rainbow ice cream that unicorns poop out (have you seen that commercial?) to be bothered to teach mine to play the harp.

    2. I don’t think semicolons can ever be used too much! Most people don’t use them often enough.

    3. I have a lot of international readers, so trying to figure out what doesn’t translate the way I intend and making sure I don’t use too many colloquialisms is important.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      1. Ewww
      2. Agreed
      3. That’s a great point. Speaking of which, I hesitated a bit with the “inside baseball” phrase in today’s newsletter. Not because I thought non–baseball-centric people wouldn’t understand, but because I thought it might be a little too US focused for International readers. (But then I did it anyway.)

  7. Anne Mowat

    1. If I had a unicorn, I would teach him to negotiate with bears, deer & elk: “YOU Guys get the forest & mountain; the acreage & apple trees are for Me, The Dog, The Cat, & The Humans.”
    2. I think you use semi-colons in exactly the right quantity, Michael. More important: You know when & how to use them. Your asking this question reveals (to me, at least), that you have noticed us Grammar Geeks as an audience! Very few others cater to us so this is really nice. (Smiling)
    3. Yes, I agree about audience(s). I tend to start by asking about the objectives of the specific action: what does the client want to see as a result of what we do together? This question can open a discussion that ties what we eventually do to the Client’s business objectives. It also helps me scope the value I can offer.

    Thanks, Michael, I enjoyed the post.

      1. Anne Mowat

        Laughing. Doug that was me pretending to be the unicorn speaking to the wildlife that dines out on our gardens! 😉

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Hello Anne!
      1. Clearly, you know your wildlife.
      2. I’m glad, it’s taken a while (although, I believe I, have a tendency, to over-comma).
      3. I like how you put that. It’s funny, too, how frequently a question like that stops the client in their tracks since it’s often not considered.

  8. Leslie Lawton

    You can’t have too many unicorns, or semicolons. Although my unicorns don’t like music.
    There. A perfect nonsequitor.

    Love your emails. I always read every word and love the way you bring your ideas home. Once a month is the right timing, too. I have time to absorb your advice and look forward to getting more.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Thanks so much Leslie, Interestingly, I actually publish twice a month. Some people seem to think I publish weekly! I’ve always found it curious that even our most satisfied readers are not very aware of frequency.

      I don’t know that that says for how often to publish, but it’s interesting!

    2. Leslie Lawton

      Hey, Michael. I’m already getting too many lovely and engaging email notifications from comments. Can you please tell me how to undo that? Too tempting to enjoy the fun. Thanks, Leslie

  9. Daryl Gerke

    !. I would try to teach the unicorn to play the tuba instead… can you picture a unicorn doing the polka?

    2. I prefer ellipses… and probably overuse them… it may be an addiction…

    3. A key consideration for me is “Even if I never do business with the person reading this, will they feel it has been worth their time?”

  10. Bruce Horwitz

    Michael – let me get this straight. You rented an office because you had 3 kids under the age of 7 around the house… and got a space next to the town kindergarten and first grade, where there are a million kids under the age of 7 around. Doesn’t sound like good planning to me!

    PS: semi-colons are good; they keep your thoughts together on the page.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Excellent observation, Bruce! Although it’s not kids I mind, it’s being in charge. As far as I’m concerned, you could put a toddler on my lap on an airplane, as long as I’m not in charge of his safety!

  11. Glenn Gutmacher

    You could’ve picked any example to illustrate proper use of the semicolon. So why did you use one in closing example #2 where the question mark was the appropriate punctuation?

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Good point Glenn; do you think I made a mistake on that one.

      (And by the way, good to see you here! I think we got together in person like 13 years ago??)


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