Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Know your audience: a lesson from Little League

When I was 8 years old, I played for the Blue Angels rookie baseball team. You know the type – a bunch of boys paying more attention to their bubble gum than the ball.
During one game, we had just given up eight runs in one inning. We finally got the third out and headed back to the dugout. Our assistant coach, a man in his early 20s, looked down disgustedly at his scorebook and said in a sharp tone, “They scored eight runs – all unearned!”

I remember thinking: “Unearned? Looks like they earned them to me.”

If the coach thought we knew what “unearned run” meant, he was greatly mistaken. I could tell that my teammates had no clue what the term meant – nor did they care; most were more interested in going to the water fountain or in who was up to bat next.

The lesson? Know your audience. Sure, the coach was using a baseball term with baseball players, and that sounds appropriate. But, he didn’t consider what kind of players we were: little kids with the attention spans of kittens.

Always keep in mind – and assume – that although you understand what you’re writing, your audience might not. Beware of using jargon, technical terms and $10 words. It’s fine to use some of these if you know your audience is comfortable with the subject matter and the lingo, such as an audience of stock brokers listening to a stock expert. But be careful with more general audiences of newspapers, magazines and websites.

Keep things simple. The rule I was taught in journalism school and during my 25 years of working in newspapers is to write at a level an eighth-grader can understand.

So remember, expecting your readers or listeners, especially general audiences, to understand and care about your complex word usage is wishful thinking. Using high-minded words and coming off sounding highly intelligent means nothing if your audience has tuned you out.

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