Last year, I watched a presentation where the speaker delivered some technical information without context. He showed the feature he'd worked to improve. But then he showed a related, but different feature, and I couldn't understand why. To me, it didn't seem like the other feature had changed. What was the speaker trying to say?

I get this feeling often. The more your work role bridges teams and crosses contexts, the more you see information without an obvious purpose: things that make you go “So what?”

Can writers and presenters communicate better if they imagine in advance that “so what” reaction? If they challenge themselves “What’s in it for my audience?” Many articles and books recommend this approach to improve communication. And it seems like a technique you can never have too much of – how can you go wrong by focusing ever more on your audience?

Well, would the “so what” test have helped the speaker I was listening to that day? In this case, he didn’t just have one kind of audience to imagine. For this series of meetings there are typically twenty to forty listeners, from five functional groups from sales to development. Different groups relate to the software in different ways. For example, salesfolk might appreciate information not only about how a new feature works but its relevance to various customers and the plans to enhance it in the future. But the meeting wasn’t for that purpose (that’s covered at other times). The meeting was to show the newly-built functionality.

So the standard advice to use the so what test might not have helped this time. In fact it might have worried the speaker without improving anything. In a survey of technical writers that I did last year, of the many who experienced writers’ block frequently, 38% gave one of the causes as “the audience is not clear or you feel unfamiliar with the audience”.

In this case, the problem wasn’t really failing to imagine the audience needs. It was a more basic one of logical flow. Was the related functionality that was presented something new, or was the point that it hadn’t changed? To clear this up and make the sequence flow more smoothly, the presenter could simply have said “but [related functionality] hasn't changed”. If I wanted to guide him with a general piece of advice, I would suggest connecting successive functional points meaningfully. I would tell him: “Is the next point a ‘but’ or a ‘therefore’? Connect it with the appropriate word and carry on.” (This advice sounds simple but can take you surprisingly far – more on that in a future post.)

Is your “mental audience” helping you get started?

Other presentation contexts may need more ambitious story-telling; a greater sense of the bigger picture, or a carefully built logical argument. They may also have a more homogenous audience. Does the so what test help in these cases?

One of my worst writers’ blocks happened when I was obsessing over an audience of one: an upper manager who looked at tech as buying and selling chess pieces, without the feel for solving customers’ real problems that sustains the numbers.

I had to persuade this upper manager that it  was worth investing in a new capability – something new not only to our organization but to the field we were in. She wasn’t the main decision-maker, but her influence would be helpful.

Because the capability we wanted to build was new, there were no convenient studies showing the value that similar companies had gained from similar capabilities. There was a little data about the size of the problem, but the whole bet relied on not only solving a problem but making value for customers in new ways.

I didn't have to remind myself of the so what test; the face of this manager asked my mind the question every time I tried to start writing. “You say customers need this – so what! Show me the numbers!” The words refused to come, and the days dragged on. Finally, my supervisor, patient until then, said we were out of time. I had a day to finish. Typing, then deleting, then typing, I shaped something.

A couple of years later, I looked again at the document. It wasn’t awful. We had some numbers in there reinforcing the argument, some revenue estimates. But it took some work to read. It sounded defensive, slightly pompous. Not my normal style then, nor since I hope. Back then, did it work for the audience? Not how I’d hoped. The upper manager thanked me but didn’t support or even comment more. (As it turned out, it didn’t matter. Shortly after, she left for another opportunity, and others supported us to build and promote the capability, successfully.)

Now, thinking about the so what test, I realize that my fixation on the audience stopped the document being better. If I’d drafted the argument from my perspective first, I’d have suffered less. The document would have been tighter, easier to read, and maybe useful to others as well. Who knows – the argument could even have swayed that upper manager.

Many writers get stuck or stilted when obsessing on the audience

It's not just me who gets stuck when imagining “so what” reactions. Peter Elbow, a deep, original thinker about writing, quotes a student who gets blocked when she follows the traditional advice on audience:

You know [author of a text] tells us to pay attention to the audience that will be reading our papers, and I gave that a try. I ended up without putting a word on paper until I decided the hell with; I’m going to write to who I damn well want to; otherwise I can hardly write at all.
– Peter Elbow, “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience

The mental barrier is stronger when there’s more than one audience, for example you have to get through a supervisor before reaching the “real” audience. Later, Elbow notes that constant awareness of audience doesn’t always block writing so much as make it worse:

Many competent and even professional writers produce mediocre pieces because they are thinking too much about how their readers will receive their words. They are acting too much like a salesman trained to look the customer in the eye and to think at all times about the characteristics of the "target audience." There is something too staged or planned or self-aware about such writing.

I'm used to “selling ideas” and actual commercial sales situations, yet an unreceptive audience still made my writing defensive, shading the message. (Like the inexperienced salesperson who digs themselves into a hole by nervously talking too much.) The so what test is one of those reassuring-yet-misleading writing rules (such as avoiding the passive voice) that when used at the wrong time, can hurt our writing.

We shouldn’t ignore audiences, of course, and Elbow doesn't suggest that. He suggests shifting from a focus on the story itself when drafting, to a greater sense of audience when revising. (I'm simplifying; his thoughts are more sophisticated than a short post gives space to unpack. It's well worth reading the original piece, available from various sources.)

A resolution

This year, I'm going to park the so what test. Before writing, I'll think of what the audience might want to get out of it; what I'd like them to get out of it. But when I start drafting, I'll put them out of my mind. I'll tell the story that needs told, as I see it. The draft might not be pretty but it has a better chance of saying something clear and strong, without hedging or dodging the point.

Later, after an hour, a morning, a day or two – as long as possible – I'll come back to revise, with the audience in mind again. I've found that the longer I wait before revising, the more objective I become. I start to become a kind of audience myself, experiencing my words from the outside. That helps me empathise with the audience.

Why don't you try it too? This year, challenge your mental audience with "So there you are, ready to judge. So what? Are you helping my writing today?"

The making of…

I draft and plan these posts of course, sometimes rewriting several times. If you've signed up as a member and you're logged in (or you're reading the email newsletter), you'll see some of this process below. I've learned by seeing how others' writing and ideas develop over time, and I hope you'll get something from this too.

(If you're not logged in, you may see a box telling you that this post is just for members. Don't worry – you've already read the real post if you've got to this point! The hidden bit just has the drafts and comments on the process.)