Main Body

Chapter 2. Understanding Your Audience

In this Chapter

  • Discussion of the role of understanding audience and purpose in technical communication
  • Strategies for assessing audience and purpose
  • How to assess the levels of appropriate technicality in engineering communication
  • Tips for understanding “audience” in FE & FEH writing assignments


At the start of the writing or communication process, carefully consider your “audience”—the person or persons who actually be reading your document, receiving your email, or watching your presentation. As a communicator, your primary goal is to transmit information efficiently and effectively. How you choose to transmit that information—the way it’s written and the form it takes—must depend to a large extent on who your audience is and what their goals are.

As a communicator, your primary goal is to transmit information efficiently and effectively.


Good communication is the result of a complex process that factors in your reader and their goals. Think of it as an act of translation—you possess information and knowledge, and you need to deliver that information to your audience in a way they will understand. This process asks you to consider the language you use, but also the way you deliver the information (a document, a presentation, a diagram, a phone call). The same information might be communicated in multiple ways, depending on your audience and the context.

Communicators translate information for their audiences

Approaching your technical writing as a series of requirements to be checked off might earn an acceptable grade, but it will not elevate your writing style or your ability to communicate effectively in other situations, such as classes with different requirements, or a job or internship.

Audience and Purpose Affect Your Choices as a Communicator

Even in a technical communication style, there are multiple ways to present the same information based on audience and purpose.

Be prepared to communicate to many different types of audiences—your audience must affect your decisions as a communicator. Factors that define audiences are

  • their level of expertise or familiarity with the subject (e.g., a fellow engineer or a person in a non-technical position in the company or a layperson),
  • their role or goals (what they will do with the information),
  • their position relative to the organization (internal or external), and
  • their position relative to you (peer, superior, or subordinate).

A clearly stated purpose is a key feature in most technical and professional communications because it improves efficiency—your reader should know right away why they are reading your document. Some common purposes for technical communication are

  • to inform
  • to recommend
  • to request
  • to propose
  • to persuade
  • to record
  • to instruct

Consider the following examples and how the content of the communication is affected by the audience and purpose:

  • If a report is being written to a practicing engineer in the appropriate field, it would not be necessary to describe a common concept (e.g., stress and strain for a mechanical engineer or current for an electrical engineer) in depth.
  • If a lab report is being written for direct supervisors or peers who are familiar with the experiment, dispensing with the need for some of the background or methodology details.
  • If you are preparing a progress report for a client, your perspective and approach might shift to focus on demonstrating competence and a positive outlook on the project, while an internal progress report written for your colleagues might be more likely to focus on problems with the project and risks that the team needs to address.

Here are the types of questions you should ask as you assess purpose and audience, especially during the planning phase as you prepare to write:

  • What does this document need to achieve?
  • What role does it play in the project / professional / academic ecosystem?
  • What result or action do I want to see after my reader/audience reads it? What effect do I want this document to have on my audience?
  • What does my audience already know about this subject?
  • What do they value? What is their mindset or attitude about this information?
  • Why do they need or want this information? What are their goals?
  • What are their expectations about the form it will take?

During the writing process, the answers to these questions should guide your decisions as a communicator as you make decisions about what information to include, how to communicate that information effectively, and what the finished product should look like.

Practice & Application: Exercise A – Audience and Purpose

Determining Appropriate Levels of Technicality

As an engineer, you will communicate highly technical information from the perspective of a trained expert. But not all of your audiences will share your training and background, so you need to be able to adjust the level of technicality in your writing, while still communicating the information accurately.

A writing style and vocabulary that is overly simplified might bore an expert-level target audience or cause the writer to lose credibility. An overly complex style might overwhelm a target audience of laypersons, causing the writer’s message to get lost and not achieving the purpose of the communication. Technical communicators must ask:

  • What level of detail does my audience need for how they will use the information?
  • What type of vocabulary will my audience understand and find useful?

The chart below describes some of the ways language and communication might change as you speak to various audiences.

Audience Type Language Characteristics
Highly skilled, trained practitioner (e.g. fellow engineer); often the audience for Lab Reports, Progress Reports.
  • Level of detail: Facts and figures need little explanation; may include formulas and equations; measurements and specifications have a higher degree of precision.
  • Vocabulary: Acronyms, technical terms, and jargon used; high level of technicality in the language without needing to define words.

PTFE layers are hydrophobic.
Devices finished with tints of black can have zero color saturation.
The piece is 2.921 cm long.

Informed Persons
Familiar, but perhaps not working directly with the technology (e.g. business side); often the audience for R&D Presentations, client-facing progress reports.
  • Level of detail: Technical information is provided, but advanced concepts are explained; application examples or comparison / contrasts often included; might acknowledge audience concerns (e.g. business or financial implications); measurements given, but may be less precise.
  • Vocabulary: Jargon and technical terms include definitions; acronyms more likely to be spelled out or replaced; vocabulary supports understanding of application rather than technical precision.

Fluorocarbon coatings are non-reactive to water.
Devices painted gray appear to be muted.
The piece is nearly 3 cm long.

No professional or specialized knowledge (e.g. a general “public” audience); often the audience for websites, press releases, public relations communications.
  • Level of detail: Concise, few specific technical concepts; technically detailed information provided in service of the audience’s needs and goals (e.g. a user manual); measurements provided in common, familiar units.
  • Vocabulary: Simplified language, avoiding unnecessarily complex terms; new concepts and terms are clearly defined and explained; provides commonly recognizable examples and familiar analogies.

Nonstick coatings do not absorb water.
Items painted gray appear to be washed out and hard to distinguish.
The piece is about 1 inch long.

The three types outlined here are general examples for the sake of illustration—there are many variations, and you will need to consider the unique needs of your audiences in every situation. As always, consider the purpose and ask yourself how your audience will use the information as you decide the right level of technicality for a communication.

Practice & Application: Exercise B – Adapting Word Choice for Audience and Purpose

Assessing Audience and Purpose for FE & FEH Assignments

If you are writing a report at work, the audience is obvious—a report turned in to a supervisor is intended to be read by that supervisor. In an academic setting, it might be easy to assume that the audience is the instructor or TA (whoever is doing the grading), but that assumption can be limiting and actually make it more difficult for you to write well.

So, how should you think about audience when writing in FE or FEH?

Pay attention to the assignment description. Most assignments will provide a “scenario” with an audience and purpose to imagine as you’re writing. Even though the audience isn’t likely “real,” taking time to imagine and assess them will make you better able to write a complete, meaningful document. This is what your instructors are asking you to do when they ask you to write for different audiences.

Most assignments will provide a “scenario” with an audience and purpose to imagine as you’re writing.

The assignment scenario might also ask you to imagine that you are writing from the perspective of an employee at a company. Fully embrace the scenario and imagine yourself in that role as you assess the audience and purpose—let that mindset guide and affect your decisions throughout the writing process.


The purpose of a lab is to explore a scientific question, and the content of the lab report should reflect this. Instead of writing “The purpose of this lab was to complete Lab 3: Circuits,” consider how “The purpose of this lab was to design and build a circuit that could individually control six LED’s” shifts the focus to the scientific question rather than the fact that it was an assignment.

To improve your writing, don’t approach this as an academic task—think of it as a scientific task and embrace your role as researcher.

Learning to account for audience and purpose will allow you to become an adaptable and effective communicator in any situation.

Practice & Application: Exercise C – Articulating Problems and Problem Scope in Context

Key Takeaways

  • The same information can and should be communicated in different ways, depending on who your audience is and what you are trying to achieve (the purpose of the communication).
  • Assess audience and purpose in every communication situation, and use that assessment to guide your choices as a communicator as it relates to the appropriate level of detail and technical vocabulary.
  • Embrace and work within the scenarios described in writing assignments to understand and “write to” the audience and purpose—this exercise will elevate your writing style and skill level.


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Fundamentals of Engineering Technical Communications Copyright © by Leah Wahlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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