Reading is an intimate experience. Beautiful writing feels like the writer is addressing us personally. We feel the writer understands us, our motivations, inspirations, and even our deepest fears. That kind of writing builds an emotional connection between reader and writer, and creates the basis for a relationship – whether commercial or not – that is founded on respect and understanding. It’s one reason why I love writing; connection is important to us all.
How does a writer create that connection? In factual writing, it is a matter of taking the time to develop a deep understanding of your audience and readership. The first step is to create a ‘persona’.
What is a ‘persona’?
If we try to please everyone, we end up pleasing no-one – it’s a truism. When we create a persona – a mental image of our audience imagined in great detail – we have to make a decision about who our writing is serving. We cannot serve everyone. A persona helps us to focus our writing on a specific audience.
How to create a persona
Michelangelo famously said: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” He saw his job as removing the pieces of stone or marble that hid the sculpture. Creating a persona is like this. We have to decide who we are not writing for to discover our reader.
When we try to describe our reader, we are immediately confronted by the loss of other readers. Can we say, I am going to write for middle-aged men or young women? It seems simple enough, but it’s scary to choose. We feel the loss and the uncertainty of narrowing our readership to specifics.
Emma Isaacs is the CEO of the hugely successful women’s business network, Business Chicks. This name embodies her target audience. Women in business, yes; and women, probably young women (chicks), who don’t get offended by the word, ‘chicks’, either.
As writers, we want to identify our readers’ age, gender and other demographics such as the industry or company they work in and their role title. We need to also understand their personal and professional ambitions and pain points. Give her or him a name. Do you have a client who perfectly embodies the reader you want to write for?
How to harness ‘persona power’?
A clear mental picture of your reader keeps your writing relevant, and readers look for relevance first. It’s how we filter information. Once we have imagined our reader in as much detail as we can, we need to deepen our understanding, and to check our assumptions. Here are three ways to deepen your understanding of your reader persona:
Do what they do
Do you really understand the frustrations your readers’ face and the joys they search for? Have you walked in their shoes and tried to achieve the results they want? Have you applied and tested their methods, and gained insights about what might improve them? Have you asked them about how they spend their day, what they love and what they hate?
Go where they go
Go the events – conferences, workshops, networking meetings – that you imagine your readers will attend. Turn up. Talk to other participants. Listen to what they talk about in the coffee breaks. Subtly ask questions that check your assumptions, or ask open-ended questions about why they are attending. Look at the agenda and note which speakers are most popular.
Read what they read
Understand what other publications – magazines, websites and social media – your readers follow. What topics are they covering? Which stories attract the biggest response? Do you have ideas to add to these topics, or would you challenge the current consensus with a whole new way of looking at the topic? What kinds of pictures, what tone of voice resonates with your readers in these other publications?
The persona as a guide
The persona is a powerful tool to stay focused in your writing and content marketing. We all know a lot of stuff and have a lot of interests. Our job as writers is to focus on the parts of what we know and care about that interest our readers. If you are not sure whether to write about a topic, ask yourself, why would my readers want to read this story? What benefit will it serve for them? And am I approaching the topic with the rapport and sensitivity to my readers that they deserve?
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