Servitisation of publishing (II): the audience, stupid

In my work as communications consultant at Frontinus, I find I’m constantly drawing on my publishing mindset.

A chief expression of that is the habit of seeing text as communication, rather than mere expression. What I mean by that is that I see text as something involving two parties — not only the producer (e.g., author) but also the receiver (e.g., reader).

Moreover, I tend to think of communication in producer-responsible terms. That is, in communication somebody has to take responsibility for getting the meaning clear and, in my book, that somebody should be the producer.

The corollary of this is that the only thing of value in an act of communication is what the receiver takes from it.

And it further follows that, in developing a piece of communication, questions such as the following are likely to prove important and should be considered from early on in the process:

  • who is the audience?
  • what is the audience likely to know and not know?
  • what are the audience’s concerns? how can we connect with them?

The odd thing here is that, in my work with both corporate and academic clients, nobody ever disagrees: nobody ever says ‘I don’t care about the audience’ or ‘I don’t care whether they’ll understand’ or ‘I’ll just write it and I’ll leave it to other people to work out what I’m on  about’.

No, the responses I get from clients are along the lines of ‘Yes, of course’.

Yet the moment people start developing a piece of communication — a bid, for example, or presentation, paper, pitch or report — all this is apt to go out the window: they start producing things that makes sense to, and interests, them without being tailored to the needs of their audience.

Which, of course, is fine by me, because it creates an opportunity to add value. My job is to help the entrepreneur, professor, or whoever to empathise with the audience, see things through their eyes, and then, through editing or redesign, to tailor the piece accordingly.

This habit of mind — of centring on the audience — is, I think second nature to many publishers. It grows naturally from the fact that no sales or marketing department worth their salt will support a publishing project until the market has been duly considered (defined, clarified, investigated, and assessed).

Precisely because it becomes second nature, it’s likely that publishers are apt to undervalue this way of seeing things: what may be second nature to them may be something may pay to benefit from.

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