Monday, February 2, 2009

Unintended Audiences and Odd Reading Habits

There are three things I believe about audience:

1) Texts have multiple audiences. Often, some are unintended.

2) Audiences will get what they want out of a text or decry the absence of what they want in a text, whether it’s written for them or not.

3) Once a text is published, we have little to no control over what audiences see it.

At work, for example, for most documents I write I have two intended audiences: The SMEs who review the document and the operators who use the document in the field. Once the document is published, however, other audiences creep in: Department of Energy, Nuclear Safety Defense Board, any number of independent auditing groups, groups and individuals placing FOIA requests, lawyers, and so forth. We had some of our documents show up in legal proceedings between the state and DOE that resulted last year in a new agreement on waste removal. This was not the original audience intended for our texts, but this is one of the many places they ended up.

So this brings us back to what Beth Swanson says in Lips’ book (p. 24): “You have to figure out what the real message is that you need to impart and how to do that most effectively. If you don’t know what your purpose is, you end up with a [text] that’s unusable. Know the kind of content your audience is looking for and what’s most helpful to them in terms of how to present it. Be specific about what action they need to take and why.”

Despite the fact that we don’t know who will be looking at our texts, the texts are structured help to address multiple audiences, including, ironically, some needs of the unintended audiences. This structure helps us follow Swanson’s admonition to know what content our audience is looking for want what’s most helpful in how it is presented.

We have the main section which is for the operators that guides them through the steps they have to take to perform their work safely. Though operators are the primary audience, we know that everyone will look at this section to see that safety regulations and other expectations are met. The section, however, is not written for the auditors – it’s written for the operators, who need clear, concise instructions that don’t overlap excessively into training or the whys and wherefores of the regulations they have to meet.

How it is used, however, is another matter. Seasoned operators are required by regulation to have a copy of the procedure with them as they do their work, but since they know their jobs well, they don’t cling to the texts as much as new operators do. Our best operators pay attention during training when procedure changes are introduced, and check their tasks and performance against what’s written in the procedure. If they find better ways of doing things, they let us know and we change the procedure, and they know enough not to deviate from what’s written until it’s properly approved. So we have multiple audiences using this portion of the text in different ways.

Another section is called the procedure basis. Operators rarely, if ever, look at or use this section. In this section, we break the procedure down line by line, showing which instruction in the procedure applies to implementing what regulation or requirement. The steps are cross referenced with the documents that contain the whys and wherefores of the regulations or requirements, thus showing to the audience of auditors, DOE, lawyers, et cetera, how those regulations have been implemented in the procedures.

These audiences will enter the texts differently. Operators are trained to treat these texts sequentially, starting from the beginning and going through by following the logic flow through the document. Other audiences may read only parts of the document that apply to their disciplines. Others my start at the end with the procedure basis, then track how requirements are met in the text.

I did the same thing with a Dave Barry book I just finished reading for the first time. I started with the table of contents and first read those chapters that I thought sounded the most interesting or entertaining. Then I went back to the beginning and read the text cover to cover. I’ll do this with Tolkein’s LOTR trilogy. Sometimes I read only what happens to Sam and Frodo. Other times, I’m all about Aragorn and company. Only sometimes I read the books all the way through.

These habits have only some to do with familiarity with the texts. With the Barry book, I read essentially what were lists first, then read the entire book. I could tell the book was set up in a way that parts of it could be read independently of the rest, without significant loss of meaning. Familiarity with the author’s style is, of course, implied here. Even though this was a first-time read, the structure and the style lent to this kind of reading. For Tolkien, the same kind of structure exists – the tales of Frodo/Sam and Aragorn/Company are separate and distinct in the last two volumes of the trilogy. But unlike the Barry book, I have had to have read the entire Tolkein trilogy to understand how the separate stories make for a whole. Now that I have that knowledge, I can go back at my leisure and read only the parts I want to read. That would be a lot harder for someone unfamiliar with Tolkein’s work.

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