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Why alienate your audience?

I have just finished reading a book my daughter has read a few times. I was actually keen for her to read books by this author as she is Australian, writes about the meeting of cultures and seems to give a positive outlook to teenagers.

Now, I’m not so keen.

I actually found parts of this book (and admittedly it was her first) unsettling – and I’m unlikely to read another. by this author.

Writing about Melbourne

Australia has it's own culture

Australia has it’s own culture and terminology

The book is clearly set in Melbourne – the characters live in Camberwell, eat Vegemite, visit Lygon St for pizza and gelati, Acland St for cakes and belong to the Debating Association of Victoria (DAV). All those details are named and a theme of the book is a girl finding her identity as a ‘hyphenated Australian’.

So why does she ‘catch a streetcar’ to a ‘mall’ with her ‘mom’  wearing ‘flipflops’ or discuss clothing choices for a 58 degree day or ‘keep to the right’ when skating at St Kilda beach?

I’ve never caught a streetcar or worn flip flops in my life, but have been in many Melbourne trams and often worn thongs. Australia is metric so her 58 degrees farenheit would be known as 14 degrees (ah, now her comments about the girl being under-dressed make sense!) and if you stick to the right on our roads and paths you’re likely to get arrested if not killed!

Consider your audience

I often read books that were written for other countries, including the USA. I mentally ‘translate’ them into my experiences. So someone is facing a difficult left hand turn in the book and I picture it as a right hand turn to understand the context. I read ‘mom’ as ‘mum’, ‘color’ as ‘colour’ and struggle over imperial references.

That’s okay when I’m reading an American book.

I resent it in an Australian book.

If you are sharing an Australian experience with readers, make it authentically Australian by using Australian terminology and spelling. To do otherwise alienates your Australian audience.

Maybe her purpose was to write for the American audience because it is larger. Then why make it so clearly about Australia? Why insult Americans to say they can’t read a book and ‘translate’ terms into their context?

In a book trying to show how cultures are different but can co-exist, I found it uncomfortable that she didn’t stay with the Australian culture. It felt hypocritical. And that she was demeaning Australian culture.

Back to business…

You may not be writing books about cultural clashes, or even in a business that has much cultural diversity to deal with, but the point is the same.

It’s important to know your voice and stick to it.

To know your audience and understand it – not just what they can understand but what could be insulting or offensive.

To really think about what you are communicating between the lines.

To realise that the USA is not the world and that it’s ok to do things in a locally appropriate way instead of copying the American way by default.

When an essay isn’t an essay

This week, many Australian students have been sitting the NAPLAN tests. One of the tests is about writing and the students are given a topic to write an essay on.

For my daughter, this was her fourth NAPLAN experience. After a trial essay in class last week, she was panicking about the writing NAPLAN. Being told she’s good at writing essays didn’t give her any comfort until she finally told me  she ‘had never written an essay in her life and didn’t know what one was’.

Throughout primary school and early secondary school, the kids have been taught various types of writing (I know I was never formally taught such a range as specific styles!) such as an argumentative piece, an opinion, instructions and a report. Yet no one had ever thought to tell all of them that an essay is just another term for a persuasive or argumentative piece!

Once I realised this was the issue, my daughter regained her confidence in essay writing and believes she did a good answer in her writing NAPLAN.

My children think of persuasive pieces, I think of essays – what do you call a piece of writing that covers a topic to make a case for their opinion?

Understanding jargon

jargon raises questions

Poor jargon use raises reader questions

When I went to school, we were never taught to write an argumentative or persuasive piece – we wrote essays. Technically, there is no difference but a change of terminology requires care.

If you teach kids to write persuasive pieces you can’t test them on essays unless you define and explain what an essay actually is – they have no experience of essays and figuring it out during a test is not good for their test performance.

By now, the link to business should be obvious! No matter what you are writing for a business or website, you need to be sure the intended audience will understand it.

Just because you are very familiar with jargon (technical or industry specific terms for things) and abbreviations does not mean your readers will be. So it is important to avoid jargon as much as possible.

In some contexts, using jargon is fine (for example, a doctor won’t write about an intestinal disease by saying the symptom is a sore tummy). However, it is still important to minimise the jargon use to be sure it is understood. Going back to our medical example, if a gastroenterologist is writing for a general medical audience she could use medical terms but perhaps avoid very specific terms that other doctors won’t know.

Naming and defining

Whenever you do use jargon or industry specific terms in a business context it is a good idea to define the term.

You may be able to define terms at the first use of it or perhaps have a glossary page which each use of the term can be linked to.

Adding definitions is a good idea even if you are confident your audience knows the jargon because:

  1. it ensures your understanding of a term is the same as your reader’s understanding
  2. it helps someone new to your field understand your content – a new doctor will know most of the jargon in an article but may need to check on some words for instance
  3. having words defined on a website can help with your SEO efforts
  4. it is useful for someone researching your topic. These people may not be your target audience but helping them can lead to good will – and some of those people may well enter your field later and remember who helped them learn the jargon in the first place
  5. if there are two or three common terms for something, don’t assume everyone knows them all. Such as my daughter not knowing ‘essay’ and ‘persuasive piece’ are essentially the same thing or someone in NSW not knowing kinder comes before Prep in Victorian schools.

Does your website include definitions of words that are potentially difficult for you audience to recognise or understand? Have you ever reviewed your website for words and terms that may be considered jargon?