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What’s Audience Got to do With It?

By Heidi Turner.

When you write, do you know who you’re writing for?

One of the things that happens when we’re surrounded by like-minded people is we tend to gear all our communications to that group, even when we aren’t writing for them specifically. It’s a normal habit to fall into.

In law, you’re used to communicating with other legal insiders—lawyers, paralegals, judges and so on. You’re trained to write for insiders who know and understand the law. That makes it difficult to put yourself in the mind of someone who isn’t part of the industry. As a result, you may find yourself writing for other lawyers, even when you’re marketing yourself to a lay audience.

The problem is that other lawyers understand you much more easily than outsiders do. They get your meaning, they follow your thought patterns, and they can easily navigate gaps in your reasoning because they have inside knowledge.

Outsiders can’t. Outsiders don’t understand the language, don’t follow your thought patterns, and can’t mentally accommodate gaps in your content.

The meaning in communication is formed in the audience’s mind. They make sense and take action on what you write and say. What you think you’ve said and what they’ve understood may be two different things.

That’s why it’s important to know who you’re writing for and what their understanding of the law and your practice area is.

Why lawyers write

Aside from the writing you do as part of your job—documents needed to win cases and finalize deals, for example—you need marketing copy for a variety of reasons.

Not all reasons apply to all law firms. But there are some basic reasons to write marketing content:

  • To grow your business and/or network

  • To highlight your expertise

  • To confirm your reputation

Regardless of why you have content, your content is meant to be read by someone at some time. Whether it’s meant to be skimmed, memorized or read in-depth, content is meaningless without someone to read it. It can’t do anything—its purpose is dependent on there being an audience.

How does audience affect content?

You want your audience to take action on your content, ideally by reaching out to you for a consultation or meeting. At the very least, you want them to view you as an authority on the topic so if they or someone they know ever needs a lawyer, they’ll think of you.

In order for the audience to act on communication they need to

  • Understand it

  • See how it’s relevant to them

  • Believe that you understand their pain points

  • Grasp that it’s important to contact you

Not everyone who has a legal issue knows they have a legal issue. They might conduct an online search looking for information related to side effects from a medication only to learn there have been lawsuits filed against the pharmaceutical company, for example. A person might search, “Is my heart attack related to the drug I took?” only to learn that lawsuits have been filed against that drug’s manufacturer related to the very side effects they’re researching. You may have known for a long time about the lawsuits, but this information is brand new to some people.

When people search for lawyers, they’re often in a stressed or overwhelmed state of mind. They may have concerns about recovering from injuries, taking care of their family, or losing their homes. They don’t necessarily have the mental capacity to take in a lot of technical information.

Think about times that you’ve been under a great deal of stress—those aren’t the times to be reading dense manifestos and working your way through highly technical language.

Audience dictates topic

A major issue I see in content is people writing what they want to write about, not what their audience needs to read. If you’re lucky, the two areas overlap—the issues you want to write about are what your clients need to (or want to) read about.

Here’s the thing, though: other people aren’t experts in the topics we’re experts in. That’s why they need us.

While it might seem very basic to you to write a blog post explaining tax laws, many business people don’t understand the laws and don’t know how those laws apply to them. That’s when they come looking for you. You writing an article explaining tax law basics won’t scare clients away, it will impress them.

Not only will they understand your expertise, they’ll relate to you because you’ve written for them.

Not only will they understand your expertise, they’ll relate to you because you’ve written for them.

Tip: When you write your content—including your bio and your social media—ask if you’re writing it to impress another lawyer or if you’re writing to engage a client. Lawyers are more impressed with what law school you went to. Clients want to know how long you’ve been a lawyer and how you’ve helped people like them.

Think about the questions clients frequently ask you—about your firm, your experience, your practice area, and so on. How many sit at your desk and ask what law school you went to? How many ask what awards you’ve won? How many ask how long you’ve been in practice or why you’ve started your firm? The questions that get asked the most are the ones to address in your content. Unless your target audience is other lawyers, don’t write to impress other lawyers. Write what your clients need to know.

Audience dictates language

Not only should your topics be geared to your audience, your language should, too. You need to know and understand your audience’s grasp of the language, and use words and phrases appropriate for them. If your audience is general, don’t use highly technical language or jargon. They need to understand you, and highly specialized language will frustrate them.

On the other hand, if you’re writing for an audience of experts—or an insider audience—feel free to use jargon so they feel knowledgeable and will respect your expertise.

Tip: Learn the language your audience uses by talking to your clients. Find out what phrases they use. There’s a big difference between the people who look up “premises liability lawyer” and those who search for “what happens if I fall down in a store and hurt myself?”. Similarly, some people will search “estate lawyer” and some will search “I need to write a will.”

Don’t rely on assumptions about what your audience knows. Ask yourself what you know for certain they know. Then ask how you know they know it. If you haven’t heard your clients use the exact same phrasing you use or haven’t seen evidence first hand that they have inside knowledge, use plainer language.

Audience makes writing easier

Although it seems counter intuitive, considering your audience’s needs makes the writing process easier. There’s such a thing as too many options when it comes to writing. By having too many potential topics to write about—and by wanting to write about them for too many audiences—you become overwhelmed and unable to decide on anything to write about.

Focusing on the needs of one audience member helps you narrow down those options. You aren’t stuck with the exact same audience for every blog post—especially not if you have a practice area that lends itself to a broader client pool. But focusing on one audience for each post helps you maintain your focus write more effectively.

When I sit down with a new client, I ask about their target audience. I ask what they know about who they want or need their content to appeal to. That’s to better determine the topics and create a focus for the website.

Content that isn’t focused often lacks too little meaningful information to answer clients’ questions. In this case, being overly broad prevents clients from understanding what you do or how you help them—as a result, they’ll move on to the next website.

Tip: Imagine sitting down with one person in your audience. What questions would they ask you? What would they need to read to make an informed decision? Write as though you’re having a discussion with that person, explaining something to them, one-on-one. Keep picturing that person as you write, and write so they understand you.

The more you write for your audience, the easier it will become. When you sit down to write, ask yourself who you’re writing for, what you know they know, what language they use, and what information they need to make a decision. Write with those answers in mind.


About the Author Heidi Turner is an award-winning legal writer and editor. Since 2006, she has helped her clients in the legal industry—including lawyers and law firms, legal technology companies, and legal SaaS organizations—connect with their target audience and establish their authority.

She helps her clients find authentic ways to engage their audience and build a reputation, with a focus on client-centric communications.

In addition to her writing and editing work, Heidi is an instructor in Simon Fraser University's editing program.

#HeidiTurner #communication #legal #clientcentric

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