In this instalment of the observation journal, I was playing with ideas of target audiences, and what would happen if you turned them upside down.
Left page: Encroaching shortages, a Schroederingian pause, and the Star Wars theme being practised on a trumpet.
Right page: For the course I was teaching, I wanted an activity that would make us think a bit more usefully about target markets (it was a business-adjacent course), aka audiences, readers, etc.
When I write, I am usually trying to please (or irritate) one particular person (not always me; not infrequently a housemate). But I tried this approach on both a physical project I was designing and on a story I was working on.
Note, this is one of those activities that really stirs up the sediment of stereotypes. I like that, because it brings them out for observation, and repurposes them, and makes them work for their living. (See also: Observation Journal — The Caudwell Manoeuvre). But it isn’t always flattering on the page, and is something to acknowledge/manage/bear in mind if you’re doing this in e.g. a classroom.
The first, businessy approach: Essentially, you make a four column table:
- In the first column, make a list of categories of characteristics, e.g. age, gender, education, job, level of career, hobbies, physical activity, background, language, etc. You could add in others specific to the broad type of project. This was just my initial late-at-night list.
- In the second, quickly identify the assumed characteristics of your “ideal user”/main audience, etc. If you write for yourself this will probably just be a description of you at some point in your life. It could also be a hideous stereotype of someone not you. (I’m aware there’s some very lazy categorisation in this version, but I wanted to see how the framework would work with that.)
- In the third column, flip each characteristic to something roughly opposite. (A job in education vs a job in the trades vs a long-distance truck driver vs…). You can have a bit of fun here, redress balances, etc.
- In the fourth, make a note of how that would require a change to the Thing You Are Making. For example, in the first set of examples, would it need to be more durable, or have different accessibility, or a less (or more!) mystical application, etc?
- Finally, make a note of any that are genuinely useful, or could improve or add to the original idea. This exercise wasn’t about changing an idea, but making it stronger.
The writing approach: In the second round, lower down the page, I tried it out on a story I was editing.
- The story was written very much at a friend, but also for me — and we are quite similar. Going through the process highlighted a lot of things I take for granted, and ought to be aware of (at least for editing).
- For example, it brought out the lack of physicality in the manuscript, and the degree to which I assumed anyone reading it would also be familiar with a very specific set of obscure books.
- While I like the somewhat cerebral context of the story, and thoroughly enjoy allusions, these could easily turn into weaknesses. So when editing the story I want to go back in and look for places where I can anchor the story with a little physical action/description. I also plan to buttress or reinforce the more esoteric allusions with enough information that someone who hasn’t had a particular shared experience can still follow the story. In other places, it was a reminder not to be subtle or aim for plausible deniability, but to be honest about what I was doing and double-down on it.
- This wasn’t about changing the ultimate “ideal reader”, but about clarifying and streamlining my approach, and creating an immediately useful checklist for when I sat down to edit.
Try this on a story you’re editing, or a picture that’s at a fairly advanced sketch stage.
- Make a list of categories of characteristics.
- Quickly and lazily note down your assumed ideal audience.
- Flip those characteristics.
- Consider how the project might change if it were to be adapted to that person.
- Find things to clarify/tighten/commit to/adjust, etc, and try them out on the project.