How to get research working for you and your writing, part 1

It’s very easy to be lazy about research for your writing projects when all you need to do is Google the topic and hey presto, you have an instant choice of several million results to browse without leaving the comfort of your office chair. But even in our virtual age, it can still pay dividends to get off our butts and go see, touch and feel. In this first article, we look at ways not just to understand your audience, but to find out what really makes them tick.

The first port of call in any research journey for your non-fiction writing must always be your readers or audience. By knowing these people well and understanding their issues and problems, you may even find that the structure and content of your writing suggest themselves. So how do you go about it?

There’s no great mystique to it.  If you want to get to know your readers, go and talk to them.  That’s what I do.  But I don’t always follow the most obvious route.

Of course a lot of your research into your readers can, in theory, be done at your desk.  You can use your common sense to work out the fact that the audience of a book, blogsite or article about weddings is likely to be predominantly female, mostly within the 20 – 40 age group with a secondary audience of brides’ mothers, with a reasonable amount of money to spend but not enough to justify hiring a wedding planner, etc. In the same way you can work out that a piece about how to write your own advertising and PR material will appeal to people in small businesses – sole traders and the lower end of SMEs – trying to maximize small marketing budgets, with a secondary audience of people in departments of larger companies who, once again, are trying to maximize ad budgets squeezed by a current financial cutback or recession.

Quality matters

However, quality of information is important here. Even small nuances can make a huge difference to your understanding of your audience. And one thing common sense doesn’t achieve, is to uncover issues and problems that no-one likes to talk about. Yet often it’s precisely these issues and problems that your own expertise can help solve, so making your writing even more valuable to its audience.

One time I was asked to produce a series of audio tapes to inform and motivate a team of mobile automotive technicians working for one of the UK’s leading “motoring organisations.” From the information I was given and found out from my desk I knew that they were all rather independent individuals, many of them working pretty remote territories all over the UK in their vans and only meeting with their colleagues and superiors on fairly rare occasions.

They were key customer-facing staff, of course, because they were the people customers met when their cars had broken down. They were perceived by customers to be knights in shining armour and as a result, many had quite lively egos. Great, all good stuff, and easy to discover through the comfortable media of telephone and e-mail. And that might have been enough for some writers.

You need to know the bad news as well as the good

But Suze’s nose kept twitching. The picture looked too rosy, too settled. I needed to know if anything smelly was lurking under the floorboards. My client, a senior HR manager, through no fault of his own hardly ever got to leave Head Office and never had the chance to see our target audience in action. It was possible there were problems he didn’t know about.

So, not quite donning a wig and a false nose but certainly keeping a low profile, I sneaked (having got permission from my client of course) into a rare regional convention of these people in another city. Boring old stuff from the podium and very interesting quips from members of the audience to one another in the back rows of the hall (where of course I was sitting.) I detect unhappy noises and make notes. Next stop, out on the road.

It just so happens that an old friend of mine owns a big service station and car workshop near where I live and his place is a certified depot for “motoring organisations.” I learned that most local technicians in the “motoring organisation” business hang out in these certified depots because that’s where they bring in customers’ cars for more complex repair. Over some vile machine-brewed coffee late one night Suze was shooting the breeze with representatives not only from the clients’ company but also from their two key competitors. And guess what? In casual conversation it turned out that my clients’ company was being ridiculed by its competitors because of a variety of issues, several of which my poor client knew nothing whatsoever about.

Small things can make a huge difference

So, what difference did that make to the project I was working on, and my knowledge of the audience – in this case several hundred people like the poor man who was lambasted by the competitors’ staff over a cup of revolting coffee in that depot?

Actually, it was like watching dominoes fall over. By end of business the following day my client’s company had launched an urgent investigation into the whole thing. By the end of that week they had discovered that the same problems were widespread, across the country. By the beginning of the next week our entire communications project had been changed to accommodate the new findings. We then went ahead with the revised approach and it worked. I shudder to think how much money my client’s company would have wasted on expensive, pointless videos and printed materials had we not uncovered those issues in time.

Click on, now, to Part 2 of this article – and here’s Part 3.

More research resources:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations”…more than 2,000 business and social terms from the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand

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  1. […] How to get research working for you and your writing, part 2 September 20, 2011 By SuzanStMaur Leave a Comment Tweet It’s very easy to be lazy about research for your writing projects when all you need to do is Google the topic and hey presto, you have an instant choice of several million results to browse without leaving the comfort of your office chair. But even in our virtual age, it can still pay dividends to get off our butts and go see, touch and feel. In this second article, we look at ways of getting people to open up and say what they really think. (If you haven’t read part 1, click here.) […]

  2. […] people to open up and say what they really think. (If you haven’t read the earlier articles, click here for part 1, and click here for part […]

  3. […] so hard! If you want more in-depth guidance on how to research your audience, take a look at my three-part series of articles about that – they start […]

  4. […] Some people find it easy to write and produce the content and other struggle. But for me, the hardest part has always been the research and learning curve to obtain the right information to go into the product. If you need help with research there is a three part article here that’s excellent – https://howtowritebetter.net/how-to-get-research-working-for-you-and-your-writing-part-1/ […]

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