What does “writing for your audience” actually mean? Dissonance and consonance

This blog post is 9 years old. Please, when reading this, be mindful of its age.

Most advice about copy writing of any kind, whether long-form letters, advertisements, campaign email and leaflets, or web pages, start with the truism: “write for your audience”.

However, foundational advice like this is very easy to overlook or forget, and the advice is so generic that it is a mostly meaningless truism. Of course you write for your audience, but what does that mean in practice?

Back in 1965, University of Missouri academic Judson Mills, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, partly answered this question with a research paper entitled “Avoidance of Dissonant Information”. Dissonance (also known as cognitive dissonance) is the stage of incongruity between, for example, words and deeds, or believing two contradictory things at once. It is from the idea of dissonance that the commitment and consistency principle comes from (i.e. people want to behave in the way that they’ve committed themselves to).

Mills confirmed previous studies into the idea that people avoid information that sits in conflict with pre-existing preferences; that  people “sought out dissonance-reducing information” and avoided dissonance-increasing information. This finding was made through a study where Mills asked subjects to rank the desirability of different products, made a choice between two products to receive as a “free gift”, then rated their interest in reading advertisements about those products.

The results of the study showed that there was a very strong relationship between the rankings of desirability and the ratings of interest in reading the ads. Significantly, interest in the ads of the product that the subjects chose as their “free gift” was higher than in other products, and interest in the ad for the product that was rejected was lower.

What does all this mean?

Simply, it means that when you’re writing for anything (or communicating in general), it’s important to keep in mind the preferences of the audience. Because if you don’t communicate in a way that is consonant (that is, compatible) with the existing views and preferences of an audience, they are going to avoid that information.

For unions, this clearly means that you should at the very least have different messages for members and non-members.

It means thinking about how an issue or topic is viewed by the person you are communicating to, and talking to them in a way that coincides with their existing views.

For example: a non-member says they can negotiate their own working conditions and don’t need a union. This suggests they have a lot of confidence or experience. Pointing out that everyone needs a union or that they don’t have the experience or power to negotiate with their employer increases dissonant information (i.e. information that the listener is not experienced) and will therefore be avoided by the listener. By pointing out that their experience and confidence would help others in their workplace who are less confident or experienced than they, you would be reducing dissonant information.

(Of course, this is a very generalised example, and the non-member in general could just be an anti-union jerk. However, you’d get nowhere by pointing that out either.

In politics, this research about dissonance also means:

  1. Someone who doesn’t believe in climate change is going to avoid information that confirms climate change is real
  2. Someone who doesn’t support progressive politics is going to avoid election material supporting progressive parties

None of this will come as a surprise to you, but for some reason, I still see climate activists trying to convince climate deniers that it is real; and I still see progressive political organisations and candidates sending blanket, electorate-wide direct mail.

When you’re writing for you audience, you’re thinking about the idea of dissonance. If you don’t want to waste your time communicating to an audience that will actively avoid what you’ve got to say, then ask yourself: Does what I’m writing contradict what my audience believes or thinks? How can I present my message in a way that doesn’t conflict with those pre-existing views?

This blog post is 9 years old. Please, when reading this, be mindful of its age.

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