As a child of the seventies and eighties, I grew up in a world much more diverse than the one my parents had known. They’d come of age in poor families in an all-white neighbourhood. I, on the other hand, enjoyed all the perks of cultural diversity that a middle-class upbringing allowed.
My well-rounded education included ethnic restaurants, multicultural festivals, French immersion, and travel abroad. A high point in consuming all this diversity was a trip to Disney World, where my family floated through It’s a Small World, awe-struck by the dioramas of foreign lands and “foreigners” as we hummed along to the popular soundtrack:
It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears.
It’s a world of hopes, and a world of fears.
There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware
It’s a small world after all.
As a result of such edutainment experiences, I entered adulthood believing I’d had my consciousness raised. Like many of my peers, I fell into the trap of believing I’d been so exposed to diversity that I’d become “colour-blind.” And by that time, the world was hurtling toward globalization—so wasn’t “race” proving to be a concept as outdated as borders?
The trouble with colour-blindness, however, is that it can lead us to paint all differences with the brush of invisibility. In Disney World, all so-called races groove to the same tune, but in real life, our racial identity makes each of us distinct. And our racial identity forms just part of our overall identity, which is formed by the intersection of various social factors, including our age, ethnicity, gender, physical and mental abilities, and so on.
In order to truly see one another, then, we must see all these factors, bundled as they are with various forms of oppression and privilege. We must appreciate our common humanity even as we recognize that not one of us experiences being human in exactly the same way.
Appreciating your readers as individuals, rather than as manikins from It’s a Small World, is the secret to creating clear, compelling writing. Anyone reading your writing—whether that’s an email, a report, a grant application, or some kind of digital content—wants to feel you see them for who they truly are, not as a partial person or a colourless caricature.
When I deliver training on audience analysis, I almost always get the question: “If I start thinking about my audience’s traits in nitty-gritty detail, won’t I fall into stereotyping?” My answer to that is this: stereotypes apply blanket assumptions across a group, but our job as business communicators is to debunk assumptions by getting to know our readers as personally as we can.
In many situations, of course, that’s not possible. You can’t predict the profile of every website visitor or guess at all the staff members who could be cc’d on a proposal. But you can make intelligent inferences, guided by sensitivity to diversity and a desire to embrace your readers as individuals.
When someone reads a piece of written communication from you, they want to feel you’ve taken the time to understand what makes them tick—who they are, what they value, and what they need. Readers, we sometimes forget, are human beings. And the fundamental desire of all humans is to be truly seen, truly understood, in all our complexity.
What tweaks could you make to your writing process to customize your communication to your individual readers? What shifts in the way you approach writing could help you connect more genuinely with your audience?
I love helping people learn how to communicate in more authentically human writing. Please reach out if you’d like to chat about some of your writing challenges!