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Inventing Audience: Lessons from the Marketing Department

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Image Credit: 

Image by marc f c, CC BY 2.0 (source). 

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Students work in groups to invent a person with a complete backstory, to whom they'll address an argument. This assists them to think about identifying a clear and specific ideal audience, as well as how they might tailor an argument to best address their reader.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Required Materials: 

Some way for students to write collaboratively and display their work to the class; I usually use big sheets of papers and markers, but you might also have students compose digitally and display their work using a projector at the front of the classroom.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Students are asked to work in small groups to invent a single person to represent their ideal audience for some argument they wish to put forward. Their person should have a name and comprehensive backstory, and students should be able to identify which of their person's attributes make them a potentially receptive audience for their argument. They'll invent their person in groups of 3 to 5, then nominate one person to present to the class.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Identify an issue about which you want students to make (well, plan) their argument; this might be related to the course topic or a current local issue. I select and bring to class one or two short informational articles about the issue to ensure everyone is on the same page.

You should prepare one or two example 'people' in advance to offer students a model; I generally go with one fairly straightforward example and one that's a bit more off-beat.

Last semester, I did this exercise the week Google Fiber announced plans to expand into Austin, so I adopted that as my theme for the exercise. I invented two people who might be interested in Google Fiber and prepared dot-point summaries of their lives, which I presented to the class as informal narratives:

Stefan, aged 36, is a father of two and has recently returned to work after primarily working in the home for a couple of years while his kids were tiny; now that they're old enough to be in the less-expensive toddlers room at daycare, he's trying to get back into his old field as a web developer, but finding it a bit tough after only booking a couple of freelance gigs in the last five years. In the meantime, he's taken a 30-hour-a-week retail gig to bring in some extra cash and is taking online courses (maybe a MOOC, maybe through the local community college) to refresh his design skills. His partner is a high-powered lawyer, working full-time with a long commute -- and she got accustomed to having Stefan at home the last two years, so tends to bring work home or slack off completely when she gets home. Stefan still carries the main burden of household labour and child-rearing, so dude is BUSY! He tries to keep up on current affairs in tech -- since that's related to his job -- and reads Wired, but generally only catches the in-brief sections in between kid demands, so I'd target my argument there. He'd be interested in Google Fiber to make his online course-taking easier, as well as for the opportunity it offers to park the kids in front of streaming cartoons while he does homework or housework -- it'd also allow him to cut his cable bill in favour of streaming options, saving the household money that could go towards childcare (immediate need) or the kids' college educations (long-term) ... or maybe a much-needed holiday!

Instructions For Students: 

Your task, as a group, is to invent a person to whom you might address an argument about our class topic -- which of course means first deciding what argument you want to make. Give your person a name and a backstory, sketching out aspects of their life that give an idea of what kind of person they are and what might make them receptive to your argument.

Write your person's story on the big sheets of paper provided and nominate one group member to introduce your audience member to the class.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

This is a zero-stakes in-class exercise in my classroom and stands in isolation; some students carry out this same exercise to invent an audience for later assignments, but I don't require students to make the argument they sketch out in class, nor address the same person. 

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

This lesson plan is adapted from an exercise I employed frequently as the editor of a popular lifestyle magazine and as a marketing consultant for sports organisations I've participated in. As an editor, I used this exercise in new writer orientations and creative/editorial meetings, identifying our core consumer in order to better target our content (and our marketing department did the same thing in order to pitch advertisers); as a marketing consultant, I used it to identify potential new audiences and brainstorm techniques to reach them. I've found that sharing these proven real-world applications increases buy-in substantially.

This also offers a useful lead-in to talking about media kits -- publicly available documents publications produce for potential advertisers which lay out the 'average reader'. These kits are based on both these kinds of exercises and demographic data obtained through consumer surveys, and offer a very clear, very specific idea of the ideal and actual audiences (publications attempt to minimise the gap between the two as much as possible) for a specific publication.

I encourage students to be as creative as they like in both inventing their person and in presenting them; as long as they can justify the inventive choices they've made, they're good to go. For example, in the Google Fiber version of this exercise given above, students invented people ranging from not-so-tech-savvy grannies wanting to Skype family members abroad to West Campus residents sick of their 'net access being slowed down by four roommates all watching Netflix separately, to  DJ SparkleBootz, a community college student and strip club DJ who needed superfast internet to keep up with the latest musical trends and to download samples. (This last was presented to the class with a soundtrack selected from someone's smartphone and ended with the revelation that there IS a DJ Sparkleboots living and working in Chicago.)

Course Description: 

This lesson plan was carried out in RHE306, Rhetoric and Writing -- an introductory course in writing and argumentation.

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