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Building an argument

Learn more about how to build strong arguments using different types of reasoning


Audience is a very important consideration in argument. A lifetime of dealing with your family members has helped you figure out which arguments work best to persuade each of them. It’s usually wise to think of your audience in an academic setting as someone who is perfectly smart but who doesn’t necessarily agree with you. You are not just expressing your opinion in an argument (“It’s true because I said so”), and in most cases your audience will know something about the subject at hand—so you will need sturdy proof. At the same time, do not think of your audience as capable of reading your mind. You have to come out and state both your claim and your evidence clearly. Do not assume that because the instructor knows the material, he or she understands what part of it you are using, what you think about it, and why you have taken the position you’ve chosen.

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Audience awareness

Understanding an audience’s needs and expectations is essential to creating effective communication. Crafting a message involves more than producing words; the message must also be presented appropriately. For example, writing a project proposal in limerick form might provide excellent information, but it’s unlikely the proposal would meet the expectations of the decision makers.

When deciding how to approach writing for a specific audience, authors need to consider many aspects of developing the message. For example, how much information does the audience already possess on the topic? An author may not need to provide detailed explanations to an expert, but explanations are necessary when the intention is to explain the author’s thinking or when the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter isn’t guaranteed. The formality of the structure, tone, and style also needs to align with the audience’s expectations. Finally, authors must determine whether a strictly objective perspective is necessary or if they can include some personal observations and emotion in the description.

How Does the Message Change for Different Audiences?

Consider how you would describe a personal experience to the following audiences and how the content, structure, tone, style, and explanations would change for each audience:

You (e.g., diary entry)

  • Focused on personal details with little explanation; may be more focused on describing the event and resulting emotions
  • Informal structure, tone, and style

Close friend who shared the experience (e.g., a personal email or text)

  • Likely focused on personal details, such as the reaction to the event or resulting emotions, versus describing the event
  • Informal structure, tone, and style

Work acquaintance who wasn’t present for the event (e.g., work email)

  • Includes sufficient detail to explain what happened; may be more objective versus emotional
  • Semi-formal structure, tone, and style

Supervising manager (e.g., event report)

  • Provides sufficient, objective description to provide background details, describe the event, explain the outcome(s), and may include rationale for why the event happened
  • Formal structure, tone, and style, especially if the message is likely to be forwarded to senior managers

Senior executive (e.g., briefing note)

  • Provides necessary details to inform the individual on the event, including background details, a precise description of the event, rationale for why the event happened, options for follow-up, and recommendations for future similar events
  • Focuses on an objective presentation of only the essential details
  • Formal structure, tone, and style

Academic audiences

If you're writing for an academic audience, your approach will need to meet the expectations of the target audience. For example, a post in a team Moodle discussion forum could be informal and personal if the audience is other students. However, if an instructor asked students to model formal academic writing in posts to him or her, the writing would instead have a formal structure, tone, and style, as well as clear explanations that demonstrate the author’s understanding of the topic. An informal reflective piece, such as a journal entry, might be written with the instructor as the intended direct audience, therefore the work could be more personal and without explanations of course concepts with which the instructor is familiar. In contrast, a thesis would be written for a direct audience of the thesis committee and an implied audience of the general academic and/or professional community. Accordingly, the document would have a formal structure, tone, and style and should present all the information necessary to understand the author’s research and discussion.

If you’re a student and you’re unsure of what approach you should take in a work, please consult your instructor. For more information and suggestions on tailoring a message to an academic audience, please visit Audience by the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Balancing content with audience expectations

There’s another aspect of audience awareness that also comes under consideration, whether it’s for a written work, presentation, or any other kind of communication, and that’s balancing the content the communicator wants to provide with the expectations of the audience. When I think of this balance, I think of a balanced teeter totter:

For example, when a presenter is creating the framework for an oral presentation, the presenter has to consider more than just the content he or she wants to share with the audience. The presenter is going to enter that room with a desire to share information, but the audience will also attend with an expectation of what information they’ll receive. The presenter’s job is to anticipate the audience’s expectations so that the content both satisfies the presenter’s desire to share as well as the audience’s points of interest. If the presenter weighs the communication too heavily with content but doesn't address the audience's expectations, the presentation will be off balance.

The importance of accommodating both the author’s and the audience’s needs is also present in writing. For student authors, this balance can be tricky because they can be tempted to use writing to demonstrate a breadth of reading. That is, to treat an essay as an opportunity to insert as many details as possible in every nook and cranny of the writing to show that the author has read extensively. There may be instances where such an approach is appropriate, such as when writing a literature review; however, in a typical essay, students run the risk of ignoring their instructor’s expectations for the work. Typically, instructors assume that students have done the assigned reading(s), and the essay isn’t merely a demonstration of how broadly the student has read. Rather, an essay is an opportunity for a student to put the information to use in a way that demonstrates the student’s understanding of the topic. In other words, an essay isn’t just an information dump; instead, instructors are looking for students to use the information to show they understand the materials, they can choose the most appropriate information to support the analysis of their topic, and they can structure the information appropriately to create a convincing argument.

There are lots of other applications for this approach to managing content and expectations e.g., meetings or job interviews. The key thing to remember is that communication isn’t only about pushing out information; effective communication also involves anticipating and meeting the expectations of the intended audience.