Match the Message
As I was working in my home office, I heard my wife, Alean, shout from somewhere down by the kitchen, “Hey! No running in the house!”
She was talking to the cat, Mister Bear.
I didn’t see the result, but my guess is her message was not particularly effective. It is more likely that Mister Bear responded with a look that said, “Hush, and feed me!” We cannot overestimate the importance of matching our message to our audience.
I have a rule about giving books that says I do not gift books I have not read. I violated that rule once, based on the recommendation of someone I trusted, and gifted Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye to my eldest son. He was getting to that age where I thought this book might hold good information for him. It was not until years later, when I asked about the book that I learned he did not enjoy it at all. “Yeah, dad, it was a really good book,” he said, “but it scared me.”
My gift was not a good match for him, and I now understood why, for the entirety of his high school career, my son went on only one date. He didn’t even date in college, and now, at age thirty-four, has a serious girlfriend for the first time in his life. My mismatched message was damaging to him.
Consider this directive from the apostle Paul:
And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.
(1 Thessalonians 5:14, ESV)
What would be the result of me helping or encouraging the idle rather than admonishing them? What happens if I admonish or scold the fainthearted, rather than encourage them? We must know our audience, and match our message to them and their needs.
In Acts 17, we find the apostle Paul making his Mars Hill Plea to the Athenians. He rooted his appeal in an event from 600 years prior, an event that resulted in there being a monument in Athens with the inscription “To an Unknown God.”
Beginning with that monument, Paul said:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
(Acts 17:22b-23, ESV)
Paul started where they were mentally, culturally, socially, and using their own religious artifacts, guided them to where he wanted them to be. And he told them of Jesus.
Create an Avatar
As an author or speaker, when we make reference to our “ideal reader,” or our “target audience,” we are identifying what is known in the publishing and speaking world as our Avatar. The Avatar is a caricature, a fictitious representation of the persona who is most likely to be drawn to our writing and speaking. Writing to our Avatar establishes context between us and our readers.
It is critical that we hone our Avatar definition, because the writer who writes for everyone, in reality, writes for no one. By cultivating a well-rooted understanding of who our Avatar is, we enter into their conversation rather than forcing them to come into ours. We strive for a razor-sharp definition of that reader, and the more focused we can be, the better our writing becomes.
With a well-honed avatar, our writing is less difficult, because we are writing to someone we know well. We know how they think. We know their passions, their fears, their obsessions, their struggles. We know their weekly routine, what keeps them awake at night, and their ultimate life goals. Before we lay fingers to keys, we know what we’re going to write to them because it is exactly what we would say to them over a Tall Caramel Macchiato, our Avatar’s drink of choice.
A common objection to the Avatar asserts that limiting ourselves to a single reader persona defines our audience too tightly, thus eliminating or alienating a significant number of readers. This is a fallacy, and as illogical as it sounds, the opposite is true.
To multiply our chances of establishing a connection with our reader, we employ great specificity in defining that reader. We define, refine, and polish that definition, and having done so, write directly to that one person. When we write for our person, we write for everyone just like them.
Beyond gaining the audience of our Avatar, we also gain fringe followers and readers. I know this to be true, because it has happened to me, and because I do it myself. I follow two podcasts and read three blogs that are produced by women, and for women. Clearly, I am not in their target audience. But because they are targeted, on-message, and well-written, I follow them, and I learn from them.
Developing your Avatar takes a great deal of effort. You will wrestle with the initial definition for weeks, and possibly months. Your avatar definition, however, is a living document, so it is never really finished. Just as your writing will evolve over time, so also will your Avatar. To help you get started, download the attached worksheet. Use the fields within that you find helpful, and add more of your own. Or, use this worksheet as a guide to create your own Avatar worksheet.
God bless you, and your writing!
–Download the Avatar worksheet– [PDF format-also viewable below]