The scope and purpose of a communication
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It is essential for the sender to understand the scope, and for the recipient to understand the purpose of the communication. If these understandings do not exist, then there is little chance of the communication being effective. Additionally, although the recipient who must understand the purpose, it is the responsibility of the communicator to ensure that the purpose is clearly identified.
Scope, in this context, refers effectively to the sphere of operation (or influence) of the communication. There are two aspects to this: 'audience scope' and 'subject scope'.
First and foremost, it is essential for the communicator to clearly identify the target audience of the communication. This will allow the recipient to decide "Is this communication intended for me?". It will also allow the communicator to tailor the communication (especially the language used) to the particular needs of the audience (see also Defining the audience).
Most technical communications are not aimed at specific people, but at groups of people, or more likely, at job functions or users of particular products. It may also be the case that the communication is aimed at 'the general public'. In each case, the communicator must ensure that the target audience is clearly identified.
Quite often the definition of the audience is left to the distribution list, but this is not sufficient. Communications may be forwarded, or copied without the distribution list, at which point the target audience definition is lost. Additionally, it is not always wise to assume that the target audience is implicit in the location of the communication. For example, if a set of instructions is included in a binder labeled "Accounts Receivable Clerk's Operating Procedures" then it could safely be assumed that the instructions are to be carried out by the Accounts Receivable Clerk. But what happens when a copy of these instructions are given to the clerk's Supervisor, who needs to understand what the clerk is doing? Clearly, it would be safer to simply state in the instructions that they are to be carried out by the Accounts Receivable Clerk.
For some communications, it is not possible for the audience to be identified within the communication itself. A good example is a factory siren, or a flashing light on a shop floor. In these cases, the audience is defined by informing the target audience in advance that when (for example) a siren sounds, they have to take a particular action.
In order to allow readers to further ascertain whether a communication contains information that they need to know, or that they may be looking for, a communication should always clearly identify the subject scope of the communication. The subject scope is a specification of the information covered by the communication. For example, if a a document provides instructions for changing a printer cartridge, it would be wise to specify the models to which the instructions apply.
In some circumstances, it may be more useful to specify the scope in terms of what is not covered by the communication. For example, in a general information manual for a network router, it may be worthwhile stating that the manual does not include information on installing or configuring a network. (Ideally, in these cases, the communication should then go on to specify where the reader can find the information that is not in the scope of this communication.)
Obviously, any specification of the scope of a communication should appear as near to the start of the communication as possible. The whole point in specifying the scope is to allow the reader to decide whether the communication is relevant to them - forcing them to read half the document before telling them, rather negates this point!
A communication will always have a purpose. A good technical communication will always have a purpose for the reader (some communications seem to be purely for the benefit of the communicator's ego or self-aggrandizement!). For most technical communications, the purpose of the communication must be clear to the recipient of the communication. In some cases, such as subliminal advertising, the actual purpose needs to be disguised (although few Technical Communicators will find themselves called upon to perform such deceptions).
The following list highlights a number of different purposes for a communication, and describes the way in which the communication might need to differ based on this purpose.
- To inform
- To convey
- To persuade
- To request
- To warn
- To reassure
Key points (from the user's perspective)
- Is the message for me?
- Is it important?
- Why has it been sent?
Primary: Consider the reader and the purpose.