Ashley Shaw is a graduate student at Kennesaw State University working towards a Masters in the Arts of Professional Writing with a focus on composition and rhetoric. She teaches First-Year English Composition and Rhetoric courses and works at a private high school during the day. Along with teaching experience, she has worked as an editor and a marketer and brings these experiences into the classroom to help students learn how they will use academic lessons when writing in professional settings.
“Do I really need to learn this?”
“Will I ever actually do this again?”
“I’m a [fill in the blank] major. Will I ever actually have to write this stuff?”
These are questions I hear all of the time from students. The short answer to these questions is, of course, yes. However, saying yes isn’t always enough.
Professional Writing in an FYC Classroom
Having worked in the professional world before coming back to school to teach, I have seen the effects of a lack of professional writing in FYC classes: Writers are not less capable, but, in my experience, they are less confident and less sure about how to begin a writing assignment in the workplace. Because of this, I use examples from various professions to show how the learning objectives and tasks of the class apply to the types of writing students will do outside of school.
- The St. Martin’s Handbook: Ch. 2, “Rhetorical Situations”
- The Everyday Writer (also available with Exercises): Ch. 3: “Rhetorical Situations”
- EasyWriter (also available with Exercises): Ch. 1: “A Writer’s Choices”
Assignment: Writing for a Real Audience
In this assignment, I set out to show students how to focus on their audience by using marketing and sales strategies. Businesses conduct a lot of research to create something called buyer personas, which are detailed descriptions of unique audiences to whom the marketer markets and the salesperson sells. By having my students create buyer personas, I hope to instill in them an understanding of how to target their writing to specific groups of people in a wide variety of rhetorical situations.
Assignment Learning Objectives
- Students will be able to create audience profiles
- Students will be able to recognize how audience affects all rhetorical choices (tone, medium, etc.)
- Buyer Persona Sheets
- Weird Product Description (Real or Imagined)
- Potential Sales/Marketing Groups
1. Introduce the Concept of Audience in Professional Settings
This activity takes place in the class right after a lesson on audience in academic settings, and it starts with a demonstration of how audiences are used in the fields of sales and marketing. To begin, I show the class a couple of real buyer personas, examples of which can easily be found with a Google search. We then talk about what they are and how they help business professionals address specific audiences in order to be more successful with their sales pitches.
2. Set up the Sales Situation
Now that they understand what buyer personas are, the class divides into five groups. I then present them with a weird product that they will be “selling.” For example, last semester, we worked on selling Gelli Baff - a tablet designed to turn bathwater into gel.
Each group gets assigned a specific audience. For the bath gel, I used the following audiences:
- Buyers at Toy Stores
- Non-parent present buyers (grandparents, aunts and uncles, etc.)
3. Work with Buyer Persona Sheets
After they find their groups and get their audience, I hand out buyer persona sheets. In their groups, students research their target groups and how to relate to them before filling out the sheet. Boxes the students fill out include
- A representative name and drawing (“Grandma Gayle,” a retiree, for the non-parent present buyers; “Bill the Buyer,” a tired, middle-aged man, for the toy store buyer, etc.)
- Goals, motivations, and hobbies of the group
- Demographics (age range, marital status, and education level)
- Expectations for their toy purchases
- Word choice, tone, and preferred communication methods
4. Create and Share Sales Pitches
Once the groups finish creating buyer personas, they plan short sales pitches.
They make choices about what medium to use (as examples, the kids group and the parents group planned commercials, while the investor group planned a PowerPoint presentation) and what to say in the presentation (the kids’ commercial focused on small words and “fun” and “cool” concepts, whereas the parents’ focused on price and safety.)
After the groups finish planning their sales pitches, each group shares what they created with the class.
5. Reflect on the Activity
Following the sales pitches, we reflect. The class discusses how different each pitch was even though each had the exact same purpose. We then talk about how audience is this important in anything we write. We also talk about how doing the same types of thinking and research about audience can help us write anything, from a research paper to a cover letter to a text sent to a parent versus a friend.
At the end of my English 1101 class, the students write a letter to next year’s students. The letter includes things like what they learned in the class, what they wished they had done differently, what recommendations they have for future students, etc. After I did this assignment, I was surprised by how many of the letters included some version of understanding audience and how to target writing towards that audience. Because of this activity, they expressed the ability to understand the rhetorical choices they should make surrounding individual audiences. Moreover, they learned that making the best rhetorical choices requires a little bit of thought and research into who the audience is. Doing this research helps them begin the writing task in a much more confident manner.