Sidebar: Address a Specific Audience

Academic and professional writers think of readers as members of disciplines or career groups—biologists, lawyers, psychologists, businessmen, doctors, and so on. These groups share a common vocabulary as well as a set of general principles: most lawyers would say that their job is to interpret the law and present arguments based upon these interpretations, for example. And most biologists would say that they study living species.

But disciplines can be broken down into smaller groups that share more specific principles. We call these smaller groups tribes. For instance, environmental lawyers, district attorneys, and public defenders might hold different values. They are all lawyers, but each would be a different tribe. We can divide biologists into tribes as well: evolutionary biologists, ecologists, botanists, marine biologists, genetic engineers, etc.

Members of a tribe< share principles that distinguish their tribe< from other tribes< in the same discipline. This means that tribes< often disagree with one another. For example, a biological engineer will probably accept the following principle:

Biological engineering is beneficial because it makes certain technologies possible.

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A biological ecologist, however, might hold a very different principle:

Engineered organisms have unpredictable and potentially negative effects on the environment in which they are placed.

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These members of different tribes< hold different values: while they are both biologists, they disagree about the possible outcomes of biological engineering.

When you write, you need to know which tribe< your readers belong to. The bigger the group you address, the more general your principles must be – and so the more likely they are to be challenged by a specific tribe<. Conversely, when you address a smaller tribe< you risk alienating other tribes that approach issues differently than your target tribe<. If your readers recognize you as a member of their tribe<, they will be more willing to accept your argument; if they recognize you as a member of a tribe< with which they disagree, you may have to answer certain objections.

Before writing, ask yourself:

  • Am I targeting a specific tribe<, a larger discipline, or a general audience?

If you are addressing a specific tribe<, ask yourself:

  • How will my readers recognize me as a member of their tribe<? What key concepts, phrases, or principles can I use to identify myself and my argument< to this tribe<?
  • Will my readers belong to a tribe< that might challenge my argument<? What objections< might I need to address in order to appeal to that tribe<? What warrants< might I need to use?

When you consider what tribe< your readers belong to, you can show them that you understand their interests and values – and that makes them more likely to take your argument< seriously.