Vermont Bar Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 Vermont Bar Journal, Spring 2017, Volume 43, No. 1 - Page 21

by Jared Carter, Esq. WRITE ON Targeting the Audience: Tips and Tools to Make Your Written Advocacy More Effective At the beginning of each semester I al- ways ask my students to brainstorm what they think effective writing and good advo- cacy looks like from the reader’s perspec- tive. As they shout out words to describe effective writing from the reader’s perspec- tive, I try to keep up by scribbling each ad- jective furiously on the whiteboard. Invari- ably, they suggest descriptive words like clear, concise, or organized. Next, I ask them to close their eyes and imagine they are the lawyer they always wanted to be- come. I switch whiteboards and ask them to describe effective writing and good ad- vocacy from the perspective of that lawyer - the writer. What quickly becomes clear to the stu- dents after they’ve shouted a new list of descriptive words at me is that the quali- ties of effective writing and advocacy are the same regardless of whether one sits on the reader’s or writer’s side of the desk. The obvious point of this quick exercise is that since both reader and writer want the same things in good writing, the effective advocate learns to edit their work to satisfy their own needs as the writer because do- ing so makes their work more persuasive to the reader. Ultimately, my goal is to start the semester off by encouraging students to write and edit their work with a laser fo- cus on targeting their audience. Targeting the audience is well known in the fields of media, marketing, politics and public relations. The idea is simple: in or- der to maximize impact the speaker must know the target audience and speak di- rectly to what will effectively persuade that audience. For example, we all proba- bly recognize that each word in every Su- per Bowl advertisement is vetted through focus groups aimed at targeting a specif- ic demographic before it ever shows up on our television or smartphone. 1 Similar- ly, most major political campaigns hire me- dia teams that specialize in messaging and targeting a specific voter-set on the theory that doing so will help turnout more votes. 2 It works. While we certainly cannot go to such extremes for every legal document we draft, the concept of targeting the audi- ence is just as relevant to good legal advo- cacy as it is to Super Bowl advertisements. If we know what makes the audience tick, we can tailor our writing to maximize its im- pact on the reader. In legal advocacy, the target audience is often judges and other lawyers. When tar- geting an audience, our first step is to un- derstand that audience. In this context, we know that judges and lawyers are busy and that they read many legal documents every day. With this basic knowledge about our audience we can deduce that judges and lawyers are likely to appreciate writing that is clear, concise and organized. While these factors are not specific to the substance of the writing itself, they are structural char- acteristics that will allow us to target the needs of our audience and thereby make our advocacy more effective. Clear and Concise: While there are many ways to make writ- ing clearer and more concise, two of the most effective approaches are (1) using subject, verb, object (“SVO”) sentence structure 3 ; and (2) putting actors in sen- tences whenever possible. 4 1. SVO Sentence Structure The first approach to clearer and more concise writing and advocacy is SVO sen- tence structure. Consider the following sentence example: “The issue of guilt or innocence of the defendant was decided by the jury o f twelve members of the community.” As writers and readers we understand what the above sentence means. Gram- matically the sentence is sound. As such, we’re likely to pass over this sentence in our editing process without much thought. However, because the sentence does not follow SVO sentence structure it is not as clear or concise as if we had employed SVO structure as demonstrated below. “The twelve member jury decided whether the defendant is guilty or inno- cent.” By rearranging the sentence so that the subject (jury) appears first followed by the verb (decided) and the object (defendant), we make the sentence clearer because we now see who is doing what and to whom. In addition, we’ve made the sentence more concise by taking it from 20 words down to 12 words. From the perspective of our tar- get audience, these edits make our writing and advocacy more effective. 2. Actors in Each Sentence A second approach to clearer and more concise writing and advocacy is editing so THE VERMONT BAR JOURNAL • SPRING 2017 that we include actors in our sentences whenever possible. 5 Consider the follow- ing sentence example: “The legislation passed on a 28-2 vote.” Again, as this sentence is constructed we understand what happened and there are no obvious mistakes. Once more, this means we’re likely to miss the opportuni- ty this sentence provides to strengthen our writing in the editing process. Namely, if we put an actor in the sentence we can im- prove on clarity and target our audience. “The Vermont Senate passed the legisla- tion on a 28-2 vote.” While the revised sentence has a few more words, we gain clarity by including an actor (the Vermont Senate) in our sen- tence. Without having to refer to previous sentences or make inferences the reader sees concretely who passed the legislation because the second sentence includes that actor. Both the SVO sentence structure and us- ing actors in our sentences tend to improve the clarity and efficiency of our writing. In that way, these approaches help us target an audience of readers who have little time to waste on unclear and inefficient advo- cacy. Organization: In any form of advocacy, organization plays a critical role in effectively targeting an audience. In legal advocacy, one of the most important organizing tools is the ef- fective use of headings in our writing. As legal advocates we’re likely all accustomed to using headings in our written work. But, why are headings important and what char- acteristics makes them the most effective? First of all, a heading provides the ba- sic building blocks of an advocate’s writ- ten work. Headings create the framework through which the reader navigates com- plicated legal issues and facts. If the frame- work is off, the reader can quickly get lost in a legal argument’s details. One ap- proach I use to make sure that my head- ings and framework are effective is to copy and paste each heading in order on a sep- arate document. If my basic argument is clear from just my headings, I can be con- fident that the framework and arguments I’m making are generally well organized. In addition to setting the framework, ef- fective headings clearly advocate the cli- ent’s position. In an appellate brief head- 21