Pen portraits

Pen portraits – understanding your ideal audience

Have you ever read a piece of writing that feels as though it were created just for you? The author of that text will have thought about the audience – what they would need to know and how they should be made to feel about it. This is the essence of good, persuasive writing.

Want to add this kind of sparkle to your own words? Then it’s time to think more carefully about your audience.

My top tip for writing effective content is to keep the audience in mind. Google and other search engines agree: write for the audience first. Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and any other keyword trickery should be secondary to writing for your target readers.

You can’t write for any audience until you know who they are. And that’s where pen portraits come in.

What is a pen portrait?

A pen portrait – also known as a customer avatar or a buyer persona – is a detailed picture of your ideal reader. I’m not talking about a literal picture, but rather the characteristics that make that reader who they are. It’s the same as thinking of your ‘key demographic’ (terrible marketing speak, I know), only in a lot more detail.

The more detail, the better.

A pen portrait is a detailed picture of your ideal reader.

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When you understand who this person is, you can write as though you were speaking directly to him or her. That leads to creating text that’s more believable, more real. And when it comes to marketing, writing that resonates with your readers will help you do more business.

A sample pen portrait

Here’s an example of a pen portrait.

  • Tina, 46 years old
  • Married
  • 2 kids
  • Lives in England
  • Vegetarian
  • Works part-time from home
  • National Trust member
  • Concerned about the environment
  • University degree in English
  • Not bothered about celebrity culture
  • Can speak another language
  • Prefers trains to cars
  • Centre-left political views
  • Not a fan of Brexit
  • Not really a royalist
  • Not as cool as her sister
  • Rarely thinks about church
  • Likes to volunteer at local events
  • Thinks DIY isn’t that hard
  • Loves books (but not ebooks)
  • Likes camping and UK holidays
  • Prefers literary festivals to Glastonbury
  • Prefers walks to the gym
  • Prefers glasses to contacts
  • Prefers cats to dogs
  • Sometimes listens to Radio 4
  • Enjoys gardening
  • Enjoys red wine more than white
  • Competent IT user
  • Not a fan of video games
  • Likes 70s disco music
  • Secret Take That superfan

Fun fact: my pen portraits are always named Tina or Tony. It means I can regularly ask my clients the same sorts of question:

‘What would Tony think of this?’

‘Is this good for Tina?’

Need more pen portrait ideas? Check out this list of questions.

It might all sound a bit odd, but it works. The more specific you can be, the better. Going into minute detail and throwing in some unusual traits will help you avoid trotting out bland stereotypes.

A generic pen portrait is no use, because it doesn’t help you grasp the essence of the reader.

In truth, even my long list above only scratches the surface. The good news is that your brain can take in all this information and fill in gaps. Any trait, belief or experience you haven’t already noted down will come naturally when you think about your pen portrait.

Look again at the sample list above. Did you know Tina travelled across Europe for 3 months during her gap year? Of course she did. That’s so Tina.

This isn’t a silly game. Knowing your audience and writing for them will get you results.

Remember: keeping the audience in mind is the best way to improve your writing.

What about customer avatars and buyer personas?

Marketers are awash with such buzzwords, but they all mean the same thing. A customer avatar and a buyer persona are equivalent, and neither are any different from a pen portrait. I prefer pen portrait because it feels more neutral and less salesy. In terms of my blog, for example, I’m not thinking of buyer personas, because this isn’t a selling channel.

Random personal fact: I like to draw, so ‘pen portrait’ sounds more pleasing to me than the other buzzwords.

Terminology check

Pen portrait = customer avatar = buyer persona

Simple 👍🏻

Pen portraits for social media

If you use social media, free analytics data could give you some idea of who your Tina or Tony is. Here are a couple of stats available in Twitter’s Analytics dashboard, for example:

Audience gender

Audience gender

Audience interests

Audience interests

To check out your own stats, click your profile icon in the top-right corner of the Twitter website, then click Analytics. There are all sorts of goodies buried there.

Twitter Analytics

Twitter Analytics


Whenever you write anything, make sure you keep your audience in mind. Creating a pen portrait will help you do that. It’s simple and can be fun, so why not try it? Just remember to be as specific as possible.

Keep a copy of your pen portrait on your desk. Next time you’re at the keyboard, remember to write for Tina or Tony. They’ll appreciate it and so will the rest of your readers.

Could your business writing be more effective?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I use pen portraits when working with business owners who want to improve their writing.

However much help you might need, it’s always good to have a pen portrait to hand. So even if your writing is already pretty slick, don’t miss out on the opportunity to make it even better.

If your words need some care and repair, drop me a line and let’s have a chat. I’d love to hear from you.

Before you go … ☕️

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Thanks for reading, John Espirian

  • Perfect! This is exactly what I’ve been looking for John. Bookmarked!

    • Thanks, Martin! Great to know it’s been helpful. If you have any questions, feel free to drop me a line.

  • Anna Nolan

    Really amusing and fun article, John. 🙂

    • Thanks for reading, Anna – always great to see you in my timeline! I’m using this method with lots of my clients now.

      • Anna Nolan