Pen portraits: understanding your ideal audience

The relentlessly helpful® blog by John Espirian

29 July 2016
Pen portraits

📚 This post is part of my business blogging guide.

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.

This post shows you how to build a picture of your ideal reader, so you write content suited to him or her. And that in turn will help turn those readers into customers and loyal fans.


The way to win with content is to put a relentless focus on what the reader wants. Write for your 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. That’s where pen portraits come in.

Getting your pen portrait right is an essential step in developing the right Content DNA.

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.

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

My pen portraits are always named Tony or Tina.

This means I can regularly ask my clients the same sorts of question:

  • What would Tony think of this?
  • Is this good for Tina?

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.

Imagine you’ve created your own Tony profile. Ask yourself these questions about him:

  • What drives Tony?
  • What are Tony’s problems and how can I fix them?
  • How can I make life better for Tony?
  • What would stop Tony becoming my customer?
  • What language would help Tony to trust me?

Be an armchair psychologist.

Real pen portraits.

I practise what I preach, so I have a pen portrait for my own technical copywriting business.Surprise, surprise – he’s called Tony.

Tony’s married and pretends to support Crystal Palace ⚽️

Meet Tony, my pen portrait

I haven’t stopped there. A few Espresso ☕️ subscribers have shared their pen portraits with me, and I’ve shared these in another article:

What about customer avatars and buyer personas?

Marketers are awash with such buzzwords, but they all mean the same thing.

Pen portrait = customer avatar = buyer persona

I prefer ‘pen portrait’ because it feels more neutral and less salesy. Use whichever term you prefer.

Sample questions for building your own pen portrait.

To make your own pen portrait, start by asking yourself some basic questions about who your ideal audience member is. Here are 20 simple suggestions to get the ball rolling:

  1. Name
  2. Age
  3. Location
  4. Business name
  5. Relationship status
  6. Number of children
  7. Pet’s name
  8. Preferred mode of transport
  9. Favourite colour
  10. Favourite film
  1. Favourite song
  2. Favourite book
  3. Favourite sports team
  4. Favourite food
  5. Favourite hot and cold drinks
  6. Ideal holiday destination
  7. Political stance
  8. Religion
  9. Attitude to risk
  10. Introvert or extrovert?

Once you get started, you should find that you can think of lots of other preferences to fill in for your pen portrait.

Don’t limit yourself: the more detail, the better.

The BIG mistake with pen portraits.

There’s no doubt that pen portraits are useful in helping us find the right way of speaking to our customers. That’s why I ask clients to think about what their pen portrait would look like whenever I start a writing consultation.

But, but BUT …

It’s not good to be too wedded to your pen portrait.


Because sometimes you will be approached by clients who don’t fit the profile of your pen portrait. In your well-meaning belief that you need to serve a particular type of customer and only that type of customer, you might push away perfectly good business.

Now, that’s fine if you have a queue of people stretching around the corner, all desperate to give you money. But that’s not how things are for most businesses.

I’ll give you an example for my technical copywriting business. My pen portrait is for Tony.

Tony’s business installs custom metal pipes and parts. Does that mean that I can provide my technical writing services only to other businesses that work in the same field? Of course not.

Tony also likes to wear an England rugby top Does that mean I can serve only England fans? No, that would be stupid.

The same idea extends to every part of my Tony pen portrait.

I have permission to serve people who are not like my pen portrait.

The pen portrait as the centre of a customer dartboard
You can serve more than just your pen portrait

I think it’s best to think of the pen portrait as the centre of a dartboard of potential customers. You need to have something to aim at, but if you don’t hit a bullseye then there are still plenty of scoring options on the board.

So there: don’t become a slave to your pen portrait.

The celebrity shortcut.

If building a pen portrait isn’t for you but you feel as though you have a decent idea of what your ideal customer likes, try this shortcut:

Think of what celebrity would most appeal to your target audience.

If you have someone in mind, imagine what they would say when talking to your ideal customer. If you can produce content that the reader feels is familiar and identifiable, you have the makings of an effective business writing style.

I don’t suggest you abandon your own writing ‘voice’ in favour of the chosen celebrity. But think about the opportunities to bring in some styles that would appeal to the audience without losing the essence of what you want to say.

Pen portraits for social media.

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

Twitter Analytics: Audience gender for @espirian, June 2018
Twitter Analytics: Audience gender for @espirian, June 2018
Twitter Analytics: Audience interests and consumer buying styles for @espirian, June 2018
Twitter Analytics: Audience interests and consumer buying styles for @espirian, June 2018

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 menu: Analytics
Twitter menu: Analytics

Let’s wrap up.

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 Tony or Tina. They’ll appreciate it and so will the rest of your readers.

Continue the business blogging guide

This post is part of my definitive business blogging guide.

Need business blogging help?

Hire me to coach you or write content for your business.

Get in touch

Chris Plumbley
Chris Plumbley
Senior Project Manager

I had the pleasure of working with John when making changes to our customer facing pages, specifically relating to a new product.

John's ability to understand the product, the impact of the changes and come up with creative solutions to convey our message was first class.

He's a gentleman and a pleasure to work with.

Mark Masters
Mark Masters
Audience Maker
The ID Group

John's approach is perfect because he takes a step that goes beyond content creation.

John provides guidance on what you need to do to be found and not conform to the algorithm. His advice is invaluable. He has certainly been a guiding light for me.

Imagine a technical writing Mr Miyagi, but more handsome.


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John Espirian

I’m the relentlessly helpful®️ LinkedIn nerd and author of Content DNA

I teach business owners how to be noticed, remembered and preferred.

Espresso+ is a safe space to learn how to ethically promote your business online and get better results on LinkedIn.

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