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Pen portraits – understanding your ideal audience

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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.

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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.

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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:

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.

Top tip

The best writing comes from knowing the audience better than anyone else. What drives your readers? What are their problems? How can you make life better for them?

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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.

A customer avatar and a buyer persona are the same as a pen portrait.

I prefer ‘pen portrait’ because it feels more neutral and less salesy. And I like to draw, so the term sounds more pleasing to me than the other buzzwords.

Terminology check

Pen portrait = customer avatar = buyer persona

Simple 👍🏻

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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.

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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, May 2017

Twitter Analytics: Audience interests for @espirian, May 2017

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

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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.

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Could your business writing be more effective?

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.

Did you find my writing clear?

If you struggle to write clearly for your customers – or if you don't have time to do it yourself – then save yourself a headache and hire me to do the heavy lifting.

Did you know that I'm the UK's number 1 ranked provider of technical writing services on Google? If you need a hand with your writing, I'm your guy.

Yes, I need a writer

John’s knowledge around technical writing is phenomenal. He also shares hints and tips about online marketing too and I’ve already learnt so much. Looking forward to working with John in the future.

Martin Huntbach
Jammy Digital

Thanks for reading,

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