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A face in the crowd: how can better understanding your audience drive sustainability for your project?

In a recent Incubator workshop, project leaders were asked to bring an object that represented their project. Why did we do this? Hazel Beevers, who led the workshops for us, sets out our thinking.

Well, try it yourself. Think about the object that would represent your project; whether it’s a book, a vase or a piece of string. Think about what it means, to you and to those who interact with or benefit from your project. This is the start of your story, and the start of getting to know your audience. 


None of us exist in a vacuum. Hopefully, we each will have developed our project with an audience in mind; e.g. students who will benefit from new software, other HE institutions who can learn from your research, or an underrepresented community who need professional experience.  

However, do you really understand that audience? Do you comprehend their wants, their needs, their desires? Do you know what they had for dinner last night, and what they’ll watch on Netflix tomorrow? 

By understanding our audiences better – by truly seeing them as characters in our collective story – we can start to empathise with them, meet their needs, and grow our projects.  

The following exercises aim to encourage divergent thinking, to help define potential audiences, and ultimately to find ways to engage audiences with our projects, by creating a story that will reach them on an emotional level. 

Exercise 1: Audience definition 

Firstly, have you considered all of the audiences that your project could reach? 

It’s likely that you’ll answer yes to the above. Most of us did too. However, try this exercise with another project lead and you may prove yourself wrong. 

You fill in Column 1 & 2, then after five minutes, once you have all completed this column, ask another project leader to review the audiences you have specified and insert any other audiences they think should be considered and why. 

Are they the same? The reason we are doing this is to encourage information sharing, and divergent thinking. Someone with a very different project / industry may be able to get you thinking about a new audience who may benefit from your project, find an audience that could be approached for funding, etc, and vice versa.

Project 1Perceived audiencesAudiences reviewed
Put the name of your project hereWho do you think your audiences are? 
Peers?Students?Senior university management?Industry bodies?Media?The wider public?Funding bodies?
Ask other project leaders in your group to complete this column.

Exercise 2: Pen portrait 

A pen portrait is an informal description of a person or group of people – this may cover age and other ‘hard’ variables, but will focus on softer dimensions such as attitudes, appearance and lifestyle. This may be part of the outcome of a piece of qualitative research such as a focus group.  

In the name of transparency, we should clarify that this exercise was enhanced by our first workshop, where a project lead gave his pen portrait a name: Bill. Until that point, our pen portraits were anonymous. 

So here’s a tip: Try giving yours a name, it has a transformative effect on relating to your audience member.

Another tip: Bill is not always Bill. One day he might be Mustafa, one day she might be Tamara, one day he might be Callum. We are not trying to stereotype your audience, and we are not trying to create a composite image of everyone in your audience. We are trying to understand your audience better, so if it helps, just pick one category of audience (from exercise 1, if you like) and imagine them. Give them a back story. We want to understand their needs and wants. 

This is a storytelling exercise that helps you understand what you can do for this typical audience member, how you can reach them, and what they can do for you. 

If you find this difficult, or have no idea who your audience is, then there are tools you can use: 

Why are we doing this? Because if we better understand our audience, we can create more resonant stories and messaging around our project that we know will appeal to their interests and values. It’s a communication tool, often used in marketing. Once we have a defined and engaged audience who care about the existence and outcome of your project’s story, it starts to become more sustainable. 

Exercise 3: Storytelling 

“Successful brands tell a story that resonates with their customer base to the extent that customers integrate these brands into their own life stories.” [Brand Storytelling in the Digital Age, S.A.Moin]

Now, let’s take the concept of brand storytelling and apply it to your projects. Humans have evolved the cognitive ability to create and believe in stories. If you start to give your project a story, an identity, a background, then it takes on a new meaning. It helps those audiences you defined earlier to connect with your project.

By narrative, we mean storytelling elements. A story includes characters, setting, conflict, rising action, climax, and dénouement i.e. resolution of the plot. 

Individually, please try to answer the below questions, to find your ‘brand’ story, i.e. why your project exists. 

If you can, go beyond just your product and services – create a story that people want to be a part of. Create characters (your collaborators, your audience), consider the origin or inception of the idea, consider the ending. 

Think about the emotions at play at different stages – were there any parts that were hard to get off the ground? Frustrating moments? Tearful moments?


Hopefully these exercises have encouraged you to give your project a distinct identity and got you thinking about the potential audiences that can benefit from it and in turn, help it grow. 

What’s the next chapter in your project story? Are you in the same place as when you started? What does the future hold? Who are your readers?

Try practicing this story, e.g. drawing in storyboards (we can provide templates if needed), refining and retelling it to others in your project, so that when it comes to stakeholders and other audiences, you have the perfect pitch. 

If you’re especially proud of your story, then let us know, we’ll feature it here. 

It’s worth building regular reviews and appraisals like these into your project timeline. Creating a steering group is a great way to do this with peers from different departments and industries, to encourage divergent thinking. 

Hazel is Director of Creative and Community at The Lit Platform, a publisher, online literary journal and platform for young creatives.

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