Good business writing involves the careful use of words to achieve a goal, like selling a product, teaching a process, or communicating a strategy. Business writers need a strong grasp of the genres they produce, from memos to white papers to communications plans. But success in business writing also depends on more subtle skill sets. You can’t just know the genres and what typically “goes into” a particular document. You also need to “read your audience’s mind.”
The business writers who make the greatest impact have an uncanny ability to read the minds of their audiences.
A key strategy for honing this ability is modality analysis–the skill of “reading” your audience’s discursive lingo. By learning about and using this skill, you can flex your modality analysis “muscle” to read the minds of your audiences and collaborators.
What is Modality Analysis?
Modality Analysis is a method of analyzing communications or texts. It compares how people in distinct contexts use different “modalities” to express their opinions or beliefs (in linguistics, modality refers to the underlying language structures that reveal a writer’s beliefs, attitudes, or obligations).
Listening for subtle cues in your audience’s communications or language patterns can tell you a lot about their stances, opinions, language practices, and learning styles. You can then use your knowledge of your audience’s preferred modes to “speak in their language” and write in ways that help them learn or understand best.
Two Approaches to Modality Analysis
Linguists practice modality analysis by looking for modal auxiliary verbs like may, shall, must, and need to discover the strength of a person’s belief or stance on a topic.
By listening for modal auxiliary verb usage, you can sense a person’s stance or examine their feelings about what they are saying.
Another approach to modality analysis is to listen for sensory terms (i.e. the five senses) in order to discover a writer’s implicit learning style.
Paying attention to your audience’s preferred sensory modality can help you decide what kinds of examples to use and (on a bigger scale) which medium to use for your message. Read Karina Stokes’ 2012 article published in Technical Communication to learn how modality analysis can especially support your grant writing efforts.
Here is a helpful overview of different sensory modalities you can pay attention to in conversations or texts: