How to give readers their just desserts

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Have you ever faced the challenge of serving different audiences with your writing? Here’s how I handle that…

When our children were about five years old, we started priming them for a key duty. We wanted them to throw us a party for our 25th wedding anniversary in 2014.

We were deluded.

How can you expect a group of (now) early-20somethings to have the time, money or organizational skill to pull off such an event? Of course you can’t! But we could, and did organize the party ourselves, last Friday. The event was almost three months after our anniversary. This was because we wanted all our children to attend and our daughters were working and our son tied up in rehearsals on June 24, the real date.

But I made one serious error. The soiree was a dessert party and I decided to bake all the desserts — for 60 people — myself. What was I thinking?

I think I was thinking that I really like baking. I do. I think I was thinking I had more spare time. I didn’t. I think I was thinking I’m good at estimating amounts of food needed for a party. In truth, I’m terrible at it, just like my mother was. My only strategy is to keep cooking until I know I have too much food. Sadly, I didn’t reach that feeling until noon on the day of the party.

Not only that. I’d also overshot the mark. We had so much dessert — meringues, drop donuts, chocolate bark, butter tarts, dulce de leche, carrot cake — that I had all my kids invite their hungriest friends over the following night to eat it up. (And we still have leftovers.)

But here was the challenge that just about undid me: We have a great many friends with specific food challenges. Two are allergic to nuts. Four can’t eat butter or milk. Five are vegetarian (meaning I couldn’t have pastry crust with lard). And three can’t eat gluten. Put all those demands together and you might wonder how it’s possible to serve any dessert whatsoever.

I worried about this for a while before realizing, hey, this is just like writing. So here’s what I did:

Step 1: I spent one day making a plan. I made a list of my best desserts and decided which ones I could adapt for our friends. For example, carrot cake has no butter or milk and I could leave out the nuts. I could also make two batches of donuts, one the regular way, the other with gluten-free flour. Soon, I had a list long enough to provide several items every single person could eat.

Similarly, if you’re writing for a group of different audiences (as most of us are, these days), you need to identify them and figure out how to meet their needs. For example, engineers or designers may need a systematic explanation about how something works whereas sales people will be more interested in the marketing details. Be sure you provide a “taste” for everyone.

Step 2: I then scheduled my baking at a rate of two desserts per day for a week. Although my kids swear our house felt like a bakery, I was able to do my fulltime communications job, no problem, and bake in the evening, after dinner.

When writing, be sure to divide your work into similarly small, manageable chunks. Never try to do it in one fell swoop. You’ll burn yourself out and your exhaustion will make you unproductive. The more daunting your goal, the more likely you will be to procrastinate. Instead, break the monster into a series of much smaller mini-monsters.

Step 3: I labeled everything carefully. Because I have horrible handwriting, I employed the same label-maker I use to create the mailing addresses for my book, and then stuck them on blank index cards. In this way, those with allergies would know that I’d attended to their needs.

Smart writers use plenty of subheads (or selective boldface) to identify material that will appeal to specific groups of readers. Sidebars can accomplish the same thing. Again, make sure you provide a taste for everyone and that you properly label what you create.

We had great fun at the party, which frankly, I wasn’t expecting because I’m better at organizing than being social. But I knew we’d succeeded when two guests took me aside. One, Daniel, said he really appreciated my brownies without nuts. “It’s the first event that’s allowed me to eat brownies in 10 years,” he said.

The other, Greg, said, “Thanks so much for labeling all the gluten-free food. That helped me know exactly what NOT to eat!”

Do you have to serve different audiences? How do you manage it? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me, below. If you comment by September 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a no-charge copy of the uplifting read, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

Thanks Casey Hibbard for the column idea!