68.1 February

Using Schema for Analyzing Audiences: Complexity and Simplicity Balance

By Eric Sentell


Purpose: This paper builds on a primary study (Sentell, 2016) that demonstrated how information can be presented more memorably through engaging an audience’s collective (self)schema. It analyzes real-world examples of these strategies and theorizes implications for audience analysis.

Method: An Uncle Sam poster promoting handwashing in a VA hospital and JFK’s “man on the moon” speech are analyzed as notable examples of memorable communication. Each example illustrates (self)schema’s influence on attention and recall as well as the strategies of engaging (self)schema: tapping the familiar, bridging to the unfamiliar, conveying practical value, and arousing emotions. I discuss how (self)schema can be used as a framework for analyzing audiences and developing personas.

Results: Using (self)schema as a framework for audience analysis is an intuitive, holistic alternative to more time- and resource-intensive methods. It can balance the competing needs for complex, multidimensional representations of audience and limited, simple distillations of those representations that can be useful during composing. Analyzing an audience’s (self)schema can clearly organize a variety of dimensions and generate insights into likely emotional predispositions. Understanding the audience’s (self)schema facilitates using familiarity, unfamiliarity, practical value, and emotions to enhance information’s memorableness.

Conclusion: Technical communicators can use the concept of (self)schema to analyze audiences, craft personas, and engage the audience’s (self)schema to make information more memorable, persuasive, and effective.

KEYWORDS: audience, audience analysis, schema, self-schema, memory

Practitioner’s Takeaway:

  • The concept of (self)schema can help technical communicators balance the needs for complex, multidimensional representations of audiences and simple representations that are more useful while composing.
  • Using (self)schema as a framework for audience analysis can be an effective alternative when budgetary, time, or training constraints make more detailed methods impractical.
  • The (self)schema framework can be applied systematically by means of a few generative questions and one’s direct experience with an audience, which may take the form of reading or listening to its discourse or reflecting on its common experience.


In technical communication scholarship, discussions of memory usually explore managing one’s composing, research, or reading processes (van Ittersum, 2007, 2009; Whittemore, 2008, 2015). However, memorability can also be viewed as a trait of documents. Numerous eye-tracking studies have observed a relationship between attention’s length and recall’s accuracy (Lee & Ahn, 2012) because a person must pay attention to information to “encode” it into long-term memory for later retrieval (Nairne, 2011). It follows that we can impact a reader’s memory by presenting information in ways that facilitate effective encoding (or not). In a previous study (Sentell, 2016), I demonstrated that contrast, color, and imagery influence an audience’s attention and memory; these design elements attract and allocate attention, thus increasing the likelihood of encoding information into long-term memory. Unexpectedly, my study also revealed the mnemonic effects of engaging an audience’s collective schema and self-schema; subjects were more likely to recall documents that engaged their (self)schema, and their self-reported reasons for recalling information often involved their (self)schema.

Schemas are “cognitive frameworks that guide memory, aide in the interpretation of events, and influence how we later retrieve stored memories” (Flannery & Walles, 2003, p. 151). According to Green (2010), a schema is an implicit, nonconscious cognitive “organizational structure that helps us keep track of the information bombarding our limited attentional capabilities” at any given moment (pp. 136–137). Although schema are nonconscious, they can be overridden or manipulated with conscious effort (similar to how we can regulate our breathing once we attend to it). Green continues, “Though we might not be aware of it, a schema can help save our limited attention by directing our attention to where it is needed. . . . We pay attention to things our schema predicts. . . . [therefore] it is much easier to recall things that fit within your schema” (p. 137). For example, Green’s schema for student behavior that indicates comprehension includes note-taking, eye contact, answering questions, participating, and positive body language. Nonconsciously, she will ignore other behaviors indicating understanding since she notices what her schema predicts. She will also miss behaviors that suggest confusion, unless she consciously focuses on schema for such behavior. Schema help us “predict what will come next, guide our attention, and even help us to interpret events” (p. 143).

Self-schema, or cognitive frameworks about oneself, affect one’s judgment of salience (Markus, 1977). People are more likely to notice, attend to, and encode information that fits their cognitive frameworks about themselves, that their self-schema implicitly “predict” to be important, useful, or relevant. For example, I created flyers advertising a new class I am teaching, and suddenly I began noticing the department bulletin boards, the crowded and haphazard placement of flyers, and the effects on my flyer. Certain groups have similar self-schema as a result of belonging to the same discourse community (Porter, 1986) — that is, having similar cultural, social, linguistic, and cognitive experiences. Simply sharing schema can bond people together, as people with similar schema are attracted to each other (Green, 2010, p. 141). In summary, both schema and self-schema affect our predictions about incoming information and thus what we notice, how (well) we encode it, and how (well) we retrieve it.

After briefly reviewing research on memory and audience (see Sentell, 2016, for a more thorough review), I will then analyze examples of technical communication that make information more memorable by engaging the audience’s collective (self)schema (cognitive frameworks about oneself or one’s group). I will also explore the implications for audience analysis practices. I will argue that the framework of (self)schema can contribute to existing methods of audience analysis and creating user personas, offer a strong alternative to more time- and resource-intensive methods, generate complex yet usable representations of audience, and facilitate making information more memorable. I acknowledge that the (self)schema framework has a sweeping scope, which can be a weakness if it is applied without a clear sense of purpose. Yet, the framework’s scope also makes it easy to apply and adapt to manifold rhetorical situations, compensating for its weaknesses.

Throughout this paper, I will use “schema” to refer to general conceptual frameworks, “self-schema” for conceptual frameworks about oneself, and the hybridized “(self)schema” for contexts in which either general schema or personal self-schema might be the object of a given rhetorical strategy.


Technical communication scholarship on memory tends to focus on how writers manage their research and writing processes to “off-load” or “embody” both cognition and memory. Whittemore (2015) uses case studies of technical communicators to describe and advocate a process of cultivating social, embodied memory practices for managing information, which can free up cognitive resources. Whittemore (2008) also critiques the interfaces of content-management systems (CMSs) for overloading technical communicators’ memories. Van Ittersum (2007, 2009) explains how graduate students use digital writing tools such as Endnote or OneNote to create organized, searchable “memory systems” that facilitate their note-taking, research, and writing. Both Whittemore and van Ittersum ground their research in classical memoria, the architectural mnemonic in which orators mentally visualized information as distinctive symbols in familiar settings (Carruthers, 2008; Yates, 1966).

My previous study, “Making memories: Writing and designing more memorable documents” (2016), investigated the characteristics that make documents memorable. My subjects reported that contrast, color, and imagery were the most attention-catching design elements in the documents they observed. Information conveyed through these strategies was more likely to be noticed, encoded, and remembered. My study also revealed the importance of engaging readers’ collective self-schema so that they view information as personally relevant and therefore worth encoding into long-term memory for later use. Strategies for engaging collective self-schema include (but are not necessarily limited to) using contrast, tapping the familiar, using unexpected elements, conveying practical value, building social currency, and arousing emotion.


Most scientific fields view memory as reconstructive and mutable, in contrast to previous conceptions of memory as data storage (Braun-LaTour et al., 2004; Francoz, 1999). Rather than recording and storing data, memory is a dynamic, socially situated process of reconstructing previous events and stimuli. Our reconstructions can morph over time and can be influenced by new information without our conscious awareness. Therefore, memory is a rhetorical site in and through which people can be informed or persuaded.

Many seminal and contemporary studies have demonstrated memory’s reconstructive nature. Subjects consistently reinterpreted stories, pictures, or other stimuli, embellishing, deleting, or even fabricating details while insisting they were perfectly recalling the stimulus (Bartlett, 1932). Decades of “misinformation studies” show that our recollections of events sometimes merge with information learned afterward, leading to a reconstructed memory so unified we cannot distinguish which information came from which source (Loftus, 1997, 2005; Loftus & Palmer, 1974). Studies have induced false memories such as meeting the Warner Bros. character Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, getting lost at the mall as a young child, or simply over-estimating the speed of cars in a traffic accident, to name only a few examples.

When we reconstruct memories, we usually recall the relevant schema, or organized conceptual frameworks, that help structure our perceptions and recollections. Schema function like adaptable heuristics for organizing new information in relation to prior knowledge. If we alter our schema to incorporate new information, we encode that information into long-term memory. For example, most Americans do not need to significantly alter existing schema for Disneyland to incorporate Bugs Bunny, but they might have more difficulty incorporating dissimilar or unfamiliar misinformation.

Psychologists widely recognize that a person’s various identities (e.g., husband, father, teacher) combine to form a “social self-schemata,” or a unique memory structure, that influences behavior and cognition (Forehand et al., 2002, p. 1086). In other words, self-schema are conceptual frameworks about oneself. In a seminal article, Markus (1977) found that self-schema “function as selective mechanisms which determine whether information is attended to, how it is structured, how much importance is attached to it, and what happens to it” (p. 64). While schema organize known and incoming information, self-schema act like filters for one’s attention by screening irrelevant stimuli and highlighting relevant information (Green, 2010). This process is nonconscious; we may be aware that certain stimuli interest us more than others, but we do not consciously decide whether stimuli match our self-schema.

People form their self-schema in terms of their group’s collective memories, commonplaces, and discourse (Porter, 1986, pp. 38–39). In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke (1969) explains, “insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. . . . In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself . . . at once a distinct substance [or individual] and consubstantial with another” (pp. 20–21, emphasis in original). This process of identification establishes a common interest among otherwise divided people, leading to a feeling of unity that Burke calls consubstantiality. A group’s consubstantiality most often comes from a shared cultural or historical background, or what might be described as a discourse community or a “collective” memory (Burke, 1969, Grammar, p. 55). Communication such as advertising can also create consubstantiality, or a collective identity, especially centered around a brand. Iconic brands like Apple, Nike, and Harley-Davidson create powerful myths that draw upon socio-cultural meanings, enact common interests and values, and embody distinct personas for both themselves and their customers (Kilambi et al., 2013). For another example, Eves (2005) describes how three cookbooks published by the National Council of Negro Women in the 1990s created a collective memory and communal identity. Paraphrasing Maurice Halbwachs, Eves explains that “collective memory is constructed around narrative frameworks . . . [that] invest meaning into the collective memories that define the community” (p. 282). More basically, any example of jargon, slang, vernacular, or socio-cultural norms shows that communication depends on some shared knowledge or understanding between writer and audience (Scott, 1999, p. 247; Phillips, 2010, p. 217).


Clearly, (self)schema simultaneously depend on and reinforce shared narratives, knowledge, or commonplaces. According to Ross (2008), commonplaces trigger narratives and associations, which then generate and shape communication (p. 96). He defines a commonplace as a method for “bring[ing] an audience to a shared understanding” (p. 92). Throughout most of Ross’s article, however, he conflates commonplaces with schema. What he calls commonplaces have the predictive power and emotional impact of what I call schema. The controversy over Anthem-kneeling best exemplifies how (self)schema can contain both the shared knowledge of a commonplace and powerful emotional resonance that affects perceptions, judgments, attitudes, and memories. Technical communicators may not typically deal with such sensitive issues, yet it is not uncommon for them to engage with potentially emotional topics such as climate change, vaccinations, or cancer research. For any topic, they communicate more effectively when they consider the audience’s likely emotional (pre)disposition toward information.

The shared factual knowledge that Americans stand for the National Anthem is a commonplace. Assumptions about the meaning of standing or kneeling during the Anthem are schema. The schema that standing is patriotic and respectful generates predictions and perceptions that kneeling is unpatriotic, disrespectful, and unacceptable. Upon learning that kneeling is a form of protest against police brutality, one’s self-schema as a patriotic conservative or a progressive social justice warrior will influence how one continues to interpret the jarring sight of Anthem-kneeling. Future exposure to images or references to Anthem-kneeling, Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, or similar information will trigger emotionally laden memories grounded in (self)schema, which, as noted, encompass both general cognitive frameworks (schema) and personal cognitive frameworks (self-schema). Distinguishing between commonplaces and schema based on predictive power and emotional resonance helps foreground the unique challenges of certain topics, information, or arguments.

It is also important to distinguish the framework of (self)schema from “framing.” Framing issues, such as using “climate change” instead of “global warming,” can place ideas in a certain context and influence how people view them, but I suggest that the (self)schema framework can also reveal the emotions that may affect how people notice, interpret, and encode information. Justifying Anthem-kneeling by clarifying its purpose as protesting police brutality, not the military, reframes the issue, but such framing did not persuade most opponents of Anthem-kneeling because it did not modify existing (self)schema for patriotism and respecting the military. The emotions attached to these (self)schema continued to color views of Anthem-kneeling. Comparing kneeling athletes to Vietnam veterans protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s may have persuaded some critics of kneeling by shifting the (self)schema affecting interpretations and memories, partly through activating a different emotional response. Today, those who protested American involvement in Vietnam are generally viewed as courageous people of conscience. The comparison with Anthem-kneeling not only reframes the issue; it also activates more positive emotions and thereby influences the schema for Anthem-kneeling. In the future, the modified schema will be recalled and will influence interpretations.


Ross (2013) provides a recent and excellent review of audience analysis literature in his article, “Deep Audience Analysis.” He discusses several influential approaches to audience analysis: cognitive-based, intuition-driven, value-driven, classification-driven, feedback-driven, and multidimensional analyses. Cognitive-based approaches focus on individual readers and the rhetorical situation, considering a potential reader’s concerns, knowledge, experiences, and attitudes. Intuition-driven approaches rely on conversations with audience-members and the construction of mental models of the audience based on those conversations, or what Ede and Lunsford (1984) call “audience-addressed” and “audience-invoked.” Similarly, value-driven analysis identifies important social or community values by reviewing the written artifacts of a given community as well as interviewing audience-members. Classification-driven analysis consists of brainstorming about both demographics and psychographics (values, lifestyles, attitudes, personalities), and feedback-driven analysis applies usability testing by giving texts to readers and observing their reactions or obtaining their direct feedback (pp. 97–98).

Multidimensional approaches are the most comprehensive. As Ross (2013) says, “dimensionality allows for more complex views of audience than many prior methods” (p. 98). Dimensions may include the audience’s knowledge level, need or desire for details, cognitive abilities, social factors, and cultural factors. Readers/users also may be considered in terms of their roles, goals, or context of use, especially when analysis aims to create user personas, or archetypes of users (Coney & Steehouser, 2000, p. 29). Karen Schriver recommends limiting the dimensions to only expertise, motivation, and anxiety; limiting the dimensions makes applying one’s audience analysis easier due to reducing cognitive load (Ross, 2013, p. 98). Ross notes that multidimensional methods are “wonderfully complex,” yet their complexity is also their great disadvantage: “An author working with a strict timeline, under a strict budget, or without the means to collect or interpret that level of data [e.g., access to representative readers] cannot fully use these techniques” (p. 98). Additionally, such detailed, complex audience analysis work may be prohibitively difficult or time-consuming for technical communication classes, yet there is evidence that most employers view recent graduates’ writing as subpar due to poor audience awareness (Droz & Jacobs, 2019).

To address the problem of complexity, Ross (2013) proposes a “deep audience analysis” (DAA) model that “generates a profile based on representative audience members’ underlying rhetorical predispositions (their attitudes toward extremism, celebrity, etc.) and which rhetorical elements they might respond to in order to create a writing heuristic” (p. 103). To implement the DAA model, one needs “an information sheet, interview protocol, coding worksheet, classification worksheet, and a glossary accompanied by descriptive appendices” (p. 99). In Ross’s testing of these materials, he found that users needed additional training on how to code the interviews and apply the results. While the DAA model is undeniably useful, its materials and methods involve a similar amount of complexity, time, money, and effort as other multidimensional approaches. Moreover, the DAA model was designed specifically for environmental communication and must be adapted for other rhetorical situations. It also assumes direct access to one’s readers for detailed interviews (Ross, 2013).

In contrast, using the concept of “collective (self)schema” as a heuristic for analyzing audiences can balance the need for complex, multifaceted representations and the competing need for simple, limited conceptions that minimize cognitive load. By analyzing audiences in terms of (self)schema, technical communicators can simultaneously keep in mind a wide variety of dimensions and “rhetorical dispositions” (Ross, 2013, p. 103). The (self)schema framework not only emphasizes the demographics, knowledge, needs, goals, and contexts of the intended audience; it also generates insights into the predictions that may direct the audience’s attention and its likely emotional responses to information. It is a highly flexible framework that can apply to virtually any audience. It can complement existing methods of audience analysis, or it can be used independently when constraints make more involved methods impractical.


In this section, I will analyze two notable examples of engaging an audience’s collective (self)schema. This analysis will demonstrate how the audience’s psychological and emotional dispositions can be elucidated and tapped into through the (self)schema framework as well as how the strategies of engaging (self)schema (see Sentell, 2016) can be applied to assessing memorableness and creating more memorable, effective communication. I define memorableness as the characteristics that make information easy to encode into and retrieve from long-term memory. Communication can be effective without necessarily being memorable, but if information can be easily recalled or “triggered” when needed, then the communication is certainly more effective than something requiring repeated referencing.

The Uncle Sam Poster

The following poster illustrates the strategy of engaging an audience’s collective (self)schema. Though broad in scope, the (self)schema framework does not merely describe any set of characteristics in a given text. It helps technical communicators identify specific content and strategies that will enhance a document’s memorableness for a particular audience, in a particular context, compared to alternative content and strategies.

The Uncle Sam poster, hand sanitizer, and tissues were placed between elevators at the John J. Pershing Veterans Affairs Hospital in Poplar Bluff, Missouri (Figure 1). The “Uncle Sam” image is well-known in American culture, but it is especially familiar and relevant to military veterans and their family members. As Green (2010) says, “We pay attention to things our schema predicts” (p. 177). On a nonconscious level, people “predict” that images like Uncle Sam might appear in a VA hospital; such images fit our expectations for the context. Other images might be equally or more attention-catching in terms of design, yet they may not be noticed, much less remembered, if the predictive function of our schema does not direct attention to them. In my original study (2016), for instance, the most frequently recalled documents in the high school hallway were posters that advertised local school clubs or that promoted sober driving. Such information was “predicted” by the subjects’ schema for high schools. Less congruent documents were recalled much less often despite being more aesthetically appealing. The (self)schema framework helps identify what information will likely be “predicted” by a certain audience in a given context and how to make that information seem relevant and worth remembering.

The Uncle Sam poster also combines familiarity, novelty, “triggers,” and practical value. Familiarity facilitates recall because the information is already present in one’s schema and thus is easier to re-encode and/or retrieve. But the message here is not “I want YOU!” but rather, “Ask Our Staff … Did YOU Wash Your Hands?” The poster attaches a new message to a familiar image, using the intended audience’s collective (self)schema to create a bridge between the familiar and unfamiliar. This makes the information more memorable compared to relying solely on imagery, design, or the simple statement, “Ask our staff if they have washed their hands.” Additionally, the poster attempts to “trigger” the audience’s memory of its message when a staff member enters a patient’s room. The poster’s message is most salient when one sees a nurse or doctor interacting with a patient, and the message is designed to be “triggered” by and at this moment. The (self)schema framework does not only identify strategies for facilitating encoding in a target audience; it also identifies strategies for prompting recall in that particular audience and its context. The poster also prompts concern about loved ones’ care as well as subtly highlighting the importance of using the hand sanitizer conveniently located below the poster; it creates practical value for the audience. Locating the poster directly above the hand sanitizer increases the probability of achieving a secondary (or perhaps covert primary) purpose: prompting people to disinfect their hands before or after using the elevator.

Perhaps most impressively, the Uncle Sam poster places the audience in an emotional state of responsibility, if not obligation. When one thinks of asking the staff if they have washed their hands, it prompts consideration of one’s own cleanliness, or lack thereof, and the potential impact on the veterans in the hospital, a group to whom most already feel they owe a debt. Americans possess collective schema for veterans as deserving reverence and self-schema as people who deliver it; they will act accordingly when these (self)schema and their emotional resonance are activated. The poster’s content, location, and pairing with a wall-mounted hand sanitizer dispenser combine to activate the emotion-laden (self)schema that boost the likelihood of sanitizing one’s hands. Awareness of the audience’s collective (self)schema enables more effective emotional appeals, which in turn enhances both memorableness and influence.

The (self)schema framework leads to a broad perspective on a given audience, as shown by the above description of Americans as a veteran-loving monolith. Yet, such generalizations are not only possible but also appropriate when one has a clear sense of purpose and context. Even radical critics of the American military will have schema that “predict” images like Uncle Sam in a VA hospital. Nonconsciously (Green, 2010), they will bridge between the familiar image and the novel message attached to it, adding to their schema for Uncle Sam. Seeing a staff member enter the patient’s room will “trigger” recall before the critic realizes it. And it would be a radical critic indeed who has such a powerful negative emotional reaction to the poster as to disregard the care of the veterans whom that critic has come to visit as well as the cleanliness of his or her own hands after pressing the elevator button. The (self)schema framework offers an intuitive, holistic approach to analyzing audiences and tailoring communication to facilitate their noticing, encoding, recall, and action.

JFK’s Man on the Moon Mission Statement

John F. Kennedy’s famous “man on the moon” speech illustrates how words alone can engage a particular audience’s collective (self)schema; his memorable call for a moon landing can be directly connected to the (self)schema framework in ways that the speech’s more prosaic and forgettable appeals cannot. After a brief introduction, Kennedy told a joint session of Congress, “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” (“Excerpt,” 2017). This speech may seem like an odd illustration for technical communication at first glance, but it is an excellent example of a mission, purpose, or objective statement. The stated goal functioned like “instructional information” in the sense that it guided NASA administrators, engineers, and other personnel as well as Congressional appropriations for the better part of a decade. Heath and Heath (2007) provide an insightful analysis of its effectiveness and relevance to professional communication:

Had John F. Kennedy been a CEO, he would have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.” Fortunately, JFK . . . knew that opaque, abstract missions don’t captivate and inspire people. The moon mission . . . was a brilliant and beautiful idea — a single idea that motivated the actions of millions of people for a decade. (2011, p. 21)

Kennedy’s objective statement engaged the audience’s collective (self)schema as proud, industrious Americans who can accomplish anything. With this (self)schema, Americans “predicted” a response like Kennedy’s moon-shot challenge. Such a challenge also held special emotional appeal in a post-Sputnik world in which Americans felt threatened by Soviet advances. Americans assumed they must do something to match or counter the Soviets. Something like landing on the moon, then, was “predicted” by the collective (self)schema involved in defending against communism at the Cold War’s height. Given the perceived stakes, Americans deeply invested themselves in the resulting Space Race. Furthermore, Kennedy presented a science fiction idea (in 1961) with familiar imagery, bridging to the unfamiliar and captivating imagination, almost demanding that it be encoded, “triggered,” and discussed. Simply looking up at the moon could “trigger” recall of Kennedy’s speech, NASA’s efforts, and the geo-political context of the Space Race.

I do not mean to suggest that Kennedy intentionally crafted his speech to make use of (self)schema. If he had, then the section about funding weather satellites would have been much different. Yet his intuitive oratory led to a central statement directly connected to the (self)schema framework. He understood that his audience would respond well to a challenge to “beat the Soviets” and reassert (the self-perception) of American preeminence, since their collective (self)schema already “predicted” such a response to Sputnik. He recognized that concrete, familiar imagery would convey the idea more memorably and create opportunities for “triggering” or activating recall. The (self)schema framework is quite broad in scope, but it is not a “catch-all” for any given communication or argument. It aims to help technical communicators analyze differences between appeals such as “landing a man on the moon” and funding weather satellites and craft communication that has more of the former’s memorable impact.


First, the concept of (self)schema can contribute to existing processes for analyzing audiences and developing personas. Second, (self)schema can be an independent framework for audience analysis. Using (self)schema as a framework for audience analysis can balance the competing needs for complexity and simplicity. Technical communicators need complex, multidimensional representations of audiences, but they also must limit these representations and/or distill them into something simple enough to be applicable during the composing process.

Many companies, especially software firms, strive to balance simplicity and complexity by constructing detailed user personas, or “models that represent the typical — or archetypical — individual for whom communication designers create materials” (Getto & St.Amant, 2014, p. 30). Getto and St.Amant (2014) recommend a mixed methods approach of surveys, ethnographies, and interviews and/or focus groups to obtain the data needed for developing a user persona. Surveys collect demographic and attitudinal data, ethnographies gather behavioral data (e.g., how information or technology is used), and interviews or focus groups reveal why users behave or feel as they do. Each type of data could be interpreted in terms of (self)schema so that technical communicators gain more psychological insight into the audience or user. The (self)schema framework emphasizes the (self)concepts and values that help comprise a persona.

Half the subjects in my original study on memorableness (2016), for example, were in their late 30s to early 50s, were mostly female, and had many years of teaching experience. When interviewed, they often attributed a document’s memorableness to its potential usefulness when interacting with students or their own children. They also said they seldom noticed posters or flyers day-to-day because they were usually “on a mission” while walking the hall rather than letting their attention wander naturally. The emergent persona might be described as a female, middle-aged, dedicated, busy, task-oriented teacher.

Adding the concept of (self)schema to the analysis draws attention to this audience’s self-schema as helpful, dedicated teachers. Their self-schema “predicts” information that might enable them to help their students, so they are more likely to notice and encode such information even while “on a mission.” Emphasizing the information’s potential helpfulness can prompt the intended audience to view the information, once noticed, as personally relevant and worth remembering. Embedding “triggers” in the document — possibly through the collective familiar, unfamiliar or surprising details, or emotional appeals — can make it more likely that the audience will recall the information at key moments, such as when a student asks about it.

The (self)schema framework can make valuable contributions to usability testing, market research, and other empirical methods that provide superior detail and depth in audience analysis. However, these more involved methods may be prohibitively time-consuming, expensive, or difficult. Creating detailed personas is an especially time- and resource-intensive process (Getto & St.Amant, 2014, p. 32). Many technical communicators may lack the training, time, money, resources, or access to audiences to conduct surveys, interviews, or focus groups, collect user feedback, or obtain market data. Moreover, the resulting audience data and/or persona may be too complex and cumbersome to be useful while composing. To avoid this difficulty, Schriver suggests limiting audience analysis to three or fewer traits (Ross, 2013, p. 98). Obviously, limiting the analysis reduces the utility of in-depth audience analysis methods, and arguably, defeats their purpose of generating rich audience representations.

I argue that the more intuitive, holistic (self)schema framework can be a strong alternative when needed, since it limits the scope of analysis but also enables complex representations. Since schema organize myriad details into a cohesive concept, they are ideal cognitive mechanisms or strategies for encapsulating a wide variety of variables and characteristics into a quickly grasped, easily-remembered whole that can guide analysis, design, and communication. Moreover, the (self)schema framework does not strictly require direct access to readers for interviews, feedback, or updating previous audience profiles or personas. Technical communicators can rely on their cultural, social, or institutional knowledge to construct an understanding of a given audience and its (self)schema, enabling them to forgo more time-consuming, expensive methods of audience analysis when they encounter training, time, or budget constraints. All heuristics have advantages and disadvantages, and the disadvantage of the (self)schema’s broad scope is more than compensated for by the advantages of its facility and feasibility.


I propose the following general questions as a systematic method of using the (self)schema framework for audience analysis:

  • Who is the intended audience? Identify a concrete group or person.
  • What is the audience’s “collective familiar?”
  • What is the audience’s “collective unfamiliar?”
  • What practical value for the audience exists in this information or product?
  • What emotions will be triggered by this information or product?

Once the target audience is determined, answering the other questions can clarify its (self)schema. The answers can be derived from previous experiences with the target audience, consuming the audience’s discourse, or reflecting on its collective experience and education. The following discussion expands on how the answers to these questions can be generated and applied to making more memorable, effective communication.

Once technical communicators identify a specific audience, they can anticipate the knowledge and experiences already present in its collective schema; familiar information is much easier to encode and can facilitate encoding unfamiliar information. An audience’s “collective familiar” — or collective memory — often consists of widely-shared historical, social, or cultural experiences and teachings (Burke, 1969a, 1969b; Scott, 1999; Eves, 2005). To answer the question, “What is the audience’s collective familiar?” a technical communicator could reflect on the audience’s shared experiences and education. For example, the audience for the Uncle Sam poster consists of American veterans’ families and friends. The Uncle Sam image taps into Americans’ collective familiarity with the iconic WWII recruiting poster, which often appears in history textbooks and pop culture. Kennedy’s audience also consisted of Americans, and the “man on the moon” mission statement used the American public’s familiarity with Sputnik and other Soviet space achievements to imply the rationale and purpose of a moon landing. Both examples use schemas’ “predictive” function to help draw attention and embed “triggers” within their respective contexts that serve their rhetorical purposes. They also possess the shared knowledge and emotional resonance of schema; one connects patriotism, cleanliness, and care for veterans, and the other evokes awe and issues a challenge.

For internal audiences, an organization’s mission statement, marketing slogan, or logo might facilitate the encoding of a document’s information as well as elicit associated emotions about the organization. Collectively known titles, programs, acronyms, or jargon could also enhance memorableness. For external audiences, technical communicators may have to navigate wide-ranging backgrounds, experiences, or levels of knowledge or interest, yet there is usually some shared context that one can use to engage the majority of potential readers without confusing or leaving out the rest; everyone belongs to some discourse community, whether it is as broad as “environmentalists” or as narrow as “respiratory technicians.” Americans of all stripes will recognize the Uncle Sam image, but if some do not, they can still connect to the image and its text. Even those unfamiliar with the image will likely “predict” the presence of patriotic-themed images in a VA hospital, making the information more attention-catching, memorable, and “triggering” than other documents.

If one has a strong sense of the intended audience’s collective familiar, then one also has awareness of what the audience will find unfamiliar. According to Heath and Heath (2007), unexpected elements can “break” schema by alerting people to errors or inconsistencies. If people realize their schema are flawed, they usually want to amend them so that they better facilitate cognition and memory. Thus, the unfamiliar can be a mnemonic aid if it is presented as a knowledge gap. For example, the Uncle Sam poster creates an initial knowledge gap through dissonance; although such images are “predicted” by the audience’s schema for the context, it is not clear why the image appears above hand sanitizer between the elevators until one reads the unfamiliar message. The familiar image bridges to the unfamiliar message, which then prompts conscious revision of the schema and encoding into long-term memory. Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the moon created a knowledge gap to the extent that people wondered if it was possible. Unifying two familiar images, “man” and “moon,” in an unexpected way prompted people to revise their existing schema for each.

By nature, people strive to encode ideas with practical value (Berger, 2013). In many cases, practical value may be obvious to a specific audience due to its context, needs, or (self)schema. A user who encounters a problem with a software application will find inherent value in an FAQ, Help, or tutorial document. Yet, practical value may vary according to the audience’s needs and goals, necessitating understanding the audience’s collective (self)schema. That is, what practical value exists in this information for this audience? The Uncle Sam poster creates practical value by highlighting the importance of cleanliness in caring for patients and sanitizing one’s own hands at the elevator. JFK’s speech tapped into the desire to match or exceed Soviet advances, providing practical value in the otherwise impractical mission of shooting a passenger rocket to the moon. In my previous study (Sentell, 2016), the teachers reported recalling certain posters and flyers because they thought students might ask about their information, such as the dates of upcoming ACT exams or club meetings. By analyzing the audience of teachers in terms of collective (self)schema, a technical communicator could further enhance the information’s memorableness (and effectiveness) by emphasizing its practical value for answering students’ questions. Analyzing students’ collective (self)schema might lead to added information about the importance of the ACT to attending college or the benefits of membership in a given club, rather than merely stating the dates of the upcoming ACT exams or club meetings.

Schema can help identify the audience’s existing emotions for a given topic and thus what affective responses technical communicators might use, create, or avoid. Emotions influence how people encode, recall, and share information. Arousing emotions like excitement, awe, anxiety, or anger make people want to take action, including sharing whatever produced these stimulating emotions, whereas people are less likely to share information that causes less-stimulating emotions like contentment or sadness (Berger, 2013). To share something, one must first attend to and encode it. Arousing emotions, therefore, can make information more engaging and memorable. While I do not advocate inappropriate emotional appeals, I argue that technical communicators can tap into existing emotions and/or evoke emotions that make information more personally relevant and more likely to be encoded.

As Dragga and Voss (2003) make clear, the appropriate use of emotion can enhance information’s impact and help the document achieve its intended purpose. In “Hiding Humanity,” they argue that accident reports could be more effective if they humanized victims: “the deliberate omission of the human element in the interest of scientific objectivity actually defeats its purpose by communicating an incomplete picture” (pp. 78–79). Humanizing victims, however, makes the report’s recommendations more likely to be taken seriously. To better prevent germ transmission, the Uncle Sam poster activates the audience’s emotion-laden schema for veterans in general and their loved ones in particular. To motivate Congressional appropriations and public support for the Space Race, JFK simultaneously tapped into anxiety about the USSR and the sheer awe of a moon-landing. Asking, “What emotions will be triggered by this information or product?” can facilitate creating such powerful appeals.

Awareness of the audience’s collective (self)schema facilitates careful attempts to marshal the reader’s existing emotions in support of one’s rhetorical purpose(s) and to create new emotional registers when needed. As Ross (2008) found, people have a range of intellectual and emotional responses to ideas such as “Al Gore” or “the environment.” People with (self)schema as political conservatives will likely react negatively to a document that promotes reducing consumption of single-use plastics, regardless of the information’s merit, due to their association of environmentalism with progressive politics and politicians. Conversely, advocating nuclear energy may be a harder sell for environmentalists than solar and wind power no matter how compelling the arguments.

Activating new (self)schema for emotionally charged topics stands a greater chance of success. Conservatives may be persuaded to buy reusable plastic bottles if the document activates (self)schema for fiscal responsibility by portraying the bottles as a money-saving measure, and environmentalists might be more supportive of nuclear energy if their (self)schema for reducing carbon emissions were activated. Grounding arguments in the audience’s values has been found to be more persuasive than couching them in one’s own values (Feinberg & Willer, 2015, p. 1676). The framework of (self)schema helps rhetors to identify and appeal to those values and their associated emotions.

For another example of using (self)schema to navigate an audience’s affective responses, Droz and Jacobs (2019) found that the majority of employers in their local area perceived new employees’ writing as unprofessional. Droz and Jacobs correctly interpret the underlying issue as a lack of audience awareness among the new employees. If new employees have more developed schema for their organizations and their communicative norms, then they can more effectively activate positive emotional reactions and avoid eliciting negative responses. Companies have distinctive practices, personalities, and cultures, and the various members of a company or organization may vary among each other in each of those facets depending on their demographics, rhetorical or emotional dispositions, cultures, values, beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, expertise, interests, authority, anxieties, roles, goals, context of use, and so on. Well-developed schema for the company and its departments, teams, or individuals can bring these many complex dimensions into a cohesive, unified whole, enabling writers to simultaneously model complex readers and simplify those models so that they are useful to composing.


Schema can be very useful for analyzing audiences and crafting more memorable communication. The “predictive” function of schemas means that some images and information will be more attention-catching and memorable for certain audiences and contexts than other stimuli. Embedding likely memory “triggers” into communication based on an audience’s (self)schema in a given context can facilitate recall at key moments. Familiar information taps into existing (self)schema and bridges to the unfamiliar, which can be incorporated into revised (self)schema. Conveying practical value aids encoding, and the (self)schema framework gives insight into how to emphasize information’s practical value for a given audience. Understanding the audience’s (self)schema helps with anticipating, using, or creating emotions that influence perceptions, memory, and behavior.

The (self)schema framework offers an intuitive, holistic approach to audience analysis that can complement existing methods of audience analysis and persona development or serve as an effective alternative when more in-depth methods are impractical. It can be applied systematically with a few generative questions and one’s direct experience with an audience, reading or listening to its discourse, or reflection on its common experience. Through organizing myriad details into a cohesive, easily remembered whole, (self)schema balances the complexity of multidimensional representations of audience with the simplicity necessary for effective application during the composing process. In turn, using (self)schema for audience analysis facilitates identifying and applying specific rhetorical strategies that can engage a particular audience’s collective (self)schema. Complexity and simplicity balance.


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Eric Sentell teaches technical communication and composition at Southeast Missouri State University. He holds a Ph.D. in writing, rhetoric, and discourse studies from Old Dominion University and an M.A. in composition and rhetoric from Missouri State University. He has previously published articles in Technical Communication, Relevant Rhetoric, and the Writing Lab Newsletter. His research interests include memory, design, audience, and visual rhetoric. He is available at esentell@semo.edu.