Listen, wait, be patient. Every shaman knows you have to deal with the fire that’s in your audience’s eye.
— Ken Kesey
The first time I really thought about audience was as a physician, when I realized that my performance depended entirely on my patients’ performances and mattered only in as much as I was able to influence their behavior. My prescriptions only mattered if the patients wanted to and could afford, tolerate, and remember to take the medicine. I had to listen. I had to care about what they cared about. I had to adjust my priorities.
The audience plays a huge part in how a piece will actually form. They really allow the performers to walk a tightrope in a way that never seems to happen in the privacy of your own four walls. I’m listening to the audience, and they’re listening to me. — Evelyn Glennie
The second time I really thought about audience was as a graduate student. I was two years into my program and had attained (rather proudly) a traditional approach to scholarly prose. As part of a co-curricular activity, I assisted a faculty member with a white paper commissioned by a community partner. However, there were some specific requests provided at the outset of the job. Because the audience for the paper consisted of community business people, decision makers, and policy makers, the partner did not want a white paper written in traditional academic style. Apparently academic style, with its jargon, long paragraphs, in-text citations, and lack of indicators (think bolded print, bullets, pullout quotes) is major turnoff for a lot of people outside of academe. Well, that was a wake up call for someone who had just achieved her understanding of APA.
Being committed to doing our jobs well, my supervisor and I set aside our literary habits and worked hard on this idea of audience. We worked in bullets. We added diagrams and pulled out main themes. We spoke in terms of decisions and recommendations rather than scholarly description. We thought about the accessibility of our resources and placed them in endnotes rather than in distracting in-text citations. We even thought about font (and failed miserably; our partner had us change it before she passed it on).
In scholarship, audience matters. In community engaged scholarship, researchers must respect the priorities and experience of the partners and audience as equally important to their own. In this project, we had to be humble. We had to set aside our APA training. We had to acknowledge the audience experience if we were to meet our larger goals of discovery and dissemination.
I think that artists, at a certain point, can either become defiant and say that the audience is wrong, readers don’t get them, and they’re going to keep doing it their own way, or they can listen to the criticism – and not necessarily blindly follow the audience’s requests and advice. — Adrian Tomine
As a scholar (read that as “a human in this world”), I am still working to understand my relationship with audience. The other day I published a website that my daughter and I have been designing for a long time now. It all started when my daughter (who is currently 8) began to complain habitually about how her feet hurt whenever we walked more than a city block. This causes a lot tension in the context of travel, which we tend to do a lot. Once upon a time, I was a child of the habitually hurting feet. I remember it well and, in fact, my feet still hurt after a long day of sightseeing. However, as an adult I know we can’t always immediately respond to hurting feet (particularly after only one city block or when we really have no other choice but to walk). Instead, we need to find ways of not necessarily complaining and making others around us miserable unless we really do need a break. It’s lesson about growing up.
Over time, I devised a strategy – at first for but over time it definitely became with – my daughter, in which we turned the sitting-down-to-show-my-discontent into a neutrally voiced signal, proactive activity, or a fun distraction (when the problem is boredom more than actual pain…which it often is). The strategy totally works for us, and what has emerged is a pretty fabulous collection of photos of my daughter sitting in different places (curbs, stairs, chairs, floors, buses, trains…) all over the world. And the crux of the entire activity (which consists of me taking pictures to document Lindsay sitting) is that someday I was going to put it on a website to show the world all the places she has sat. She was going to be a “star.”
So…the other day I finally did it. I published the website and she loved it. She dictated much of the aesthetics and the tagging system – I’m quite proud of her work on this, actually.
However, I screwed up the messaging. I failed to think deeply enough about context or how the other adults in my world (who tend to be a bit more liberal, activist, and so forth than I am) would perceive this website. People who know me (and know of my daughter) loved the site because they got it. People who knew me a little (but not as closely), expressed some reservations (“Well…as long as she’s laughing too…”). And one person who doesn’t know me at all (doesn’t even follow me on Twitter…I don’t even know how she got a hold of the site in the first place), raked me over the coals for child cruelty.
Huh. Let’s face it. I don’t like negative feedback any more than the next person. Furthermore, as the conversation went on it was clear this person had a heightened sense of her right/ability to judge me and dictate my actions as a parent. However, given my belief in the power of audience, I hung in there with her for a while. I asked some questions. I listened to her reactions, using her cues to figure out what words or concepts she found offensive. I considered those.
Come to find out, I didn’t like some of my initial messaging. While I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with the website, I didn’t like some of the ways I represented myself or the activity. So I changed some wording on the site and deleted some old tweets. However, I didn’t do any of this to please the pretentious tweeter, but because it made the product more representative and better for my daughter, who is the real audience, after all. Why make it public then, you might ask? For the site analytics, of course. Lindsay has LOVED seeing the site clicks from all over the world. The real audience (Lindsay) wants an audience.
I like the three quotes I pulled from Brainy Quotes to populate this post. Audience matters. We cannot ignore the fact that if our purpose is to enact some sort of influence or change, we need to take the position and priorities of the audience seriously. However, a relationship with an audience is never one-sided – it is an interaction, a give-and-take. As Adrian Tomine suggests, ultimately you have to decide whether or not you really want to engage a specific audience and why. It’s always a choice.