A few thoughts on audience

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.


8 Comments Add yours

  1. vholton says:

    This post speaks to me on so many levels. Not surprisingly, the part about how we identify, listen to, and respond to our audience, particularly in the context of being researchers and educators, resonates with me. The part that stretches me, both in comfortable and a bit uncomfortable ways, is how you reflected on the comments on the website. First, you approached the critical comment(s) by listening. Perhaps you got angry first (I got angry on your behalf), but then you listened, reflected, and even made adjustments based on what is valuable to you – your daughter who is also the audience. In this time of public scholarship and the sometimes accompanying trolls and general bad behavior, this seems like a very human approach.


    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Thanks, Valerie. A lot of my approach to public criticism on Twitter (which doesn’t happen to me a lot…I’m not a very controversial tweeter, I don’t think) has to do with an ongoing discussion I have with my husband regarding the value of public online discussion forums like Twitter. His (valid) point is that people use these forums to listen to people with whom they agree and yell at people with whom they disagree. He suggests that these behaviors make us more fragmented as a people and less likely to hear the people who disagree with our views. Well…I have to prove him wrong, right 😉 ? It’s a part of my personal practice to learn how to deal with criticism – to discard the invalid aspects of it and not allow it to harm me while cherishing the valuable components. I need to learn to understand that invalid and valid criticisms are often mixed up together. I find all of this deeply challenging. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I’m getting better, I hope.


  2. CogDog says:

    I’m nodding vigorously with the previous comment. Yet to me there is someone even more primary as an audience in blogging (look in the mirror). I’ve known colleagues for years who get caught up in trying to asses their audience or worry about pleasing/displeasing their so called readers. They fret over what gets comments or not, or analyzing the meanings of peaks and valleys in the stats.

    My approach (never assume it is anyone else’s) is that I am writing for me. If anyone else gets value (or is bothered) that’s just a bonus, but not what I’m invested in. If you and Lindsay are enjoying the experience the other stuff is secondary.

    But it’s not unimportant, which is always hard to take as criticism. I will own the comment of the person “expressing reservations” though it was not truly reservations. The thing to keep in mind is that you and Lindsay have the full context of these experiences; what we receive as a so called audience are partial bits and try to get the whole picture from them. It’s also a responsibility of an audience member to keep that in mind.

    That is, to me, a bit of a pitfall of the metaphor of an audience like a stage performance- in that same room setting everyone pretty much is getting the same information flow, and their experience hinges perhaps on their attention level and what else they bring to the event. I reading, and more so, in the scattered communication space of social media, what is received is often more scattered than what was sent.

    As long as you both are laughing… and checking in… and adjusting… Keep going.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Thanks, Alan. I have things to say but I also have somewhere to be and I really want to THINK about your comment which (as always) is gold. Your comments are truly gifts, so thank you. Briefly, though, your comment was part of a composite – a trend – so I wasn’t thinking just of you 🙂 . Also, I have things about the word “performance” not just being about entertainment…I actually regret that all of those quotes came from authors and entertainers because I take performance to mean something much more broad…a social experience, per se. I will be back to read your thoughts in more depth.


  3. Laura Gogia says:

    Ok, I’m back, fresh off of communing with Catherine Cronin and Frances Bell on LIFE (in all caps) via Google Hangouts…I say this to suggest that this moment may be as grounded and at peace as I ever get (until next month when I speak with Catherine and Frances again). Alan, I have heard you say before that you blog for yourself. I’m fairly certain Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote the same thing when she was named one of the most influential bloggers (or similar) in recent years. Obviously, there is merit in the act of blogging for oneself. If I am being completely honest with myself, I would say that I blog for myself but I choose this media because it has an audience. I value blogging for its reflective capacity; things seem clearer and I am more at peace after writing it down, but I could do this in a spiral notebook…why do this in public? 1) It’s been useful for meeting really interesting people. 2) It’s been useful for helping people (if I’ve already written something down, it’s a lot easier to give someone a link than to show them a page in a spiral notebook). 3) It’s easier to reference in my own work. 4) It allows me to work on personal growth. I’ve spent my entire life swinging between the two extremes of isolating myself from and listening too much to other people. Blogging and receiving/responding to public feedback in positive ways is a constant and very real challenge. It makes me sweat (for real).

    If you look at that list…I clearly blog for myself. However, having an audience is intricately woven into why I blog for myself. For me, performing is a form of interaction – it’s part of being a social creature.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. CogDog says:

    Wow Laura, that is poetic and worth framing. That’s all true, and to modify myself I mean when I sit down to write it is primarily to myself. But heck yes, it’s knowing at the same time that it’s going to the public that takes it beyond self journaling. There is risk there. The public part is incredibly important. On my recent project I learned a technique from my colleague Nancy White she calls “a private conversation in public” where you help a group understand a dynamic or complex situation as if two people are talking out their thoughts– in front of the whole group.

    Thanks for this conversation.. in public.


    1. Laura Gogia says:

      You have reminded me that I need to read more Nancy White. We’ve met on the interwebs, I think, and I have been intruigued. I appreciate the reminder, thanks. 🙂


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