21 March 2013

The audience member that counts most

One of the most common pieces of communication advice is, “Know your audience!” I’m going court controversy by saying that is overrated advice.

Many people have produced substantive works and had only vague ideas about who their audience was. Last year, an article in the Wall Street Journal made this point explicitly about books:

Novelist Scott Turow says he’s long been frustrated by the (book) industry’s failure to study its customer base. “I once had an argument with one of my publishers when I said, ‘I’ve been publishing with you for a long time and you still don’t know who buys my books,’ and he said, ‘Well, nobody in publishing knows that,’ ” says Mr. Turow, president of the Authors Guild.

Yet authors managed for centuries to create books with only the vaguest understanding of who their readers were.

In his memoir, animator Chuck Jones (the man responsible for many classic cartoons with Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Marvin the Martian, and the Grinch) talked about the process of making Warner Brothers classic cartoons. They had no idea who their audience was.

We never stopped to analyze what made our cartoons funny. If they made us laugh, then we hoped the audience would follow.

Stroke of Genius, A Collection of Paintings and Musings on Life, Love and Art

Although they didn’t ignore input entirely. Jones told the story of producer Eddie Selzer in his memoir Chuck Amuck:

He once appeared in the doorway of our story room while Mike Maltese and I were grappling with a new story idea. Suddenly a furious dwarf stood in the doorway: “I don’t want any gags about bullfights, bullfights aren’t funny!” ...

Having issued this angry edict, Eddie stormed back to his office, Mike and I eyed each other in silent wonderment. “We’ve been missing something,” Mike said. “I never knew there was anything funny about bullfighting until now. But Eddie’s judgment is impeccable. He’s never been right yet.” ...

Result: Bully for Bugs - one of the best Bugs Bunny cartoons our unit ever produced.

Remember, the Warner Brother animators worked at a time when everyone went to the movies regularly. There was no marketing or focus groups. Their animated shorts were “add ons” to feature presentations, so there was probably no tracking of box office. Their cartoons were made when was no television. How could the creators anticipate that their cartoons, many of which had fairly adult jokes in them, would become Saturday morning staples for kids decades later?

Looking at it a little closer, the “Termite Terrace” crew made their cartoons to please themselves. They were their own audience.

As you develop a presentation, and as you give a presentation, it is critical that you become your own audience. You always have to be asking yourself, “What do I think of this work?” This is not to say that you should ignore feedback from others; it’s important to be checking your perceptions with others to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect (unskilled but aware of it).

This also means that we instructors should ask our students, “How do you think you did?” more often. We have to force them to be analyzing their own work before giving it to us.

But if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll have a good idea of when you’re on the beam, when you’ve fumbled, and when you’ve fallen flat on your face.

External links

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