A newsletter on audience research and development for cultural leaders. One reader calls it, "sometimes funny"

My wife thinks I should smile more when I talk to people — or at least frown less often — so this summer, I invented a little device that sends a 120-volt shock to my keyboard every time I join a Zoom meeting. It makes the corners of my mouth curl upward at the beginning of every call.

And it’s useful because a lot of my calls follow a similar pattern — I need a little jolt to change things up from time to time.

The pattern goes like this:

  • Start with a reminder of why we’re facing each other through a computer monitor: “I know you already know this, but our goal here is to create a community of cultural leaders — and emerging leaders — who are trying to create more equitable and innovative organizations.”
  • Probe in the middle: “Tell me more about that” and “Why is that?”
  • Make space for questions toward the end, and then wrap things up with a summary of what we hope founding members will contribute — Participate, give feedback, and share with others if you find the community valuable.

See, most days I interview one or two people who have applied to join The Museums-As-Progress Community, and I’ve been doing that for weeks, so I dream about this pattern of conversation at night now.

A younger version of myself says: “What the hell are you doing?! This is no way to grow a community — You’re going to spend an hour talking to every single person who might join? How does this scale? What a waste of time…”

He’s a swell guy, Younger Me.

Anyway, at some point a few weeks ago, my keyboard delivered an unexpected jolt at the beginning of a call, and I blurted out a caveat: “I know those are buzzwords (equitable and innovative) but we do need a shorthand — Hopefully, we can get to more substantive language in our talk today…”

I’ve been saying some version of that ever since. It’s become a sort of a mantra:

“Yes, we want diversity, equity, and (god help us) ‘innovation’. But saying those words can feel like a hollow little signal — a wink to establish rapport — so is it possible for us to get beyond winks and sad signals in this conversation? Is it possible for us to get more substantial results through this thing called ‘community’?”

I think most mantras are shorter than that, though.

At the same time, I’ve been working through Odyssey Works’ Experience Design Incubator, which my pal Isabella and I are using as a resource to develop the next phase of The MAP Community… More on that another day — I bring up the incubator program here because I’m reading their book, which includes this paragraph about Marina Abramović’s performance, The Artist Is Present:

Artists often hear the question, ‘Who is your audience?’ but rarely are the answers meaningful. Responses are demographic: ‘women’ or ‘techies’ or ‘eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds.’ In the process of making feminist work or an app or a video game, artists try to shape their work to correspond with the demographic. in the case of Abramović’s performance at MoMA, it is doubtful that she knew much about most of the people who sat with her. Rather, she understood how to reach them. Her method was to create an intimate moment together, where myriad meanings could arise out of silence and mutual gaze. She understood that offering a gift (her presence) to each specific individual, rather than to a type of person, was a way to reach her audience.

I read that and realized that we all need a shorthand to understand who we’re making things for — whether you’re an artist, a designer, a marketer, or an executive director.

We need a shorthand — some way to refer to the different groups of people who are (or are not) participating with our organizations’ offerings — but we’ve chosen the wrong one.

We’re trying to identify and create for people (mostly — only?) in terms of demographics.

Often, at the end of my interview with a prospective community member, they’ll ask me something like: “What do you want out of this community?”

I tell them in a rambling way that I want to make problem-space research more accessible to more organizations and that the community may be a foundation for doing that.

And that’s true, but maybe what I should be saying is that I want organizations to develop a different shorthand — a better shorthand. Because I don’t think you can truly support “women” or “techies” or “eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds.” Those definitions of people are too reductive and that kind of shorthand is actually undermining everything that we value — That shorthand preaches diversity while reinforcing prejudices.

I want the community to be a place that supports that kind of transformation.

Kyle

P.S. Isabella and I will be rolling out challenge cohorts in the community in a few months based on the work we’re doing in the Odyssey Works Incubator. If you’d like to be one of our first participants, just let me know in a comment or smack the like button below, and I’ll be in touch later this year with details.

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