You can't pay the audience anymore
The topic doesn't matter. What matters is the audience's relationship to the topic.
This weekend, I hope you’ll take some time to watch this video — if you work in a museum or similar organization it will be worth your time:
The speaker is Larry McEnerney. He leads the University of Chicago Writing Program. The topic is ostensibly writing, but it’s also applicable to the content, programs, and services cultural organizations create. I’ll just focus on one of the ideas from the presentation that stuck with me and hope that you take the time to watch it for yourself.
McEnerney says that students have spent decades writing for teachers who were effectively being paid to read their writing. From grade school to grad school, students write to demonstrate their knowledge to their teachers. The teachers have to read what the students write. It’s their job.
The trouble is that once you’re out of school, no one wants to read your writing because you (or your family or the state or whoever) are not paying them anymore. It’s worse than that, in fact, because ideally the relationship is flipped now — You want the audience to pay you for what you produce.
Again, McEnerney is talking about writing here, but we can translate this to cultural organizations. I’m getting there.
McEnerney says many of us write with the assumption that the audience cares — That they can begin an article or paper or email with a summary of what the reader should expect. What’s wrong with that? Aren’t you doing the reader a favor by summarizing your ideas from the start?
No. Good writing begins by addressing the reader’s relationship to the topic at hand. A good — or successful — piece of writing starts by saying, “I know what you think about x and you’re wrong” or “I know you have this question about y, and I have an unexpected answer for you.”
Because remember, we’re not in school anymore. No one cares what we think about x or y. They only care about why or how x and y intersect with their own interests and goals. (I know what you may be thinking, but McEnerney explains that this applies to all writing — including academic writing!)
In my chat with Isabella Bruno a few weeks ago, we talked about where ideas generally come from in museums. The content organizations produce comes from curators and experts who have been trained to share what they know. And they know a lot. But is a program or exhibit any different from an article or a book or a newsletter?
The question is always the same: What is the value to the audience?
How many experts in museums are like those writers McEnerney describes — producing content to show what they know, all the while assuming that people will be interested? Who are they making it for? Is there a point of view and is it being considered in relation to the intended audience?
McEnerney’s presentation is a vivid description of a trap we all fall into, I think. I hope you find it as valuable as I have.
Have a good weekend,
P.S. I was so happy to hear from quite a number of you in response to yesterday’s letter. If you’re one of those who said that you’re interested in learning more about this new project I’m working on, I’ll be in touch with more info next week. (Don’t worry, you can participate as much or as little as you like. There’s no obligation.) If you were on the fence yesterday, you can still join in — just reply with a thumbs up or hit the like button on this letter.