I thought about Johnson a lot, wondered who his audience could have been. It’s hard to imagine sharecroppers or plantation field hands at hop joints, relating to songs like these. You have to wonder if Johnson was playing for an audience that only he could see, one off in the future.
-Bob Dylan, talking about Robert Johnson in his book Chronicles.
Knowing your audience is a key component to understanding how best to communicate. Writers know that understanding an audience is a big part of discovering the voice of the narrator as it helps to create the relationship between the writer and the reader. In acting the audience is regarded as an intrinsic component of the experience. (Because, you know, the absence of one is an existential crisis for a play.)
What interests me about this quote by Dylan is not that audience would be intrinsic to music or creativity, but that Johnson had envisioned an audience that didn’t even exist. He was playing for a future audience, maybe Dylan himself.
Two things come to mind about this.
1. What happens when we ignore the audience in front of us?
2. What happens when we pander or play down to the audience because we think we know what they want?
The first question is the most common and problematic. I notice this mostly with people who tend to use jargon or technical language because they are used to speaking in front of peers or people with the same or similar background. When their audience changes or becomes broader, they tend not to adjust appropriately. We have to be able to put ourselves in our audience’s shoes and think about what they need to know in order to better understand the concepts and vision that we are communicating. Taking the time to know your audience and meet them where they are are the best ways to make a meaningful connection with them.
The second question is more complicated for me. When we do the work on question one in a literal way, we run the risk of dumbing down or pandering. This is what can happen in a school situation where we have assumptions about the limitations of how deep a student can go with the material. Once we have that limitation in our mind, it is hard to bring the audience to a larger level. Imagine if Beethoven had tried to give his audience only what he thought they wanted or could handle?
(Seriously, look how annoyed he looks at the suggestion.)
I believe that the key to great communicators and to creatives who break barriers is that they simultaneously meet their audience where they are while also outlining for them a larger vision for themselves. This is pretty much what Shakespeare did in his greatest works. While they are admired for their incredible beauty and poetry, as well as their deeply philosophical explorations of what it means to be human and have ambition, they also were incredibly easily to relate to for the common man.
(Who doesn’t love the fat guy?)
The key is to speak, not just to where people are but also to where people could be. The greatest speaker and most inspirational motivators are those who are able to ground their incredible vision of the future into a realistic understanding of the present. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, JFK, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, whoever you choose as an inspiring speaker and leader, they all met people exactly where they were and showed them where they could go.
If we want to be better at communicating our vision and if we want to have a bigger impact on our organization and on the world in general, we will need to get a clearer picture of our audience.