The best creative lesson I ever learned (and keep learning!)

or not…

Let’s face it: Artists can be divas. They can be really annoying. You know, the “I just can’t work like this” types. The ones who believe the answer to everything is to sigh and say, “I just need to express myself.”

Really?

The funny thing is that self-expression art rarely gains the impact it seeks with its audience. It often happens that expressing oneself  proves entirely counterproductive. Over and over again I see the same lesson emerging in creative enterprises, and it often sounds like a wake-up call: Artists, it’s not about you.  

It’s a hard lesson to get. After all, our creativity emerges out of our own experiences. Our work reflects our characters, and this is good. But our fingerprints on the work aren’t enough to satisfy the ever-present, artist-plaguing question audiences everywhere ask: WHY SHOULD I CARE? If we want our creative work–whether it is writing, painting, music, acting, web design, advertising, or film–to communicate effectively, we need to make it audience-focused.

I was first confronted with this truth at school. The best course I took in college was called Little Red Schoolhouse: Academic and Professional Writing. On the first day of the class we learned its unofficial name: The Fascist School of Writing. We all giggled when the professor said it. But he looked back sternly and said that if we thought writing was about expressing our feelings then we could leave. This class, he continued, would teach us how to manipulate our readers into agreeing with us. It sounded harsh at first, but over time we came to understand what he meant: that to serve our readers, we had to persuade them on their terms.

Technically, the course was supposed to focus on how to write specifically for professional and academic audiences. I have found however that the broader concepts taught in this class apply in many more contexts. For example, we communicate all day, but do our messages get across as effectively as we like? Subconsciously, we all know that we can’t talk to our spouse the same way we talk to our boss or the same way we talk to our neighbor’s kid. But why then do we still have so much trouble making our minds known? The LRS class shows that when we want to communicate a specific idea we need to keep our intended audience, and how they think, ever in our minds lest our message be muddled. Good communication, and by extension, good creative work, depends on OUR ability (i.e. NOT our audience’s) to connect our ideas to the audience’s context.

This lesson has reemerged for me countless times since college. For instance, when I worked in marketing, I remembered this lesson almost every day. After all, I was trying to capture the attention of people who didn’t want to be bothered. I was trying to convince them of an idea they had many reasons to ignore. The solution? I had to get inside their heads, empathize with their context, and speak directly to it. I couldn’t depend on people stepping out of their own busyness and expend effort to understand my message. I had to figure out their most pressing needs and prove that my organization (a) understood those needs and (b) could solve them.

Most recently this lesson appeared in a book I’ve been reading to learn more about storytelling. Throughout Directing the Story by Francis Glebas, the author addresses a curious question:  What do film directors direct? We might think that they direct the actors, or the effects, or the crew. But Glebas demonstrates that directors direct the audience’s attention. The director must innately understand what it takes for their audience to get ‘lost’ in the story. Poor writing, inconsistencies, distracting backgrounds, and inappropriate music all can distract the audience and destroy the illusion. Directors are responsible for overcoming obstacles that create confusion and boredom for the audience and, if possible, create something that attracts and entertains. Glebas quotes Pratkanis and Aronson, authors of Age of Propaganda, to drive this point home:

In many ways, [people] are cognitive misers, forever trying to conserve cognitive energy… According to the information-processing models, a persuasive message must successfully pass through a series of stages. First, the message must attract the recipient’s attention; ignored messages will have  little persuasive impact. Second, the arguments in the message must be understood and comprehended. Third, the recipient must learn the arguments contained in the message and come to accept them as true; the task of the advertiser and other persuaders is to teach arguments supportive to the cause, so that these arguments will come easily to mind at the appropriate time and place. Finally, the recipient of the messages acts on this learned knowledge when there is an incentive to do so; a persuasive message is learned, accepted, and acted upon if it is rewarding to do so. 

Notice in this description where the burden of attraction and convincing falls: on the persuaders. Human cognitive tendencies demand that writers, storytellers, advertisers, and artists need to think, not about their own states of mind, but about those of the audience. Creative work needs to make clear the benefit for the audience. If this is done successfully, audiences are not told what to believe or how to experience art, but are instead guided along an effortless path toward entertainment and enlightenment.

Now, how to perfect this craft…that is another lesson, one I expect will take a lifetime to grasp. But as we strive for mastery, the first step is recognizing that our creative work starts with our audience, not with ourselves.

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1 Comment

Filed under Inspiration and Creativity, Running Commentary on whatever tickles the fancy

One response to “The best creative lesson I ever learned (and keep learning!)

  1. William Goertel / WMG

    Agreed!

    “Good communication, and by extension, good creative work, depends on OUR ability (i.e. NOT our audience’s) to connect our ideas to the audience’s context.”

    Thanks for sharing.

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