If you write, speak or perform for a living, you need an audience.  Without one, you don’t get paid.  (Hell, online, you still don’t get paid even with one.  But I digress…)

Your audience is one way to validate your success as a communicator.

But your audience is also a trap.

If they love you, their adulation becomes addictive.  You learn what they like, what they respond to, and what makes them appreciate you more.  Naturally, you’re inclined to pursue those reactions because they make you feel good, and that means you’re less likely to experiment with anything outside your audience’s comfort zone.

Which Begs the Question…

What’s more important to you: how your work makes you feel, or how your audience makes you feel?

If you want to grow as a creator or performer, you may need to push your own boundaries.  You may need to say and do things your audience won’t like / understand / appreciate, so you can learn from your own experiences — whether your audience enjoys it or not.

Do you worry that your audience may not follow you down every rabbit hole you want to investigate?  Don’t be.  The fewer people  you have paying attention to you, the freer you are to innovate (and learn from your mistakes) without being judged.

And if your audience complains, derides or discounts your divergence from “the norm,” relax.  They’re only people, just like you.  In fact, there are plenty of…

Reasons NOT to Listen to Your Audience

… including:

  • Your audience doesn’t always know what you know.
  • Your audience doesn’t always know what THEY know, either.
  • Your audience has different goals than you do.
  • Sometimes your audience is your competition.
  • Your audience is afraid to look stupid, needy or uncool.

History is filled with the tales of innovators who were initially (or repeatedly) ignored or disparaged by their audiences, from Vincent van Gogh to Dr. Seuss.  For every film or book we now consider to be an influential classic, there are dozens of reviews that disregard it as amateur, ineffectual or just plain bad.

And those are the successes.

Sometimes, your ideas really aren’t all that great.  Sometimes they’re half-baked, incorrect, premature or — yes — just plain bad.

But if you don’t pursue them, and learn from the experience of your hard-fought victories and spectacular misfires, you’ll forever be clinging to the safe bets.

And that means your audience, fickle creatures that they are, will eventually abandon you anyway, transfixed instead by something newer, shinier and more compelling — something that pushes their boundaries, even while you refuse to test your own.

Of Course, There IS a Catch to This Advice…

If your audience isn’t always right when they disagree with you, then they’re not always right when they idolize you, either.  Their judgment is just as flawed, mercurial and subjective as yours is, rain or shine.

So yes, by all means, absorb your audience’s feedback.

Just make sure you keep their notes in pencil.

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6 Comments

Donna Winter · June 14, 2010 at 11:24 pm

As always, words of wisdom and a reality check.

Donna Winter · June 14, 2010 at 4:24 pm

As always, words of wisdom and a reality check.

Jake LaCaze · June 14, 2010 at 8:40 am

Damn! Sound advice here.

Ultimately, some part of your audience is going to be upset with what you do. Look at any music act that's been around for a while. If they change their style, half of their fans will bitch and moan and say that their new stuff sucks and they should have just stuck to what got them famous. Yet if they stay the same, half of their fans will say that they're just doing the same thing over and over and getting really boring.

If you're doing things for others, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

SHerdegen · June 14, 2010 at 7:32 am

It is the inevitable balancing act between listening to what your audience likes and trying to predict what they’ll like more. Audiences rarely know what they will like and are sometimes wrong about what they do like.

But you can get a feel for what kind of thing they’ll respond to by experimenting and seeing who follows. I would take it in small steps though, no need to go full bore down a dead end alley.

It depends a lot on your ideals too. I’m not talking about sacrificing what feels right to you, but often we’re trying to find a balance between who we are and what part of us the audience identifies with.

Barry Dewar · June 14, 2010 at 2:27 am

Cracking! I agree, you can't be creative if you don't constantly push the boundaries. Just as you can't be an expert without having an opinion. Don't listen to me though…

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