* This is another entry in our “Advice for Aspiring Writers” Series.
"Uncle Ed" at Thanksgiving. Courtesy of awkwardfamilyphotos.com
Everyone on this planet shares some similar experience or knowledge, to an extent. There are things that we all have in common, despite wildly different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. But in everyday conversation, whether with someone from another part of the globe or Uncle Ed at the family Thanksgiving get-together, we can quickly begin locating the boundaries of our shared experience. There’s a reason why many casual conversations start with an awkward comment about the weather – everyone has something to say about it. However, not everyone shares your personal take on iOS vs. Android, your raw-vegan-paleo-ketonic-grain-free dietary philosophy, or your stance in the metal-bodied vs. wooden-bodied plane debate. These boundaries can seem an insurmountable barrier to making real connections, and the tendency these days is to simply withdraw and not attempt a breakthrough. But real communication can only happen when we commit to genuinely learning where our fellow human beings are coming from.
In Roy Underhill’s insightful book Khrushchev’s Shoe and Other Ways to Captivate an Audience of 1 to 1000, the case is made over and over for the immense value of knowing your audience. While he is applying this wisdom primarily in the area of engaging a roomful of people, the same principles apply to writing. How can you communicate with a reading audience if you don’t speak into some shared area of experience? How can a reader find relevance in something that doesn’t resonate in any way to them personally?
Roy gives a wide range of examples in demonstrating different strategies to engage. He cautions, “You must check your assumptions about your audience,” contrasting we “skillful mechanics” who find ourselves reading his book (I can see him working the crowd here) to the “rude mechanics” in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this play-within-a-play, the cast greatly underestimates the ability of the audience to absorb the goings-on within the performance and decides to greatly dumb-down the action so that no one has any chance of being confused or frightened.
This is a great risk in writing, and specifically in writing in such a niche corner as pre-industrial hand-tool woodworking. The tendency is to speak broadly without offering any challenge or potential disagreement, looking to get as many heads nodding in agreement as possible while steering away from controversy. Roy says, “Sometimes you will face an audience with whom you share too much common ground, whose knowledge of the subject is just as profound as yours. They may perceive you as having nothing new to offer, or as not understanding the subject as well as they do.” Of course, I am writing this to readers and woodworkers who may well be far more competent than I am in building furniture or sentences. The challenge for any writer is in knowing how to engage, how to challenge complacency or comfort zones, and how to advance and teach new thoughts or material in a way that feels like a satisfying journey for the reader.
A writer does not enjoy the immediate feedback that a public speaker can glean simply by scanning the faces in the audience, but we do receive and greatly value all the comments and thoughts that our readers share with us. These conversations help us to direct our efforts in putting together a better magazine, but also show us where we should “push back” a bit more. It’s good and healthy to be graciously opinionated, and walking this line well is one of the most difficult disciplines for the writer.
If I were to distill these thoughts down into some practical advice, it would be this:
- Get to know your audience. Learn what makes them tick. Speak to the heart of the things that you and they are passionate about, and allow those commonalities to lay a strong foundation in the reader/writer relationship. It is a relationship, after all.
- Present a challenge. But don’t stay in that safe space. Preaching to the choir never pushed anyone out of their comfort zone. Knowing your audience allows you to push the boundaries of what they find comfortable, familiar, or interesting. Seek to represent your topic thoroughly, logically, and without apology. Many personal paradigms have been shifted simply because an argument was presented with compelling passion.
- Be nice. There’s a difference between passion and pomposity, and readers are pretty quick to discern between the two. Where heartfelt enthusiasm for a subject readily engages the audience, presumption and self-importance can quickly douse any sparks of interest.
- Go pick up Roy’s book. It’s a useful and entertaining bit of wisdom with something valuable for everyone who reads it, especially for those who want to master the art of knowing and challenging your audience.