Quick Story Lesson: Audience
Updated: Jul 27
It’s one of the great questions of art: do I make art for myself or for my audience? The answer is both. Art without an audience is like George Berkeley’s tree falling in the forest without anyone seeing it: does it exist at all? Yet having an audience without artistic soul is shallow. So today we make the first blog about audiences and what you need to know about them. And it all starts with the difference between empathy and sympathy.
Whatever story you are telling – from branded content to the most pure and obscure form of art imaginable – you’ll need an audience. It doesn't have to be big. But it has to be there or else you're not really a storyteller, just pretending to be one. In order to make that emotional connection with another group of people, you need to understand that audience intimately. The better you ‘get’ them, the better your art will be received. But there is a limit...
You should not cater to an audience to such a degree that you lose track of your own story and your own self-expression! And I'm not just talking about the traditional art-forms. In politics, business, brands, journalism and even in social media this rule always applies; it still has to be 'you'. It needs to be authentic. Or else you are selling a lie, just like the average car salesman. Which is fine I guess. It's just not storytelling.
Storytelling and truth
Storytelling is about truth. So how do you reach this? How do approach and handle an audience? An audience that has their own expectations? The answer lies in showing empathy, not sympathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand emotions of the other person, without necessarily feeling them yourself in the same context. Sympathy is agreeing with these emotions and basically feeling them too. That's a huge difference. We can feel empathy for the bad guy in a movie while not feeling sympathy and strongly disagree with his or hers actions. In fact, the more empathy you can feel, especially with the antagonist, the better that character has been developed in a film script. Remember, it's still friction and conflict we are after in storytelling.
Now if you have a story to tell that is very 'You' then you don't want to compromise your message. In fact, you'll defend your own expression and fight to keep it one hundred percent pure. And that's how it's supposed to be. However, the consequence can be that your audience will not react to your expression. That's a reality you'll have to face and accept. You gotta keep it real.
Now usually this is where the discussion ends. You accept that you can't be everything for everybody. But that's not the whole story. If you want an audience to respond and understand you even when then it's hard to reach them, the trick is to create empathy. To make sure you understand one another, even when you're not feeling each others' emotions. You do this by imagining yourself into their context.
What is it that your audience appreciates? What emotions do they experience to similar messages? Where do they normally go to get similar stories or information?
You see, there doesn't have to be much sympathy between the two of you. You don't have to feel the same with everybody in every audience. Yet when you empathize, you can bring your unique point of view into their context. You get your story across - without compromise - in a physical, digital and/or emotional context they can easily understand. So, empathize. Imagine who it is you are talking too. Adjust your message to them, without fundamentally changing it. And you'll be more successful.
We'll get back to this subject of course! There's much to say about audiences and storytelling. For now, keep it real.
Rogier van Kralingen