New Book Teaser

Welcome!  This blog is a companion to my newly published book “Marketing the Arts to Death: How Lazy Language is Killing Culture.”  It’s about how we in the arts use an outdated, hackneyed and often meaningless promotional language to appeal to diminishing audiences of aging fans.  And it’s about creating a new, relevant, persuasive language that appeals to new audiences.

The sample below comes from Part I, Pre-Mortem on a Lifeless Language, which is a pointed critique of the way we talk to new audiences.  If you find this sample interesting and want to read further, you can buy the book from your favorite e-book retailer here for just six bucks!



By Trevor O’Donnell, With David Olsen, PhD.

(From Part I, Chapter 4)

“If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”

­­— David Ogilvy

The language is artificial:

Try this.

Find a young person who you think ought to be a part of your audience. Someone you know, perhaps. A niece or a neighbor. Someone who isn’t part of your artsy world. Ask her to help you with an experiment.

When you’ve found your subject, sit down someplace quiet and casual — preferably a place where she’s most at home — then read her your latest promotional material. Read it in a sincere effort to persuade her to buy a ticket. No, really. Take the opportunity to test your promotional language on an actual member of that new audience you’ve been talking about reaching out to:

“The Springfield Arts Center is proud to present a North Coast premier event! Join us            for an unforgettable journey of the imagination into a world where…”

You can actually do this, or you can spare your innocent victim by reading it quietly to yourself and imagining that you’re reading it to someone you’d like to see at your next event. Either way, you’ll discover three things: First, the language feels awkward, maybe even silly in an interpersonal context. Second, you’ll sense that the language, rather than connecting you, is actually distancing you from your listener. And third, you’ll realize that the language has almost nothing to do with the person you’re talking to.

Now you may argue that this is an unfair comparison — that these messages were crafted for different media and were never meant to be shared in an interpersonal setting. But I’d argue just the opposite — that the artifice, remoteness and lack of relevance to the audience is exactly what’s wrong with arts language today, irrespective of the medium. What this simple experiment reveals is the astonishing degree to which we’ve allowed our communications traditions to separate us from — rather than bring us closer to — the people we most need to engage.

If you’re like most arts organizations your messages originate deep in the bowels of your venue among well-meaning but elite insiders who meet periodically to discuss what the organization wants to say. Once the basic content is agreed on, the messages are put through a “punching-up” process where they’re shaped into the words and images that ring most familiar to senior management’s seasoned promotional eyes and ears. Next, the messages are molded to fit a variety of media formats — print, radio, collateral, email, web, etc. And finally they’re sent to remote recipients through some form of message delivery technology such as mail, print, broadcast or digital.

Like the clichés in the previous section, the process is such an integral part of our business that we rarely step back to ask if it’s the right process — or if processing is a good idea to begin with. But if we take time to consider the fluffers and fillers that our message machinery inserts between the original impulse to communicate and the people who receive the message, it’s worth asking if our basic objectives are being met. Cheez Whiz is processed, too, but you wouldn’t call it an effective way to deliver wholesome dairy nutrition.

Communication at its core is about communion (communion). In a religious context, communion is about becoming one with God. In a social context, communion is about establishing the closest possible connection, or identification, between two or more people. People who share a common understanding as a result of having communicated more effectively are more likely to act in accordance with that understanding. For example, new audiences who share your belief that the next show at the Springfield Arts Center is worth their time and money are more likely to buy tickets.

The most effective communication occurs between people who share a common language. The more the language deviates from the shared vernacular — the less authentic it is — the further removed it is from the direct ideal. If we accept this as a basic principle, we have to examine our decades-old message processing machinery and ask if it’s facilitating communication or if it’s inserting unnecessary, synthetic — or potentially even unhealthy — ingredients into the mix.

Are your messages fresh, wholesome, local, organic, artisan cheeses? Or are they just cheesy?


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