There’s a fascinating conversation happening over at Artsjournal this week about whether the arts should be leaders or followers, and it got me thinking about the language of leadership.
In the arts, we tend to speak to the world around us in a prescribed, formulaic, rigidly traditional language that involves plugging names, dates, venues, adjectives – and even images – into long-established templates. Take out that last brochure, radio ad or email you just deployed, extract the details and you’ll have a vivid illustration of what I’m talking about:
Don’t miss this _____ night of _____, with all the _____, _____ and _____ that only _____ can offer. It’s a _____ story of _____ and _____, set against the backdrop of _____. Experience the _____ as _____ meets _____ in this _____ tale of _____, _____ and _____, starring the internationally acclaimed _____, best known for _____ and the unforgettable _____.”
Think about the range of communications channels the arts use to speak to the world around us from street pole banners to buckslips, look at the frames into which the details have been inserted, and it becomes obvious that the language of arts marketing is about as canned as a Hormel ham. This is not the language of leadership, it’s a language spoken by people who’ve been following the same fill-in-the-blank traditions for so long that they’ve lost sight of how to speak in a fresh, natural, persuasive vernacular.
The mark of leadership, meanwhile, is the ability to convince others that a cause is worth following. Look at great leaders in politics, religion, business or social movements and you’ll find inspirational, charismatic, persuasive individuals who describe their causes in relevant, meaningful, motivational language that leverages the needs, wants and desires of their listeners. Think of the way Barack Obama spoke to undecided voters in his first campaign: “This isn’t about me; this is about you!”
Obama didn’t take old presidential stump speeches and change the details for his campaign, he took pains to understand what his “new audiences” wanted and crafted fresh, honest, colloquial messages with those audiences in mind. Leaders become leaders by convincing people that they’re worth following, and they usually do it by speaking honestly and passionately about the things their followers most want in a language those followers understand.
So the next time you’re tempted to trot out some decades-old arts marketing templates, think about who you’d like to see in your empty seats, find out what they want, and then say what needs to be said in order to lead them through your venue doors. Chances are the messages you come up with won’t fit into any of the traditional cans in your arts marketing canon.
Next up: Shakespeare Quotes