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Truly Embracing Your Audience

You are a writer. You are an artist. You are an entrepreneur. You are a creative professional of some sort.

What is the goal of pursuing your work? What does this look like in real-life?

There could be many drivers for what you create, including validation, self-expression, helping others, adding more to the world than you took away from it, or so many other reasons. When considering how we represent “success”, we often assign placeholders; things such as bestseller lists, awards, or massive financial rewards to illustrate achievement.

But I saw a photo this week that perfectly embodies not just what we often hope to achieve, but how powerful this can be to those who experience your work:

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Credit: Jimmy Franco of Grand Central Publishing

This is Amanda Palmer (left), meeting a fan of hers, Sarah Staalesen (right), at a book signing in New York City. This photo is engrossing to me in so many ways. The setting is typical for managing a large crowd who came to see a single person. There were loads of folks there to see Amanda at an event which was part of the launch of her book, The Art of Asking. You can see the white tape on the floor, the rope designed to create boundaries between people. There are handlers in the background trying to ensure books are placed correctly for signing, etc.

When I met J.K. Rowling at a similar event years ago, she had a bodyguard next to her. He wasn’t an especially large man, but his job was to stand just over her right shoulder and observe:

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This video of Lady Gaga’s bodyguards identifying and “neutralizing” what they saw as a potential threat always stuck with me – that the casual man behind Ms. Rowling likely had skills I couldn’t imagine (and never want to witness.)

I find this image an interesting contrast to the photo of Amanda and Sarah. Sarah seems to have fallen to her knees. Amanda is out of her chair, leaning over the table, embracing Sarah’s arms, and looking intently into her eyes. She breaks all normal physical and emotional barriers in this process.

For the body of work that you are creating, this is the goal: a deep human connection between two people, the writer and the reader; the artist and the viewer; the musician and the listener; the designer and the user.

This is the effect you hope for after creating the work itself. After you write the book; after you put down your paint brush; after the gallery hangs your art.

Yes, I am always clear that creating a quality body of work is the most important step, and the first step. But after this happens, the focus often turns to connecting it to others.

I talk to a lot of writers and creative professionals, and occasionally run into someone who is 100% focused on submitting their work to awards I have never heard of. The idea is that the validation of these awards is fulfilling, and will ultimately encourage others to experience their work. It also provides the identity of “award-winning author.”

I also see folks who focus intently on gaming Amazon’s algorithms so that they can spend four minutes as the top spot on a sub-sub-sub bestseller list. This, provides the identity of “bestselling author.”

Now, winning awards and being on bestseller lists is really cool. I’m for these things. But they are not THE goal. They are merely stand-ins for the experience represented in the photo above.

The real goal is that moment when a fan connects so deeply with your work, that in the moment where they meet you, that it looks something like the photo above. It is a place where the boundary of artist and fan is broken, and you are two human beings sharing something unique together.

Sarah connected with me via email, and told me about her experience meeting Amanda:


“I nervously knelt down in front of the desk, lost for words as Amanda began speaking to me, complimenting my outfit and asking what my name was. Then there was hesitation, because I have always been very bad at answering that question.”

“I don’t like my name,” I quickly blurted. My face was tomato-red.”

“Why don’t you like your name?” Amanda was so gentle with her questions.”

“I was not able to give her a proper answer because that would take up way too much time, and I had already froze by then, and I didn’t want to have her waiting all night. I was silly to say anything in the first place. “It’s Sarah,” I was finally able to say after a lot of stammering.”

“Then, very suddenly, she leaned forward to look into my face & took my wrists into her hands, and of course I was speechless. She was seeing me. I don’t have a lot of experience with really being seen. It was breathtaking and shocking to be held by Amanda.”

“My face started to crumple. “I’m sorry, I can’t look at you without crying.”
“Just try to,” she answered.”

“As she saw me deeply, I saw her as well. No more words were exchanged. I couldn’t even remember to breathe. After the moment, she signed the books I brought and blew me a kiss goodbye. My heart was soaring & I was quick to blow one back, hurrying off the stage for the next fan, feeling light as air, and ready to have a happiness-induced breakdown.”

Now, I know that some of you reading this blog post, and may be cringing at the idea of needing to physical embrace those who read and experience your work. You expressly DON’T want to have to touch fans — you want the work itself to do that. I get this. And of course, you 100% get to choose what you create, how you create it, and how it connects with the world.

You don’t have to wear arm warmers as Amanda does, and you don’t have to reach across the table to embrace fans.

But Amanda chooses to. This choice is hers. This choice creates meaningful moments, and I have to say, it’s pretty inspiring. This is how she pitched her appearance in New York: “Just come and hang out. I will leave no human unhugged.”

Writers and other creative professionals are often overwhelmed with ideas for how to connect their work to the world. They may look for “marketing tactics that scale,” such as publicity, social media, getting reviews, blog tours, book tours, strategic partnerships, events, giveaways, bestseller lists, awards, and so much more.

Now, these things are good, and I work with authors every day on many of them. But I never lose sight of the goal: that real human connection between a writer and a reader, via their work. And that the 1:1 connection creates a powerful effect in the world.

I haven’t yet read Amanda’s new book The Art of Asking, but I will soon. In the meantime, this interview between her and Maria Popova is well worth your time.

How do you encourage one-to-one connections with those who experience the work you create?

Thank you.
-Dan

  • Kathleen Colvin

    As usual, Dan, you are “spot on.” Thank you for reminding me what’s important as a writer.

  • Jennifer M Eaton

    This is probably your best post ever, and very timely to me. I recently had the incredible luck of having my book go mildly viral in the UK (A big surprise, since I am in the USA) I’d spent most of my time marketing on my blog, and some on Facebook, because that’s where my friends and family were. I discovered quickly that I had FANS. (Imagine that?) And these teens were on Instagram and Twitter.
    I had a little knowledge of Twitter, and I am quickly learning Instagram. I have found these to be wonderful tools to connect with these kids who are an ocean away. I am dumbfounded how a simple message from the author of the book that they loved can make their day, and evoke the “Squee” and the “OMG OMG OMG” from these lovely kids.
    Social media has turned into more of a time suck than ever for me, but where it was once a chore, it is now a labor of love. Instead of connecting with people who are only mildly interested, I am now connecting with my readers. And every tweet, every picture, every comment counts. And I love every minute of it.

    • Jennifer – thank you, and CONGRATULATIONS on the wonderful connections you are finding with readers!!!
      -Dan

  • I love Jennifer’s comment and think that would be a dream for me. If my work resonated and actually helped people to look at life a little differently I’d be thrilled. However, connecting to those readers seems to be getting more and more difficult. There is so much noise on th internet how can those who would enjoy your work even hear your voice? Sometimes I feel like I am just sending words into the ether.

    • Jennifer M Eaton

      I honestly admit that I felt this way too until a few weeks ago when this all happened. Mine was just a case of luck. My book got into the hands of an extremely popular book tuber, and he started raving about it. It was his use of social media, not mine, that got me noticed and read by the teen audience. Now my challenge is to keep the momentum going that he started.

      • Yes, but how you respond MATTERS! And you have clearly found that. Thank you!
        -Dan

      • That’s awsome Jennifer. Congrats and blessings. You give me hope:)

    • Greta,

      I hear that a lot, and I think it actually creates OPPORTUNITIES. Look at the photo of Amanda above – she was in a situation that countless other writers have been in at Barnes & Noble. They host a lot of authors: https://www.facebook.com/barnesandnobleunionsquare

      Yet, she found a way to break that wall. Likewise, if “noise on the internet” is your challenge, then find a way to redefine the boundaries. For me, I have taken a long hard look at how I use social media this year, and have made proactive changes. I have zero desire to be a “Tweet machine of scheduled posts.” More on that below.

      Thank you for your comment!!!!

      -Dan

      http://wegrowmedia.com/how-to-stand-out-on-social-media-care/

      http://wegrowmedia.com/i-am-changing-how-i-use-social-media-more-social-less-media/

      http://wegrowmedia.com/attack-of-the-social-media-zombies/

      http://wegrowmedia.com/the-mindless-robots-of-social-media-best-practices/

      • It was one of your posts on social media and true engagement that caused me to follow you, Dan. I’m thinking through my career approach for 2015. In fact just wrote a post about 5 things I’m planning to do less of. Barraging the internet isn’t my nature, nor do I think it works anymore. I’m just not quite sure what does.

        I have no fiction published yet-so I can’t whine too much. I’m doing more paid writing gigs to keep up the spirits. Money, as crass as that sounds, definitely motivates me.

        • Clarity is good, so it sounds like your 2015 is already off to a great start! Same with motivators. 🙂
          Thanks!
          -Dan

  • Vaughn Roycroft

    I’m so glad I saw this picture and heard the story behind it. I will never, ever forget seeing Amanda at Grub Street’s Muse & the Marketplace, in Boston, less than two months after the Marathon attack. She owns a piece of my heart now. Thanks, Dan! Have a great weekend.

  • KathyPooler

    Yes, yes, yes, Dan This post resonated and , in fact, is exactly what I needed to hear. I admit , I have checked the Amazon rankings, even catching an hour or two of “fame” by making into the top 100 now and then. I have organized book signings at libraries ad book stores (with no guards!) and spoken at community groups. I remain open to all these opportunities But, by far, the most gratifying of all the activities is engaging with a reader one-on-one and hearing how my story has meaning in their lives. I vow to keep that as my focus. Thank you for a very timely post and I love the photo.

    • Kathy,
      You make a great point about balance. That it is 100% okay to want to be on bestseller lists, or be on a stage in front of a nice sized audience, but that the 1:1 moments are not to be lost in the mix. Thank you so much for sharing this!
      -Dan

  • One of the best articles about this topic I’ve ever read. I’m not aware Amanda writes books too. I just knew she’s Neil Gaiman’s wife and I listen to her music. I learned something new today!

    • Thank you Xeno. Yes, her book just came out, so I think this is a new phase to her career. It came from her TED talk on the same topic from a couple years back. Have a great day!
      -Dan

  • Alison Law

    Thanks, Dan, for sharing the photo and for expounding upon it here. Seeing the photo inspired me to read the book, which is fabulous. What’s happening–two people really connecting and seeing each other–is the heart of The Art of Asking.

  • JLAD1105

    People in politics, entertainment and professional sports often forget that other people are mostly responsible for their success / notoriety. Elected officials
    can easily be voted out of office, and fans of actors, singers, writers and pro
    athletes can just as quickly turn their attention to someone else, should they
    feel disrespected and / or unappreciated. My own media impact has been small, since I don’t have a very large blog following and still haven’t managed to publish anything outside of that yet. But those people who tell me I’m a good writer or merely express their pleasure with one of my stories or essays mean everything to me. They’re the ones who’ll propel my success, as I relentlessly pursue my goals of becoming a professional, published writer. It’s understandable that some celebrities need protection from the crazed few who might haunt them from the shadows. Stalker threats are real. But the majority of an author’s fans have experienced true joy from that writer’s work, and that connection is genuine. No one should forget that.