Unpopular Opinion: It is our job to remove barriers to engagement

As arts organizations, we are super good at creating barriers for engagement and attendance.

The number one way we do this is how we talk about what we do. Nearly every piece of descriptive copy we put out there assumes that the reader has an intermediate or higher level of knowledge about our art form or organization. The vast majority of people don’t. Even most of those who have attended our events in the past don’t necessarily have a ton of knowledge about the nuances involved.

I nearly failed high school chemistry, but the one thing I remember from that class is my teacher saying one of his favorite quotes, “ASSume nothing because you make an ASS out of U and ME.”

We’re not maliciously or even consciously doing this. We are so close to what we do that we talk about it in our org speak using jargon that we don’t even realize is jargon.

One of my favorite examples of this is illustrated in this case study from Ballet Austin (in a project funded by the Wallace Foundation). One of my favorite finding as to why people weren’t attending their mixed repertoire shows was because the language they were using to describe them was unknown to the potential ticket buyer. Specifically, the term “mixed repertoire” which is the very term that is used in the dance world to describe such a performance. (Of course, there are lots of other great things from this study and you should absolutely read it in it’s entirety.)

Another favorite is this:

This photo made its way around Twitter some months ago and is so very telling. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a kid and I connect much more with the bottom wall label.

When talking about our upcoming show or exhibition, let’s simplify our descriptions and talk like regular people. This isn’t dumbing things down, this is speaking in a way that is compelling and appropriate for those we want to engage.

We have complete control over how we communicate with current and undiscovered patrons. Let’s make sure we’re doing it in the most welcoming way possible.