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Enlighten and Entertain

From grade school and up we put our wares on exhibition and show and tell the story of our stuff. Of course what we are really doing is manufacturing desire and consent not so much for our acquisitions or handy work but for ourselves. While it may be true that advertisers objectify the beautiful people to sell more trim and trap it is through subjectifying things back into human experiences that we truly engage others in our vision. When we cast an observer into the story they become the one singular sensation.  They heroically discover the solution to their problem or the bridge to their dreams or simply save humanity from itself. It’s never about the product or service but rather the personal answer it provides. This means that telling the story always starts from the perspective of the consumer. To do so requires that we understand what they really want – happiness, satisfaction or world peace. While the aim may be altruistic the impetus to act as such is still self-interest.

In the Middle Ages when the majority of an illiterate Europe struggled through pestilence and penury the troubadour Jacques de Longuyon introduced the Nine Worthies in one of his most famous romances. These chivalrous historical figures such as Joshua, Alexander and Charlemagne were meant to inspire ideal behavior in everyone from villainous feudal lords to insubordinate vassals. This showcase of the celebrated and venerated had two purposes – to encourage and exploit.
Being positive and inspirational is essential to recruit support for our endeavors but this joy ride is also manipulative for it encourages us to accept a fiction we ordinary take to be fantasy. This is what the poet Coleridge meant by the “suspension of disbelief.” Endorphin producing motivation has no gates and brings both hope and coercion to us through the same entrance – Lose weight, find love, and be financially free. Plato warns us to put the fabulist in shackles before his pleasing rhetoric leads the unsuspecting and dim to crusade and calamity. Therefore it is necessary to be ever mindful that chicanery is inherent to persuasion no matter how virtuous and we should take care to align our actions with our values.
To educate we must animate. As Marshall McLuhan famously sniped, “Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”  While the maxim of the law is “Qui tacet consentit” or silence implies consent this is entirely untrue for communication where it signifies dissent. Effective storytelling in drama, music and art all employ devices or tricks of the trade to engage the audience in the show. A movie slowly brings an unsuspecting hero and a villain to the same tavern in a town in the Old West to heighten our anticipation and attract our participation. When they collide, guns a blazing, we are sucked-in like the barkeep and run for cover behind the salty popcorn. Leading, teaching and writing are all performing arts where the experience of the audience comes before the recitation of the models or methods.
To bring our audience in we must play off their own energy but we need not change character to play up to them. For example, Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter that ever lived, was notorious for his antagonistic relationship with the Boston press corps. The more he reeled against the blue bloods the more the working class fans that filled Fenway Park identified with him. They too were like Teddy Ballgame – misunderstood, heroic and just doing their job Mam. The Ted Williams Syndrome demonstrates that being adored or reviled is of little consequence unless we stand for something and stand out.
To be successful we must put our work on exhibition in form and manner that are meaningful and captivating to our public. This can be done in many ways:

  • Visual – Drawings, photos, videos
  • Analytical – Spreadsheets, planning documents, engineering diagrams
  • Simulation – Computer games, case studies, forecasts
  • Three dimensional – Clay renderings, working models, mock ups
  • Experiential  – Field trips, think tanks, creative jumpstarts

The key is to first gain their interest and last their understanding. Our work is of little value if we fail to exhibit it well.
Showmanship requires the exquisite timing of the triumphant ta-da. Hiding under the mysterious black velvet cape or just the radar it is rash to pop out until we have something amazing to show our guests. People forget it’s an act when they see the fuzzy bunny and love it from afar. We can either be wary of the magic summoned every day in every way or simply enjoy the show.
Jeff DeGraff
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