I sat on a chambray blanket in Central Park on Sunday. It wasn’t my blanket; I hadn’t brought one. The blanket belonged to the facilitator of our group discussion. Eight of us sat in a circle eating our various Asian-inspired bowls while our leader asked questions about the chapters we were supposed to have read. I moved the food around in my bowl, mixing the sticky rice, kimchi, bean sprouts, steak, and Gojuchong sauce. Endeavoring not to spill any oily-sauce-laden food items onto the blanket that was not mine, I slid my fork to the bottom of the bowl before twisting it in infinitesimal increments. In spite of my care and diligence, an errant sprout emancipated itself from the bowl and plunged onto the blanket.
We were discussing chapters of a book I had not read. Hence my extreme focus on my bowl. I had every intention of reading them. It was a book I’d wanted to read since it came out. The problem is that I can’t seem to get my attention span and processing speed to keep pace with a rigorous reading schedule. It was something I couldn’t even manage in school when I was being graded. We should have completed six chapters by that meeting. I’d managed two. I showed up for our weekly group meeting anyway, because people have told me my presence is valuable even when I don’t think have anything to share.
I followed the discussion as I stirred, listening and trying to formulate thoughts about material I didn’t read. I’d just lost my fifth bean sprout to the blanket when my ears picked up something I knew I could comment on.
“Can I just ask,” a group member said, “who is he writing this book for?”
A couple of other people chimed in, offering differing opinions. One person stated that the author probably didn’t just write it for one audience, but with the intention that everyone would get something out of it.
This was it. My moment to contribute.
“Just to give some insight from an author’s perspective,” I began, setting down my bowl as my hands started to tremble, “You’re touching on the question of primary and secondary audiences. I don’t know this author, but I can tell you that he would have written it with one particular audience in mind. Because that’s just how it works. It’s how you focus your material into one coherent book. If we look at the subtitle, the phrasing points us toward the primary audience. However, inevitably, any book is going to be relevant and helpful to people who are not part of that primary audience. At least, that’s how it works in non-fiction.”
The facilitator thanked me for the insight and moved to the next question.
Once our time together concluded, I said my goodbyes and left the park. Even though I’d put my headphones around my neck in preparation for my walk, they remained there for several blocks and I let my thoughts wander.
I think a lot about audience. As a communicator and a consumer. As a facilitator and a participant. As a speaker and a listener. It would be fair to say that I obsess over it, actually. The process of taking a concept that only exists in my head and shoving it into vocabulary in a way that the person I am speaking to will understand–it’s a little bonkers if you think about it.
It’s come up a lot recently. Everyone and their mother has an opinion on singleness. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. We all have positive and negative associations with the word. Some don’t mind being lumped into the category, others become irritated. Some think it’s all anyone wants to talk about, others think it’s barely considered. Some think about it all the time, others don’t see what the big deal is.
This makes it an endless creative challenge for a communicator. What assumptions is my person carrying with them as they read my stuff? Do they hear themselves in my stories? Am I pointing them in a helpful direction or only adding to their frustration? What assumptions and biases am I bringing with me into my work that clash with those of my reader? As an avid puzzler, I must admit that I do enjoy basking in these murky waters.
You might not be a writer in the way that I am, but you do share the challenge of clear and effective communication. We all do. There are things so worn into the muscle memory of our lives we don’t realize they need to be said out loud. There are also those sneaky little gremlins lurking in the corners we are afraid to draw attention to. Because what if we’re the only one who experiences that thing? Does that mean we are broken or wrong?
It will not be a revelation for you to hear that we are contextual beings. There are similarities between us and people in other contexts because some things about being a human person are universal. However, we are informed and shaped by everything around us–from our close relationships to the particular place and time in which we are located.
When we share generalized truths and ideas, they carry with them a hoard of specific truths and ideas accumulated over our lives up to that point. When we receive generalized information, we filter it through our own hoard of specific narratives and life lessons. Whether we have a Ph.D. in the thing we’re discussing or we are mostly working off of lived experience. Whether our intent is to explore a topic or to be right. Whether we secretly want validation we feel we are owed or we want to learn from another person’s experience. Whether we’ve never seen healthy disagreement modeled or we love to stir the pot.
It’s a lot to try to hold onto, and perhaps that’s one reason we authors write for a primary audience. It doesn’t just make the message clearer and better. It keeps us relatively sane. Perhaps we aren’t meant to hold onto all of it. Perhaps we’re meant to look out from our little corner of things and trust God gave us that corner on purpose. That doesn’t mean we yell over everybody else. It might just mean trusting that there is someone that our words are for. And if our words don’t land with someone, maybe they need to be refined. It is also possible that the person we’re talking to isn’t the primary audience.
Let’s make it specific as I leave you with some questions for your consideration. Let’s say you are single and a well-meaning person says, “You’re so great! Why are you single?” Picture a specific scene in your mind. Who is talking to you? Is it something you’ve heard before? What feeling does it bring up? What message do you hear behind the words? How might you choose to respond?
P.S. I wrote a wee book to help single Christians navigate church culture and conversations without losing their minds. If this blog was up your alley, but you’re looking for practical examples and take-aways, check out The Single Christian’s Church Survival Guide on Amazon.