March 20, 2012
All my life, I have encountered people who claim that their insight into my clientele exceeds my own. But I’ve found a cheaper and much more reliable way to get that truly invaluable data.
Double bass teachers have told me what conductors and audition committees want. Video editors have told me what TV viewers want. Book editors and literary agents now tell me what readers want. In just the past week, multiple “speaking coaches” have told me – without being asked – what my audiences want.
It may seem sensible to listen to such experts. They all speak with such a grand air of authority, and I am well aware of my own ignorance. We are a timid, social species and, like you, I like to avoid looking like an idiot or otherwise embarrassing myself.
The idea that I could go to some third party and safely and inconspicuously learn how to pick up girls – or discover the secret of great salesmanship, or acquire whatever other elusive bit of knowledge has been holding me back – sounds fantastic, as it totally avoids any frightening possibility of embarrassment or rejection. This desire is ubiquitous, and an entire industry has grown up to cater to it.
But every single time I have taken third-party advice on what an audience or a client wants, it has never worked. Instead, when I go directly to the consumer and ask what their desires are, I get a completely different answer than any advice-giving interloper told me to expect.
For example, when I wrote my first book (a memoir of my life as a bass player), several literary agents told me it would never sell. “It’s very funny,” they said, “But who wants to read a book about a bass player?” They did not see a market for it, nor did it resemble anything that sold well the year before.
I was similarly skeptical, but the book turned out to be an overwhelming commercial success.
Some years later, many people told me I should rethink titling my next book “Principles of Applied Stupidity,” given that “stupidity” is such an abrasive word. They certainly had a legitimate point, but right after I self-published it, I ran into a friend who hosted a local TV show. “Oh,” she said. “What a fabulous title!” Ten days later I was featured on the local ABC network affiliate, not because it was a safe title, but because its humorous “offensiveness” was attention-grabbing. In publishing, publicity is key, and safe, polite titles do not get media attention. Third-party advice almost always skews towards the safest and least controversial method. Where’s the fun in that?
I know how faulty third-party advice is propagated. One person makes an observation or expresses an opinion, and bit by bit it gets repeated until it becomes accepted fact. People get comfortable with it, and it looks so wonderfully logical and correct that they stop gathering hard data altogether. Apparently no one else wants to go ask their customers what they think either.
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