Speak to the people right in front of you

I watched Jaron Lanier deliver his Ted talk again yesterday. (If you have the time to be reading this, you should definitely check it out).

Hundreds of people in the live audience watched his talk and gave him a standing ovation. However, the vast majority of Lanier’s viewers see him from behind their computer and mobile screens. This got me thinking – whom should Lanier address his talk to – that live studio audience or his internet viewers?

Knowing that this was a Ted talk, likely to gather millions of views (2.3 million and counting), it is seemingly rational to think that Lanier ought to focus on his virtual audience. Perhaps there ought to be a camera that allows him to address his internet audience (like a news anchor does). Or his script needs to cater to those millions rather than the handful of invitees to the TED conference. But through this talk, we see how Jaron Lanier, or any great TED speaker, reaches millions of people by connecting with the people in the audience who sit right in front of him.

What seems irrational at first glance here – to focus on the few rather than the many – is entirely rational.

This principle remains of creation in any form that is directed at a particular audience. It is better to delight 10 members of one’s audience than to mildly stimulate a thousand. Our best work happens for a small set of people, from where it gets amplified to reach a large audience. The best made movies cater to niche audiences. Bands make their best music for their superfans – people who follow them on the concert tour and buy every album and every piece of merchandise they put out. Tim Urban, the author of the blog Waitbutwhy writes to wow a reader who is as similar to him as possible. Dan Carlin of Hardcore History fame, one of the best podcasting voices out there, calls podcasts a narrowcasting medium.

The common thread here is that the audience gets to decide our best work – often what is best for them. And what is best stands to delight a niche rather than pander to the masses.

Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. – Kurt Vonnegut

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