Impact, Guesswork, and the Audience Relationship

photo: Russell Trow, Creative Commons via Flickr
Impact is an interesting topic to me. I think about it a lot, and wonder if what I think is true about it is really true. I hear and say a lot about making a positive impact on people, but I'm starting to question my own understanding of what that means.

I have a clear idea about how I'd like my work to impact people. I want their lives to be better for it in specific ways. I want them to feel more connected, more courageous, and more valued, and I design my programs and services, and even my music to work toward those ends. And for some people who are on the receiving end of the work, that appears to happen. And for many, nothing changes at all, at least in any tangible way. Their frustrations, challenges, and concerns remain, and I am left to question if I'm doing something wrong or ineffectively.

What I'm beginning to realize is that the impact of my work has little, if nothing to do with me, the content of my work, or the delivery. The impact has everything to do with how it's received, interpreted and applied by the person who takes it in. Their mindset, their perceptions, their willingness, their imagination, and their own levels of resistance, persistence, and values are the real drivers of impact. They are the ones that make it happen or not.

As an artist, I think the best we can do is to create the finest, most inspiring, most deeply moving, and expansive work that we can, not based on others' perceptions, but our own. We have zero control over any other response, reaction, or impact. We can know the impact our work has on us, and we can have an idea of the impact we'd like our work to have, and in the end, the impact it will ultimately have isn't up to us. Some people's lives will be enhanced, and others won't.

The people who are ready for our work will know it when they see it, but they have to see it. The bulk of our job in finding our audience is guesswork. We have to guess who might be interested, we have to guess where we might be able to find them, we have to guess about how we present our work, we have to guess what the value of our work is. It's not an exact science, just like any other kind of relationship. It takes risk, it takes experimentation, it takes willingness to fail, it takes courage, it takes communication, and it takes time.

The relationship you have with your audience requires energy and focus. It can't be an afterthought the day before you have a show opening. If you cultivate an ongoing relationship with your audience, it will not be difficult to promote your work and events, you won't have to worry about learning any new marketing or selling techniques, and you won't need to be so concerned about the impact of your work. The relationship is the foundation for all the rest of it. I wonder if the relationship is where the real impact happens, and the work is just a token of that exchange? What do you think?