Audience expectations

Playing with what our audience expects can be dangerous. Sometimes you can pull it off. Sometimes it really backfires. This week we’re looking two audience expectation failures I’ve found.

Email oops…

First, early this week, I got an email from a spice monger I buy from. The first couple of lines were what you would expect, “Hey we have some great deals and a free offer!” Then, instead of telling me about the great deals and wonderful spices, the author hits me with two rambling paragraphs about the president and the Muller report before getting on with talking about the spices

I will not go into what I believe, or don’t believe, about the Muller report. This isn’t the place for it. And, an advertisement for spices wasn’t the place I expected to find it either… Mulling spice, probably. Mulberries, possibly. But Muller the ‘special council’, no.

The author was passionate about the report and presidential politics, but he was talking about them in the wrong place. At best, he got a “Huh, what?” response.

Or, he could get “this is click-bait $#$@#%@$#!!!” and the audience stops reading.

What if the author was actually successful with those paragraphs? The reader rages about presidential politics and forgets to buy spices!

We can, and do, have many interests and many things to talk about. When we are writing, or talking, we need to think about our purpose and what we’re trying to achieve in a piece.

If we’re here to sell spices, we need not talk about politics.

If we’re here to talk about politics who cares whether the Cumin is available in a quarter cup jar and the three-quarter cup bag.

And, if we’re supposed to be talking about either of those topics and somebody lurches into “why rainbow suspenders are cooler than bow ties”… Forget it! I’m out!

When you come to your audience with a topic and a subject line, you probably want to stay on topic (or at least explain why you’re changing topic and make  your topics somehow related…)

Video Voops…

Unfortunately, switching topics without a clutch isn’t the only way to offend your audience and violate their expectations.

One of the basic assumptions a good audience has is that you are a credible source. And if you mess with that belief you can get yourself in a lot of trouble.

Ok, in fiction we have the unreliable narrator, that’s a device authors can use in telling a story. It isn’t the author screwing up or failing to do research. It also isn’t the easiest technique to use in fiction. In non-fiction, it’s better to stay away completely.

The day I wrote this I watched a non-fiction video about exotic weapons and watched the narrator/writer’s credibility burn on impact. The problem: the narrator/writer put up a wacky old pistol design and proclaimed it had 20 barrels and 2 chambers. He then described the function of the mechanism, and just like his picture, his description proved he didn’t know the difference between a barrel and a chamber.

It wasn’t just a onetime mistake. He made the mistake three times in that description and then made it with multiple other museum pieces…

Ok, the gun community has debates and wierdnesses about terminology. In practice, the person on the street probably doesn’t care whether you call them clips or magazines (stay away from clipazines though…). If you really have to call a revolver a wheel gun I’ll try to be patient with you. But, when you describe things in a way that is obviously wrong, even to people outside the field, there’s a good chance you will come out looking like an idiot.

For other examples, just turn to the customer reviews at Amazon or other online sources. Somewhere, right now as you read this, somebody is posting a review calling a pipe wrench @$@#!!! because it doesn’t ‘hit down’ the screws right…

One of the basic audience expectations is that you have some basic knowledge about your subject.

In fiction, that means you know something about genre conventions and the lore of the world you’re in. (Please, please do not show up at the Star Trek convention and talk about the time R2-D2 piloted the Serenity straight into a black hole while Captain Reynolds watched from the Bridge of the Galactica…)

In non-fiction (and in fiction) you need to do your research. You need to have some understanding of the subject.

When you claim knowledge you don’t have, your readers will figure that out. Maybe not all of them, not right away at least, but some of them will figure it. And, readers talk to other readers, especially in the day of social media.

When your readers figure out you don’t know what you’re talking about, say goodbye to your chances to get them to do anything, and (probably) your chances of them reading something else you wrote.

There are times and ways to play with audience expectations, but going off topic unnecessarily or proving that you don’t know what you’re talking about aren’t good ones. The good ways of playing with audience expectations take skill and practice; and even then you only want to do it when there is a payoff for you and the reader.

That’s it for this one dear reader. If there’s something you’d like to say, or a way I can improve in my fulfillment of audience expectations, leave a comment. And, I’ll see you next post.

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