What Questions Are You Asking That Result In Good Conversations?

I don’t know about everyone else, but I started feeling like the phrases “unprecedented time” and “we’re all in this together” got overused pretty quickly these last couple months.  This may sound cynical, but if you really want to communicate empathy, you need to sound like you are actually making an effort instead of mouthing empty platitudes. (A phrase which itself is overused.)

Granted, it can be difficult to express original sentiments when you are feeling pressured by the times. Fortunately, there are some creative people providing us with some useful resources.

There was a piece on Quartz by Elizabeth Weingarten where she supplies, “20 questions to ask instead of “How are you doing right now?” She notes that even in the best of times, that question comes off as rote recitation of pleasantries and right now we need to be exhibiting greater care for each other. These are good questions for developing closer relationships with everyone – family, friends, co-workers, audience members, funders, etc.

Some of the 20 questions she listed that I really appreciated:

What part of your shelter-in-place residence have you come to appreciate the most?

What habit have you started, or broken, during the quarantine?

What are some things you have realized that you don’t really need?

What’s something that you miss that surprises you? What’s something that you don’t miss that surprises you?

What’s the most generous act you’ve seen recently?

How do you want this experience to change you? How do you think it will?

What do you hope we all learn or take away from this experience?

I guess a good 21st question, (and naturally, there are many more), is which of the 20 questions resonate most with you?

It wasn’t until I started cutting and pasting these into the post that I realized the ones I was selecting were strongly oriented toward self-improvement outcomes.

Weingarten wants to know what sort of conversations result from using these questions. Her email is at the bottom of the article so bookmark it so you can report back.

Give Seth Godin A Guest Pass And He Will Bring 80 Friends

Capacity Interactive’s Erik Gensler scored a podcast interview with Seth Godin to discuss what the post-Covid-19 future for the arts might look like.  There is a transcript of the interview available if you would rather consume the content in that way.

I always wondered why so many of Godin’s blog posts had resonance with arts and culture. I was unaware that Godin’s father worked for the Studio Arena Theatre and his mother was on the board of the Albright-Knox Museum, both in Buffalo, NY.

He says what will be valuable as we emerge into the next normal after Covid-19 concerns abate will largely still be what is valuable now – connection, scarcity and the sense of being an insider that comes from scarcity. He doesn’t feel digitizing the great art of the world and putting it online has sufficient value for people. The ratio of people who line up to take a selfie with the Mona Lisa far outweighs the number of people who look at the Mona Lisa online. Even though a huge number of people have shuffled past the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and the experience isn’t scarce in terms of absolute numbers, having a selfie provides the “here I am, and your not” sense of being an insider.

Godin takes on the common claim cultural organizations make that their audience is “everybody” rather than having a sense of who your content is for. He says that basically to sell out, you only need to attract about 1% of the population in your community. (Given the population of NYC, that number approaches zero.)

So, if all you need is one percent, what that means is, you would benefit by actively ignoring what 99% of the people say they want. Do not compromise anything for them because if you compromise something for them, the ones who weren’t going to come anyway, the ones who might’ve come aren’t going to come, either. And this is the myth of the Broadway show with a TV star in it because the Broadway producer says, “I don’t have a TV star; I can’t get people to come to my show,” but when you do the math—and I’ve seen the report—more than half the people at a Broadway show on any given night go to several Broadway shows a year, maybe 10. So, you’re not actually trying to get someone who is so unaware that they’re only willing to come if it’s a TV star. You’re trying to get someone who’s going to come because it’s good

Initially I was a little concerned that his injunction against compromising anything was a rejection of the necessity to change experiences and add program variety, but pretty soon it was clear he was against any sort of explicit or implicit message that people did not belong or weren’t welcomed.

Godin used the example of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He said if the company was smart, they would never pay for an ad Gensler would see because he isn’t their target audience. The one thing Harley-Davidson knows is that ads don’t sell their bikes, Harley riders do. The riders insist their friends join them.

Godin says the art is the marketing. Marketing isn’t happens after the art is created. When the Harley rider is inviting others to participate in something they value, there is no distinction between the product and the marketing.

While not everything can be promoted successfully by word of mouth, Godin is basically criticizing the practice of putting marketing and fundraising in distinct silos, divorced from the creative process.

Of course, the product consumed isn’t the art, it is the whole experience. Which is why there is such a push to events using more images of audiences enjoying an experience with family and friends rather than performers posing artfully with props or musical instruments.

This is the part of the podcast Gensler and Godin started talking about some really great ideas that have been implemented.

Gensler talks about how the Cleveland Orchestra creates connections with first time attendees:

…when someone is a first-time visitor to see a concert, they will send someone over to the seat with a box full of goodies and let them choose some branded merchandise and say, “Thank you for coming. I hope you enjoy the concert.” They did research and found that those people that get that experience of being seen are three times more likely to come back in six months than the people who didn’t get that experience,

Godin uses the example of the Museum of Modern Art which allows members to bring guests in an hour before the museum opens. He asked if there was a limit and was told no, so he brought 80 people and gave them a personal tour of the museum. He said the staff clearly were not prepared for this, but that the museum should be encouraging this sort of thing.

“And the question is, why isn’t this a feature? Why is it a bug that creating a way for members to act like big shots if they bring groups with them is what we’re talking about here. That is handing your biggest fans a megaphone. How can you make it easy for them to do that and impossible for anyone else to do it because it’s the scarcity that creates the value, right?”

Godin suggested something that hadn’t be implemented anywhere that could be used in connection with live performance.

“…what happens if, after a live performance, everybody in the room—remember they all have cell phones; they’re all waiting for their car at the parking garage or on the way home—gets an email and it says, “We’re doing an after show talk just for you. Two of the actors are in the dressing room, taking their makeup off. Click here to see it,” and live 30, 40, 100 people tune in and they’re commenting on what went right and what went wrong that night on stage, letting us feel like something magical actually happened, something live. It opens the door to the next thing. It gives us one more thing to talk about.”

Gensler said that a lesson they learned at Capacity Interactive was that people have much more potential to influence participation by others after they have purchased tickets. He said they used to stop showing people ads once they made a purchase, but realized that was a bit shortsighted because people can become more engaged after they have made the decision to participate and once they have attended, are ready to be enthusiastic recommenders. So they provided more content to people who have seen the show in the hope they would put their stamp of approval on the event by forwarding on to others.

There’s one campaign we did where the content from after they saw the event was nine times higher than any of the content we show them before and it’s that exact reason, because they’re passionate. And the crazy thing is, we thought our metric for that kind of campaign was getting people to share it and we’re like, “Oh, wow, hundreds of people are sharing this. This is great.” But we didn’t expect was the amount of money that those posts make. Certain campaigns will … those will sell way more tickets.

As text and quote heavy as this post has been, there is a lot of their conversation I skipped over. Give it a listen/read as there is likely to be something in there that will inspire you.

Might Be About Time To Get Back In The Fundraising Saddle

If there has been any benefit from the Covid-19 shut down it is the sheer number of webinars being offered to help businesses and other non-profit organizations connect with resources. I am sure we would all have been happier if life hummed along as before rather than necessitating the need to agonize over what loan or grant programs our organizations might qualify for and trying to get applications processed.  However, it also feels like networks of information and resources are being constructed and strengthened through this all. Hopefully they will persist beyond this period of time and become an asset.

By my last estimate, I have participated in 10-12 sessions in the last two weeks. One I found particularly interesting that is generally applicable was the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s session on “Communicating and Fundraising for Preservation in a Time of Uncertainty.”  (slide deck) Since I run an historic theater, I thought there might be information on resources available for our facilities.

What I found helpful was their advice on fundraising during these difficult times. Basically, they opened by saying just like the many stages of grief, there is going to come a point in the way you are processing your current situation where you will start to focus on the future. Part of that will be getting back to fundraising.

They said you can approach donors now, but just for the purposes a check-in with them.  The conversation should focus on how they are doing and what they are hearing about how other non-profits are doing. This will give you a sense of their priorities at the moment. You are also maintaining relationships and laying the groundwork for the future.

In terms of when you can make an ask, you need basically be sensitive enough gauge when the time will be right. But when you do make the ask, the webinar presenters emphasize being worthy, not needy. You should make the case in terms of your worth rather than in terms of your desperation for funding. They also strongly advise against shifting your focus to chase the direction dollars are flowing at the moment.

Here is the relevant slides from the presentation.

The point about being accommodating is in respect to acknowledging priorities might not be focused on your causes at the moment. In terms of hosting events, they point out that this might be a good time to host a virtual meeting or information session. Those that are invested in your success want to hear how you are doing.

I should mention, today my staff and I had a consultation with Michael Kaiser from the DeVos Institute of Arts Management. You may remember he is the former president of the Kennedy Center who was hailed as a “turn around king.” He is offering free one hour consultations to arts organizations about how to cope in these times. (~380 and counting). He provided the same advice about focusing conversations with donors and funders on how they are doing.

He also made a similar suggestion about hosting a virtual meeting on Zoom or other platform. In our case, it would be to discuss our process in planning our upcoming season since our contracting and scheduling process is delayed, not to mention no one really knows when we will be able to assemble in large groups again. Based on the type of calls we have been getting, this type of meeting is likely to help strengthen our relationship with our audiences and assuage their concerns. We are waiting until all the refunds for cancelled shows have been processed so that topic doesn’t dominate the conversation.

Being Generous With Your Creativity

Since I have been on the topic of arts and cultural organizations broadly providing content to anyone who happens by virtually, I figured there is space to point to another voice in the conversation.

Seth Godin made a post recently titled Generous isn’t always the same as free.  I raised the idea yesterday that maybe providing all this content isn’t in the best interests of creative entities in the long term.

Godin’s idea of generous not being the same as free may hold a key to resolving questions about this. He uses examples of a doctor taking the time to understand your needs, a waitress anticipating your needs and a boss who provides the challenging work you need.

In this last case, the generosity might actually result in you working longer and harder than before in order for you to grow. It may be a few years before you recognize that bit of generosity was beneficial and required more of your boss than they need have invested in you.

I don’t bring this up to transition to an argument about suffering contributing to the eventual growth or appreciation of creative organizations or those that participate in their activities. Lord knows there has been plenty of “suffering for your art” conversations throughout history.

Rather, I wanted emphasize Godin’s point that the common element in each of his examples is the contributions to stronger relationships.

Gifts create connection and possibility, but not all gifts have monetary value. In fact, some of the most important gifts involve time, effort and care instead.


In this moment when we’re so disconnected and afraid, the answer might not be a freebie. That might simply push us further apart. The answer might be showing up to do the difficult work of connection, of caring and of extending ourselves where it’s not expected.

When you are pretty anxious about the future of your organization, you may not feel you have the luxury of the deliberative, multi-week process Nina Simon laid out in her blog post I excerpted yesterday. You should have the time, though, to consider whether choices made and effort expended are generous gestures that will contribute to a relationship, albeit over a long term, or a simple freebie.

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