How Lazy Language is Killing Culture

In a hands-on session at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in early 2011, Trevor O'Donnell, a recognized authority on brand activation who specializes in the development of new audiences, instructed attendees on how to use the right words to persuade younger, more diverse audiences without offending long-time patrons. It was a fun, interactive workshop that featured an irreverent critique of the language we speak now, and a practical tool for developing the right language for tomorrow's audiences. He said that the language of arts marketing was developed decades ago for people who are now long gone, yet we continue to speak it. Every "Celebrate!" or "Experience the magic" or "All the world's a stage" is a woefully unoriginal reminder that rather than communicating, we're often just recycling hoary old clichés.

O'Donnell urged everyone to consider their answers to:

  • Are you saying the right things to the right people in order to persuade them to buy?
  • Or are you saying the same things that have always been said hoping they will somehow appeal to new audiences?

He also presented the Fundamentals of Persuasion: 1) Know your (new) audience; 2) Know what they want; 3) Describe how your product satisfies their desires.

"The unsold seat next to the last seat sold has somebody's name on it. You have to know who that person is before you can sell her a ticket," O'Donnell said. He recommended that organizations get to know recent attendees not through expensive focus groups, but by simply talking with them in gallery spaces, theater venues, and concert hall lobbies. So often marketers say they think they know their audiences, but O'Donnell stressed the importance of replacing "I think..." with "we know..."

In his book, Marketing the Arts to Death: How Lazy Language is Killing Culture, O'Donnell describes how speaking a dead language may be doing more harm than good and he offers useful advice for speaking in fresh ways to new audiences.