Your Career Is Just One Long Conversation With Your Audience

I really like the idea that your career is just one long conversation with your audience. There’s a lot of power in that ten word title. Give me a couple of minutes and I’ll tell you why. But first a short story.


When I first joined IBM one of the first clients I worked with was Wimbledon. I was working as part of the marketing team on some influencer campaigns, audience segmentation and content strategies and I was keen to make my mark as a new member of the team. Tapping into my 15 years of marketing experience and some idea about how social media works, I set to work doing some of my own audience research to see if we could run our campaigns more effectively. I analysed the conversations, the authors, their reach, engagement levels, all the usual stuff…


My analysis revealed some dramatic insights, but the biggest one was that the vast majority of content we created was only being shared by IBM employees, rather than the fans, “influencers” and media who I thought we were trying to reach.


Armed with this knowledge I shared the stats with our team and approached Sam Seddon, the IBM sports star who leads our relationship with Wimbledon for his direction and advice. I didn’t expect this to be new news, but I thought it would dramatically change the way that we ran part of our campaign. The advice Sam shared with me didn’t just change the way that I looked at our marketing, it changed the way that I looked at my career.


“I’m not trying to reach those people”, Sam told me, “my audience is the IBMers who see what we are doing and share our work with their clients, so that we can help them to do better work”.


It was an off-the-cuff remark which respectfully put me in my place, but it made me realise a couple of things. One, Sam knew exactly who his audience was and two, he knew it was part of a now 30-year conversation that IBM has been having with Wimbledon since 1990.


Bruce Springsteen is one of my heroes. He is famous for his 3 hour shows, the huge amount of energy he brings and the fact that he leaves absolutely everything on stage. His records are great, but they pale into insignificance when compared to his live shows, because he lives to engage with his fans. When he was asked about his career a few years ago, he responded with a similar message.


“My career is just one long conversation with my audience”.


If you want to see what that conversation really looks like, watch his one-man broadway show on Netflix, it will knock your socks off.


So let’s just pause for a second here, and think about what we are doing. We move from job to job, project to project, venture to venture, often look at them as a specific moment. A time or season in our lives when we are moving from one thing to the next in order to do something else. In the business and chaos of our careers, very little of our thinking is usually joined up and we end up having a “finite view” that changes quarter by quarter and pivots around each new venture or job title. Sometimes we feel in control of where we are going. Many times we feel like we don’t have a choice.


This is why I love Simon Sinek so much. Apart from the wisdom in his new book Infinite Game which talks eloquently about our battle between short term and long term thinking, I love him because he encourages everyone during his workshops to fill in a sentence of just three words.


“To __________ so that _________”.


Try it. It’s a lot harder than it looks. Fill in that sentence with what you want to do (your contribution to the world) and why you want to do it (your impact). Once you have that sentence up your sleeve, you now have a filter which helps you make decisions about the type of career you really want to have.


That sentence also helps you turn your career into one long conversation. For me, I want “To inspire other people to do what inspires them so that together we can change our world”. It sounds trite and cheesy and was inspired by Simon’s mission, but for me it’s true and I believe in it. Every decision I make at work needs to have that purpose as an ultimate goal, otherwise I don’t want to do it.


Storytelling is about talking with your audience, not at them”.


A few weeks after that conversation with Sam and the team, I realised that my job was not just to make some noise in the industry, or create a bigger echo chamber of tweets with other tech professionals or journalists, it was to inspire IBMers to do what inspires them. This small but simple revelation stopped me asking other people “what keeps you up at night?” and instead starting to focus on “what gets you out of bed in the morning?”.


As a side note, I love that IBM is moving away from a “campaign strategy” approach to all of its marketing in 2020 and embracing “conversation strategies” instead. A smart move. But that’s another post for another day.


The difference between an audience and a community is just which way the chairs are facing”. Chris Brogan


Think about any of the events you’ve ever been to and I bet that most of the keynotes you heard were quite forgettable. (The ones you remember probably had a lot of audience participation and engagement). But I’m guessing that there are a few fireside chats, dinners and panel sessions that you’ve never forgotten. Why? One format is a presentation. The other is a conversation.


In an interview a couple of years ago, fashion designer Tom Ford told me how he only designs for women who want to be taller, slimmer or younger and he refuses to have discounted sub-brands that cater for a less affluent audience. He also only works with people or partners he enjoys, because “if it’s not fun I don’t want to do it”. You may not agree with his ten word philosophy, but one of the reasons he is the world’s top fashion designer is because he is hyper-focused on the audience he wants to reach and he knows exactly what they want. He knows who he doesn’t want to reach and he finds it very easy to say no to projects that don’t reach his intended audience.


Eugene Peterson is another one of my heroes. He translated a version of the bible called “The Message” which has sold almost 20M copies. He’s one of the world’s most successful authors that many people have never heard of. When he died in 2018, his son shared in his eulogy that Eugene only had one message, but he found 52 different ways to preach it each year as part of a lifelong conversation with his congregation.


Comedian Jon Stewart hosted The Daily Show from 1999-2015 taking it from a small satire show on Comedy Central to one of the most popular “news” shows in the world. During his final show he said that he wasn’t leaving, he was just taking a pause in the conversation with his audience. “I’m just going to get a drink and I’ll see you later” he said in the emotional final episode, just before Bruce Springsteen (of course) played out the credits.


For all these reasons and many more which I won’t bore you with here, I think we could all benefit from thinking about our careers as a lifelong conversation with our audience.


That’s the easy part.


The hard part, is figuring out exactly who your audience is and what you want to talk to them about?


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