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Obama vs. McCain, Debate Night at the Brattle Theatre

Last night the Harvard Bookstore hosted a panel discussion and a debate party at the Brattle Theatre. Unfortunately, I missed the discussion beforehand but was fortunate enough to make it inside.

As a self-proclaimed political junkie, just the idea of a movie theatre-sized debate party was intriguing, exciting, and thrilling to me.  I’ve been watching the debates with friends and family members, but watching it in a dark theatre with a room full of strangers was going to be a different experience.

It’s October 2008, and it’s, once again, the nexus point for two events that I watch closely: A Presidential Election and October baseball.  Back in 2004 when asked, a member of the theatre community said the best theatre of 2004 was the Red Sox versus the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.  You really couldn’t get a better script than that.  If you’re a New Englander, that is.

I’ve found sports and politics to have the same type of entertainment appeal to me.  Baseball players are playing a game–the same game they did as children–for an exorbitant amount of money.  We should all be so fortunate, right?

These days, most political events are heavily scripted with carefully constructed talking points.  Occasionally, the script is interrupted with off the cuff reactions or gaffes.  We watch the debates for these moments just like a Sox fan watches for the sheer thrill of seeing David Ortiz launch one into the Boston night.

Last night, the Brattle was packed.  The audience was surprisingly diverse.  No age group appeared to dominate the crowd. The younger people weren’t necessarily students either.  No obvious, simple demographics.  I was pleasantly surprised.

The Harvard Bookstore served pizza and sodas while the transition was made from the panel to the movie setup.  You could feel the excitement in the theatre.  There was a sense of freedom and, perhaps even curious, anticipatory fun.

The Brattle Theatre is in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Given those facts, you can imagine the political profile of the crowd.  For full disclosure, include me in that group, too.  Any candidate who has an Arts Plan (pdf) is a friend of someone who has worked for non-profit arts organizations for the past seven years.

I didn’t know what to expect. I had watched all the other debates on CNN. On HDTV there were the pundit scorecards along with what Bill Maher termed the “candidates life force.” Uncommitted Ohio voters weighed in with their instant approval or lack thereof.  Watching previous debates on CNN, many opportunities existed to instantly learn how other people were reacting.  Now that I’ve spent time on news sites like Talking Points Memo, I see that CNN had a split screen view so viewers could see how the other candidate reacted as they listened to their opponent’s responses.

To me, pre and post debate chatter is a lot about listening to what mass media experts are feeding the uncommitted voter.  At all the small debate parties I’ve been to, once the candidates stop talking my companions and I do.  Later on, I go to my favorite blogs, Twitter searches as well as their Election site, and the mainstream media sites for a roundup.  After the first debate, a friend dubbed me the “Human RSS Reader”.

My friends and I were surprised the Brattle was showing PBS’ coverage of the debate through New Hampshire Public Television rather than a mass media outlet.

Soon after the debate started, the lights were turned out just like a movie.  The candidates were announced and the crowd reacted with applause.  People were fairly active and vocal with hoots, hollers, clapping, and laughing, so much that one section started hushing others so we could all hear the answers.

Cheers broke out with relative frequency after Obama’s responses.  And, not to be a completely one-sided group, there was some scattered applause and cheers for McCain.  A friend assured me that it was just one person.

I don’t know if there’s a comparable experience I have had in a movie theatre.  The only one that comes to mind is when I saw Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911.  The audience at that one seemed more homogeneous because everybody was aware of the narrative.

During the debate I was having a collective experience with strangers in a dark room.  The audience was, of course, well informed.  Everybody knew the subjects that may come up (William Ayers and ACORN) but, of course, there were surprises, too, like John McCain introducing America to “Joe the Plumber.”

I’ve spent a good deal of my professional life contemplating audiences who gather in dark rooms for live performances.  Just like this time, I’ve watched the splitscreen shots of the carefully selected uncommitted voters from swing states on television as they watch the debate as a group.

I’ve seen great drama on stage.

I’ve been riveted by cinematic experiences.

I’ve seen heroes like Bob Dylan close in intimate venues.

I’ve seen the Red Sox come back against the Yankees at Fenway Park.

This was something completely different: A shared experience with total strangers, a moderately-scripted theatrical event with potential for sparks and spontaneity.  This event along with others had and has the potential to change the present course of our country, our economy, our world, and our lives.

Thank you to the Harvard Bookstore and the Brattle Theatre for creating such an experience.  It is a true public service.

Yes, indeed.  I am a political junkie.  And, I do love great theatre, too.

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Michael C. Gilbert on Blogging

Yesterday, I came across a fascinating article by Michael C. Gilbert of the Nonprofit Online News. The article, “Become a Blogger and Relax, A Systems Approach to Information Overload” was incredibly thought-provoking.

The basic premise is that blogging combats information overload by requiring the blogger to focus on what is important.  Considering that most people who work at non-profit organizations wear multiple hats, prioritization is key.  At any job we’re inundated with new ideas, some good, some not so hot, and we are always juggling multiple projects.

To me, what Gilbert is saying is that making time to filter and focus allows us to effectively communicate what is important to both our colleagues and our audience.

Just like a CEO, an Artistic or Executive Director could round up a week of experiences in a blog post internally to the company or to the audience.  As a result, the staff or audience members can succinctly understand the following:

This is why we are doing a specific initiative.

This is why it is important to our mission and who we are.

This is who we wish to be looking into the future.

And, most important: These are the questions we have.  What are your thoughts?

It allows for a conversation to start.  It allows for a synergy of ideas within your staff or constituencies. You can communicate what the organization believes is important and put it out there for public consumption, debate, and conversation.

It also demonstrates a willingness to listen and learn.

To me, blogging serves the same purposes my high school Humanities teacher wished for journaling to do:

You’re supposed to be working on understanding yourself.  You’re not supposed to be afraid to have ideas.  You’re supposed to be thinking, listening to feedback, learning, processing, and further articulating your ideas and, even, having new ones.

Blogging should teach organizations and individuals to be fearless in respectfully and responsibly stating opinions so we can create engaged conversations.

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David Foster Wallace on Marketing

A friend of mine sent me this David Foster Wallace quote in the context of marketing:

You’ve not only got the problem of representing the truth but you also have to consider ‘What’s gonna sound true? In writing or music: what’s going to hit their nerve endings as true in 2006, or 2000 or 1995?’  It seems to me that the nervous systems that now receive all this information today are vastly more complicated, difficult, cynical, and overhyped than they used to be.  The easy example is, and one that I go over again and again with students in my writing class is: these students are far more afraid of coming off as sentimental then they are coming off as twisted, obscene, gross– things that used to be the horrible aspects you didn’t want to portray about yourself.  And it would appear that the great danger of appearing sentimental is that sentimentality is mainly now used in what would appear to be very cynical marketing and mass entertainment devices that are meant to sort of manhandle the emotions of large numbers of people who aren’t paying close attention. So that some of the most urgent themes or issues like ‘how to deal with mourning the loss of someone you love very much’ have been so adulterated by cynical commercial art that it becomes very, very, very difficult to think about how to talk about in a way that’s not more of that crap.
-David Foster Wallace

I replied with:

Advertising signs that con you
Into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.
-“It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding”, Bob Dylan

and added in:

Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.

But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are truly human with some trivial  lip service about “listening to customers.” They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf.

While many such people already work for companies today, most companies ignore their ability to deliver genuine knowledge, opting instead to crank out sterile happytalk that insults the intelligence of markets literally too smart to buy it.
-The Cluetrain Manifesto

At the core of all three quotes is the changing role of what a marketer is: Someone who builds a community.

I am always thinking of a David Mamet quote about the responsibility of being a playwright.

I may not have it word-by-word correct but the essence is “Never assume that your audience, collectively, isn’t smarter than you are.”

The same is true for marketing.  Too often it becomes about a catchy sales phrase as opposed to authentic communication.  More and more consumers aren’t trusting the materials a company produces. Instead they rely on the voice of the community at large.   It’s too easy to type something into Google and find reviews.  We want people who are paying attention because they will become the customers that speak on our behalf.

When marketers are the consumers, we do the research online.  We use Google.  We need to respect our customers by expecting them to do it as well.

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