Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: Whose Room is This?

This month, I'm sharing a few chapters from my new book The Art of Relevance to celebrate its release. Read more online and buy your own copy today.

One of my biggest aha moments while writing The Art of Relevance was moving away from the idea that there are "traditional" audiences and "new" audiences and instead thinking about people in terms of "insiders" and "outsiders". Here's a chapter from Part 2 of the book, Outside In, that explores the differences in how insiders and outsiders perceive institutional change. 

Whose Room is This?

I was a new parent, having lunch with a lesbian activist, when she told me the best-kept secret of hipster parenting in Santa Cruz: the Elks Lodge.

I knew the Elks Lodge as the weird building on the hill with an overabundance of wood paneling. The Elks, or the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks as they are officially called, are a fraternal society of do-gooders founded in 1868. For over one hundred years, they accepted white men only. It took until the mid-1990s for women and people of color to be eligible for membership, and even then, most Elks Lodges stayed white, male, and aging.

But funny things were afoot at Lodge 824 in Santa Cruz. By 2015, the Elks Lodge had become a haven for LGBT parents of young children. I didn’t get it. I thought of the Elks Lodge community as a bunch of elderly guys at the bar. Then my friend explained: it was all about the pool.

The only public pool in the city of Santa Cruz was closed in the 2008 recession for four years. During that dry spell, a few enterprising families sought another place to take a dip. They noted that the Elks Lodge had a great pool, plus cheap drinks and a barbecue. So a few of them got sponsored by existing members, swore to believe in God and fight Communism, and they were in. Over time, they became a dominant force at the Lodge, taking on leadership positions and advocating for more active community involvement. They had trouble getting all the way in the room; elder Elks stuck to traditions like weekly board meetings during the workday that made it hard for newcomers to fully participate. But still, what was once a bar for old men expanded to become a community center for young families, led by a group of lesbians who only twenty years ago would have been shunned and excluded by the Elks.

You can read this story at least two ways. Is it a story about an old room made relevant for new reasons? Or is it a story about change and cooptation of someone’s sacred space?

In any situation where you are trying to make something relevant, what you are really trying to do is make it relevant to new people or more people. Unless it’s a brand new endeavor, you aren’t starting at zero. It’s already relevant to somebody. There were already Elks. There were already opera lovers. There were already insiders.

We all have our own personal Yellowstones, the insider places we want to protect from change. Embrace your inner insider for a moment. Think of something you love just as it is. A restaurant. A fictional character. An art form. A park. Now imagine someone saying publicly, “We are going to make X relevant to new people. We’re going to make some changes and open it up to new folks. We need to be more inclusive.”

When you are on the inside, this doesn’t sound like inclusive language. It sounds threatening. It sounds like the thing that you hold dear being adulterated for public consumption. Insiders often know the totality of an entity (or have constructed their own version of it). They have a clear story about what the entity is—and isn’t. And so reaching out to someone new doesn’t look additive. It looks like a shift away from what was. A dilution of services, a distortion of values. That shift means loss, not gain.

Outsiders have a different view. They can’t see the change the way insiders do. For them, relevance is a brand new door, an outstretched hand. It’s OK if at first only one part of an entity is relevant to someone new. The exhibition that speaks to their interests. The paved walking path around Old Faithful. The pool at the Elks Lodge. The entity wasn’t relevant at all previously, so if even a slice of its offerings are now relevant, the outsider has gained something worthwhile. Outsiders don’t want the room rearranged in their own image. But they do want to see reflections, expansions, and distortions of their experiences in ways that allow them to form new connections.

Anytime you look at an organization and think: “They’ve gone too far. They ought not to do that,” it’s worth asking yourself why. It’s rare that an entity adds something to their programming that is so divergent, and so powerful, that it injures other aspects of the institution. It may injure your idea of that institution, but it’s worth asking whether it really injures the entity itself. Is the room still intact? Is there still a place for you in it? That’s what matters.

To be relevant, we need to cultivate open-hearted insiders. Insiders who are thrilled to welcome in new people. Who are delighted by new experiences. The greatest gift that insiders can give outsiders is to help them build new doors. To say, I want you here—not on my terms, but on yours. I’m excited you think there might be something of value in this room. Let me help you access it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Introducing: The Art of Relevance

Kid-tested, nonprofit-approved.
It's official. My new book, The Art of Relevance, is now available and ready to move from my computer to your hands.

I suggest at this point that you stop reading this post and go buy it. Right now.

Not convinced? Here's more about the book and what you can expect.


I've been simultaneously energized and mystified by how often the word "relevance" comes up in the nonprofit world. Is it a fad? A core value? A revelation?

My institution has been waving the flag of relevance for years now. Relevance is one of our five engagement goals. We put a lot of work into developing ways to expand local relevance--to make meaningful connections with diverse people in our community. And yet, the more convinced I became about the value of relevance, the more unsure I was of what it actually means. I wanted to get beyond the buzzword. I wanted to learn more.

Last summer, a powerful encounter with two 130-year-old surfboards spurred me from curiosity to action. I dove into research and talked to dozens of people doing inspiring, surprising work around the world. I worked feverishly to translate their stories into a tight, poetic, enjoyable, useful form. The result is this book.


The Art of Relevance is about how mission-based institutions can matter more to more people. By "mission-based institutions," I mean museums, libraries, theaters, parks, churches, synagogues, afterschool programs, informal science programs, zoos, aquaria, symphonies, historic sites, dance companies... all these and more are featured as case studies.

The Art of Relevance is not a how-to. It is not a definitive guide. It is the field notes from the quest I've been on for the past year to understand relevance and its ability to open new doors for new people to powerful, big, valuable experiences.

The book is separated into five sections:
  • What is Relevance? - definitions, delusions, and reality checks on what relevance can and cannot do
  • Outside In - exploring the different expectations and interests of insiders, who already love what you do, and outsiders, who are excluded or unaware of the value you offer
  • Relevance and Community - getting to a clearer definition of who you want to be relevant to and what they value and desire
  • Relevance and Mission - using your institutional mission as the foundation for making more meaningful connections with your community of interest
  • The Heart of Relevance - measuring relevance at the front door and at deeper levels of connection
The chapters are short, the stories are punchy, and there's a central metaphor that ties it all together. While the book focuses on institutional relevance, there are a lot of personal stories in the book too, and early reviewers commented on how much they found themselves reflecting on their lives as well as their work as they read the draft.


Almost a year ago, I took a risk. I ended my 8+ year streak of blogging at least once a week. I did it to free myself to be able to spend time on more speculative or ambitious writing projects--projects like this book.

I am continually grateful to all of you who read, share, and comment on this blog. Whether you've been with me since 2006 or are just getting connected now, you've inspired me, motivated me, and shaped my thinking and work. I was incredibly nervous when I stopped blogging weekly last year that it would mean a slow fade away from writing and reflective practice. But you gave me that permission, and it opened up a whole book full of exploration I didn't know was inside me. You gave me the roadmap to write this book.

I hope you will read The Art of Relevance. I hope you'll like it. I hope you'll recommend it to others. I hope you'll tell me what you love and where we disagree and how these thoughts could be pushed further. Most of all, I hope you will continue to inspire, mentor, and motivate me in my work. Thank you for constantly doing the work of relevance by unlocking new meaning for me and for each other.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: How the London Science Museum Became More Relevant to Deaf Families

This month, I'm sharing a few chapters from my new book The Art of Relevance in advance of its release. I wrote this book because of a fundamental curiosity about what relevance is and how it works. Here's one of my favorite stories about the London Science Museum and their work to make their science shows relevant to families with deaf or hearing-impaired family members. 

This chapter appears midway through the book. The Art of Relevance has a central metaphor that relevance is a key that unlocks the door to meaningful experiences (which live in a room). To get into this chapter, imagine that your institution/program/art is a room. There are doors through which people enter your room. This chapter explores the difference between connecting with new people by building new doors vs. connecting with new people by changing the content of the room.

Build a Door or Change the Room?

Once you understand your community of interest, you have a choice. You can build relevance by constructing new doors. Or you can change the programming within the room itself. Or both.

How can you decide when to build new doors, when to change the room, and when to do both?

Building new doors is a form of marketing. When you build a new door, you invite someone new into a pre-existing room. This strategy is successful when you have an existing room with a compelling experience and a credible sense that that experience will be relevant to your audience of interest. Remember New World Symphony, the Miami orchestra that used night club marketing techniques to attract young urbanites to classical music? Or the promotores at the Waukegan Public Library sharing their offerings with Latino immigrants? They are in the door-building business. Building new doors, wider doors, or doors that are open different hours of the day works when you think you have the right programming to offer your community of interest—you just need to find them and invite them into the room in a welcoming manner.

Changing the room means changing programming. If you think the experience you have to offer will be challenging, confounding, or off-putting for your audience of interest, you can’t just build them a door and hope for the best. You are going to have to change what you actually offer to make it relevant, as opposed to just changing how you market it. Think of the Subjects to Change teen program, or the free lunches at the Cleveland Public Library. These new programs fundamentally altered their institution’s offerings. When communities of interest avoid your programming regardless of your marketing investments, you need to change the room. If people attend once and don’t come back, it’s probably a problem with the experience and not the marketing.

It’s not always easy to make these distinctions in the real world. There are many times when we need to change the room but focus only on the door—or we embark on a room renovation and ignore the fact that the existing door doesn’t give people a sense of what has changed inside.

Imagine two institutions in an ethnically-diverse city. Each decides to invest in providing content in English and Spanish as part of an effort to increase relevance to their communities. Institution A makes all its marketing materials bilingual, but changes nothing about the languages spoken inside its walls. Institution B recruits new Spanish-speaking staff to offer programs in both languages, but makes no changes to its monolingual marketing materials.

A is working the door. B is shifting the room. Each has made remarkable strides towards their goal, but each is limited by how far they’ve gone. Will Spanish-speaking outsiders walk into A expecting experiences en espanol and walk out disappointed? Will outsiders ignore B’s programming entirely, not knowing it is para ellos?

The obvious answer is that you need both A and B. Many times, we find that we need both new doors and changed rooms, but we don’t know how to sequence them for the greatest impact.

That’s what happened at the London Science Museum as they worked to make their science shows relevant to deaf audiences. The museum’s science shows are family-oriented presentations by high-energy performers, full of surprising experiments and explosions. Museum staff knew the shows appealed to diverse families, and they wanted to reach deaf families in particular. So they started with a new door and a slight shift to the room. They marketed the shows to deaf families at the door, and provided a sign language interpreter at the presentations in the room.

The new door and shifted room were a start, but they weren’t enough. Only a handful of deaf families walked in the door, and what they got wasn’t satisfying. The marketing and the changes to the science shows weren’t working. For hearing audiences, the high energy of the presenter, combined with the visual and audial bangs of the experiments, made for an exciting show. But for deaf audiences, the experience was frustrating. The sign language interpreter was off to the side, far from the scientific action. That placement made it hard for deaf people to both see the fiery displays and follow the interpreter’s information. The interpreter was not a high-enthusiasm actor like the presenter, which dampened the overall energy of the experience. And any loud audial bangs were either completely inaudible, or in some cases, distressing, for people who were deaf and hard of hearing.

The Museum had made a real commitment to deaf families, and they wanted to get it right. They decided to try again. They took a step back and asked deaf families to help them. The Museum recruited deaf families to come in, and they did some special pilot shows for deaf families only. Hearing staff members couldn’t identify the issues that made the shows unappealing for deaf families—but deaf people could. The focus groups helped the Museum understand the need for sign language performers, not just interpreters. They helped the Museum consider the varied needs of their families, which often included both hearing and hearing-impaired family members. They helped the Museum understand that word of mouth was the most important form of marketing in their tight-knit community, and that that community wanted more opportunities to get together socially. The families gave loads of feedback, which prompted the Museum to change their approach.

The Museum moved away from the idea of sign language interpretation as an amenity to layer onto individual science shows. Instead, staff created a monthly Saturday afternoon event called SIGNtific, geared specifically to deaf families but inclusive of all. At the door, SIGNtific days are not solely about science programming. They are about deaf-led community experiences with science. SIGNtific’s new door is more relevant to deaf families and their expressed interests.

And then inside the room, they changed the shows. Instead of offering sign language interpretation as an add-on, SIGNtific shows flip the roles of presenter and interpreter. The presenters up front doing the experiments are deaf performers, supplemented by off-stage performers who provide voiceovers for hearing guests. While having sign language interpreters off to the side was a barrier to comprehension, voiceover interpretation causes no such problems. Hearing audience members can fully participate in the shows, watching the deaf performers onstage and listening to voiceover interpretation. Furthermore, the staff designed SIGNtific shows to ensure that audible bangs or noises are not essential to the scientific concepts conveyed. Which means the whole family—and anyone else who happens to visit the museum on SIGNtific days—can have a relevant, enjoyable experience with the science shows.

The Science Museum didn’t need to have a brilliant sense of the needs of deaf families to become relevant to them. They just had to be open to feedback and guidance from their new audience. They learned from their community of interest. They fixed what was broken. They changed the door and the room.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: What IS Relevance?

This month, I'm sharing a few chapters from my new book The Art of Relevance in advance of its release. I wrote this book because of a fundamental curiosity about what relevance is and how it works. Here's the second chapter of the book, which answers a basic question: what IS relevance? Who are the experts who study it, and how do they define it? 

Note: this chapter is slightly edited to make sense in standalone form.

Meaning, Effort, Bacon

In pop culture-land, relevance is all about now. Who's hot. What's trending.

But if you’re like me, that definition is deeply unsatisfying. And the experts are on our side. Deirdre Wilson and Dan Sperber are cognitive scientists and leading theorists in the study of relevance. Their definition of relevance is more complex--and useful--than simply what’s hot.

Deirdre and Dan study how we transmit and receive information, mostly through speech. They argue that there are two criteria that make information relevant:
  1. How likely that new information is to stimulate a “positive cognitive effect”—to yield new conclusions that matter to you. 
  2. How much effort is required to obtain and absorb that new information. The lower the effort, the higher the relevance.
These criteria for relevance apply to both extraordinary and everyday experiences. Imagine you are considering going out to see a movie. You start seeking relevant information. You read a review that gets you excited about a particular film (a positive cognitive effect). You feel confident you’ll enjoy that movie. If it’s playing at convenient times at a theater nearby (low effort), you’re set. You buy a ticket.

But if the movie is not showing nearby (high effort), or the reviews you read are conflicting and full of muddled information (negative cognitive effect), you’re stuck. You don’t get the useful conclusions you seek. It takes too much effort to find the right key to the door. You stay home.

Fulfilling these two criteria well can make a huge difference in how people respond to information. I saw this in 2015, when the World Health Organization released a study showing that processed meats—like bacon, ham, and sausages—are among the top five most cancerous products, alongside established killers like cigarettes and asbestos.

When I first saw this news, I was nonplussed. My husband and I are vegetarians, and for years, we’ve been reading studies like this. Top international health organizations have claimed for decades that a meat-free diet is vital to human health (not to mention reducing climate change impact). Period.

I assumed this 2015 study would have the same impact as all the others. Vegetarians and vegans would pass them around. We’d hesitantly foist them on our meat-eating friends and family members, expecting a mixture of disinterest, disbelief, and derision. And then everyone would go back to eating what they eat, believing what they believe.

But the 2015 study was different. It blew up on Facebook. It spawned thousands of news pieces, not just on health and foodie sites, but also on news outlets high and low. National papers. Business pages. Tech magazines. Op-eds. Blogs. I walked into the dentist’s office a week after the study came out, and the hygienist who cleaned my teeth told me the story had inspired her and her teenage son to stop eating meat. Here I’d spent years fumbling to get people who love me to even discuss the impact of eating meat, and one press release had motivated her family to give it up entirely.

I was blown away. How could one study—showing exactly what many other prominent studies have shown—have so much impact?

Consider the 2015 study in the context of relevance theory. The study linked two things that mattered to Americans in 2015: bacon and cancer. These are both emotionally-loaded topics. As a nation, we love bacon and eat it whenever we can. We hate cancer and avoid it however we can.

When a study links something we love to something we hate, it yields a conclusion that matters to us. The first criterion for relevance is satisfied. The research creates a surprising new connection between two things we care about. The mouthwatering sizzle of bacon on a pan. The pain we felt when our aunt went through chemo. It’s impossible not to experience a “cognitive effect” when reading about it—whether it yields a conclusion of distress, resolve to change, or somewhere in between. The effect may not be “positive” in how it feels, but it is “positive” in that it adds information to the decisions at hand.

You could argue that any study about the health impacts of food is relevant to all of us. After all, we all eat. But that relevance is only meaningful if it yields a conclusion that matters to you. And if bacon suddenly tastes like the pain of your aunt dying of cancer… that matters.

Throw cigarettes into the story and you satisfy the second criterion for relevance. This study’s conclusions were easy to understand. It took very little effort to connect the dots between our past experiences as a nation with cigarettes and new implications about bacon. Americans used to love cigarettes, until we discovered they cause cancer. Now, for the most part, we hate cigarettes. Does this mean we will one day feel about bacon the way we feel about cigarettes? Will little kids throw away their parents’ processed meat, crying that they don’t want to see Daddy die?

I hope so. But I suspect that the effort required to act on these conclusions will be too great for many bacon-lovers. There may be people like my dental hygienist out there, making a big effort based on the conclusions she has made. But there will be others who accept the information (the positive cognitive effect) but not the effort required to act.

If we want our work to be relevant, we need to satisfy both criteria. We need to provide a positive cognitive effect, and we need to make it possible with minimal effort. How likely is someone to derive a positive cognitive effect from visiting your site? How much effort will it require for them to do so? If it’s easy to visit, and the experience yields value, your work is bound to be relevant. But if it’s difficult to visit, and the value of the experience is hard to describe, why would anybody care to try?

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Unassuming Superheroes Wanted: Join The Art of Relevance Advocacy Team

My new book's coming, and I want you to be part of it.

I've spent the past year on a quest for relevance, diving deep into how organizations can matter more to more (and more diverse) people. The result is a new book, The Art of Relevance, coming out in a few weeks. I am truly thrilled to share this book with you. It's packed with practical theories, rags-to-relevance case studies, and inspiring stories from museums and libraries, theaters and parks, dance companies and orchestras, afterschool programs and activists, churches and synagogues. It's anchored in a clear, research-based definition of relevance that has changed the way I see the world and the way I approach community engagement.

The Art of Relevance will launch live and in-person on July 12 at the Arts Marketing Association conference in Edinburgh, and you'll be able to order it online soon. This month, I'll start sharing a few of the chapters as blog post sneak peeks.

But this post today isn't a book announcement. This post is for those of you who want to read the book... and then do a little bit more. This post is an invitation for those of you who want to help it come alive in your own community.

My last book, The Participatory Museum, did well. It has sold about 20,000 copies, and another 200,000 people have accessed the free online version. I believe The Art of Relevance can go further. It's a more accessible read for a broader audience. The challenge is getting it into organizations that might find it relevant and valuable in their work.

That's where you come in. I'm seeking a team of volunteer advocates for The Art of Relevance. The Art of Relevance Advocacy Team is a league of behind-the-scenes superheroes who will:
  • read the book 
  • review the book (on your blog, Amazon, Goodreads, or other publications)
  • help introduce the book to other people in your world (media, colleagues, online networks)
  • help set up book-related events and talks in your city 
Basically, what I'm asking is for you to consider joining an email list of people who are passionate about mattering more to more people in our respective communities.

You don't need any special talents, connections, or commitment level to join the list. I'll reach out to advocates as needed with various opportunities to help. Maybe you have a reporter friend who might be interested in covering it. Maybe your colleagues want to form a book club. Maybe you've got a sweet couch in Chicago or a killer venue in Dallas. Maybe you just want to read the book and write an Amazon review. You can join the list and never participate, or you can become a champion for relevance alongside me.

Writing a book is lonely. Publishing it is scary. Promoting it is mysterious and tiring. I'd love to have some compatriots to help The Art of Relevance shine. If you're up for it, you can sign up right now. If you can't see the form below, click here to sign up. Thanks for considering joining me on this path.

Join The Art of Relevance Advocacy Team / Superhero Network

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