At some recent briefings for regularly funded organisations, one of the hot topics was the national engagement campaign we’re planning. It would be fair to say reactions ranged from enthusiasm to scepticism. Some people suggested we should just focus on the quality of the art and the audiences would take care of themselves. Some people suggested we were only taking about increasing audiences because we felt pressured to by government. Some people suggested it was really complicated to get new audiences for the arts, and that we risked dumbing down quality work by taking an approach that might be too populist. Some immediately thought about how they might use the campaign to promote their work, or how they could partner with the campaign, and had some very practical suggestions and issues. Some seemed to think we only wanted ‘big numbers’, and that big numbers were suspect. They were interesting discussions.
This is clearly not a easy nut to crack. But shortly after I read a really useful article in the new RSA Journal by ‘persuasive technology’ expert BJ Fogg: the new rules of persuasion. I’ll leave aside the technological aspects of his argument – though they’re obviously important. I’ll also not expand on his ‘behavior model’, though you can read more about it here. (It’s basically motivation + ability + trigger = behaviour.)
What particularly struck home was his advice to think simple – because it’s something I think neither the Arts Council or the arts sector are good enough at. Indeed, I feel there is often a resistance to ‘simple’, and a preference for (as Facebook would have us say) ‘It’s complicated.’ It has applications to lots of areas of arts development, but especially to encouraging 'everyone' to engage with the arts.
This quote illustrates the challenge to our tendency to want to change the whole world at once:
‘The first critical step in designing for persuasion is to select an appropriate target behaviour. I believe the best choice is the simplest behaviour that matters. Often this requires a team to reduce their ambitious long-term goal to a small near-term objective. For example, last year I worked with a large health-care company whose goal was to help people reduce their stress levels. That goal was too vague and too large-scale. So for starters we picked a smaller target behaviour: let’s persuade people to stretch for 20 seconds when prompted. Note that this smaller goal was so simple that anyone could achieve it, and the success rate was measurable. This was a good starting point for the larger goal of reducing overall stress level.’
Fogg advises that we should start small and fast and then build on small successes: ‘As the small offerings succeeded, they then expanded. That approach to innovation works. In contrast, services launched with many features or ambitious goals seem almost always to fail.’
He concludes with this thought: ‘Simplicity requires courage. Inside big companies and academic research labs, thinking small will rarely boost your status. An innovator who says 'no' to complicated designs and unrealistic goals may appear timid to colleagues or clients.’ The challenge for everyone in the arts, then, may be learning to think small in order to really think big, or learning from those already doing it.