Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Learning to speak with, not to, readers

I can remember the first time I stood behind a podium.
I was a college kid who found himself standing in front of another group of college kids talking about an idea I had about journalism. I was suggesting that reporters adopt the psychologists' persona of "unconditional positive regard" when interviewing sources.
I don't remember much about my speech. Nor do I remember much about how my fellow students or the teacher reacted.
Instead I remember only the sheer joy of having a captive audience. I was drunk with the happiness that comes from conversational power. I was talking. The audience was quiet. I felt like a god, an authority, a teacher, an expert, a grown-up, a celebrity, a professional.
I remember too the first time I sat in one of those classic, creative-writing workshops where the students take turns critiquing each other's work. One day it was my turn. I read my story aloud. And then the students told me what they thought.
It was excruciating. I was defensive and angry. I felt misunderstood and resentful. I couldn't hear praise, although I seem to remember that there was some. Instead I heard only criticism. And I did my best to shut it out.

I suspect that I'm not alone in this. I think that most journalists prefer giving lectures to having conversations. A traditional news story is, after all, a form of lecture. A journalist compiles information and then stands behind a podium (or a magazine, newspaper, TV station, etc.) and "delivers" his findings. That's an effective way to spread information. And, perhaps more importantly, it fits the ego needs of the sorts of people who are drawn to journalism.

But today it seems clear to me that the creative-writing class was the more valuable experience. As tough as it was, I learned more in that "conversation" than I could ever have learned in my own lecture.
And as I get older, and as media evolves, it is becoming clearer that journalism consumers are more like the students in the creative-writing class than they are like students in the lecture hall.

Our readers want to talk. And they have something valuable to say.
It's time for all of us to step from behind the podium. It's time to invite conversation. It's time to put feedback functions on our stories.
And I'm quite sure it will make all of us better journalists.

My friend Amy Gahran has become a leading advocate for the concept of conversational media. Visit her new blog,, to see how content producers and content consumers can learn to speak with, rather than speak to, each other.

tags: , , , , , conversational media

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