getting ideas to spread

I ran across an interview with David Foster Wallace on Salon from just after Infinite Jest came out. It included this quote about the state of Literature:

If you, the writer, succumb to the idea that the audience is too stupid, then there are two pitfalls. Number one is the avant-garde pitfall, where you have the idea that you’re writing for other writers, so you don’t worry about making yourself accessible or relevant. You worry about making it structurally and technically cutting edge: involuted in the right ways, making the appropriate intertextual references, making it look smart. Not really caring about whether you’re communicating with a reader who cares something about that feeling in the stomach which is why we read. Then, the other end of it is very crass, cynical, commercial pieces of fiction that are done in a formulaic way — essentially television on the page — that manipulate the reader, that set out grotesquely simplified stuff in a childishly riveting way.

What’s weird is that I see these two sides fight with each other and really they both come out of the same thing, which is a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to do stuff that has some of the richness and challenge and emotional and intellectual difficulty of avant-garde literary stuff, stuff that makes the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read. The reader feels like someone is talking to him rather than striking a number of poses.

I thought this was worth posting for a couple of reason. First, nearly everything I’ve ever run across that DFW wrote or said is worth thinking about. For my money, he was the best writer of recent times. The second is that there is an innovation story as well. It drives me crazy every time I hear someone say that their new product or service isn’t doing well because they have to ‘educate the customer’. To me, this idea reflects the same problem that DFW is talking about – blaming your customer. I’m not saying that everything you do has to be dumbed down. But if people don’t understand the benefits of your new idea, then you haven’t presented it well. Even if the idea is just a concept, you have to be able to explain it in clear English. And if the idea is a product or service, you have to make it reasonably easy for people to see how it’s good for them.

When I was doing industrial water treatment, a lot of people in the industry spoke about water treatment like it was a black box that the clients could never understand. I always took that to mean that they didn’t understand it themselves well enough to explain it. So I practiced talking about it until I could explain water treatment to people with pretty low education levels who often had English as a second language. That’s how I got the idea ‘working with Tim is a good thing’ to spread.

Bottom line – to get your ideas to spread you have to connect with people in a way that is meaningful and useful to them. If you can’t do this, it’s your fault, not theirs.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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