Jargon and Community

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the understood meaning of terms in quickly evolving industries this week. I even chose to make a major pivot because of this in renaming the book I am currently writing. I’ll get to this in a minute. But first, let’s take a little detour into the world of… Opera.

Operatic singing is a long-established industry with its own traditions and vocabulary. Earlier this week, I was chatting with Danielle, my partner in life and business, who herself is a trained Opera singer. She told me of two interesting terms that had a unique meaning among professional musicians: passagio and appoggio, both Italian words, literally meaning “passage” and “support,” but having very specific meanings for musicians. The former describes the musical journey from one note to another and the voice modulations involved at each step, while the latter is an expression of the relationship between breath, voice, and posture. As a musical novice, this is the best I understood (and can define) these terms, yet they still somewhat elude me.

An Opera singer, however, will completely understand those terms. Passagio and appoggio have been around for hundreds of years and were taught to eager students by masters with decades of experience, over and over again. If you sing opera, those terms have a precise meaning to you, and if you mention them, your peers will understand exactly what you are referring to.

Now, let’s take a look at a much younger industry: the digital entrepreneurial space. Concepts like “market,” “customer,” and “audience” seem to be experiencing fluctuations of definitions almost on a daily basis. Besides textbook definitions taught at MBA programs, many founders define these terms for themselves. If you ask two internet entrepreneurs about what they understand the term “market” to mean, you’ll very likely get similar yet distinct definitions. While there is an established tradition of conducting business, the terms used feel much more in flux than in other fields.

I find this somewhat disturbing. Conflicting definitions arise, making it hard to talk about the same things even among people in the same community. Just over the last year or so, I distinctly recall how hard it was for Justin Jackson to convey the meaning of the word “demand” to his followers, and the term “bootstrapping” has been taking a popularity hit ever since Hiten Shah started replacing it with “self-funded.” 

Every day, we are setting the stage for competing definitions to find approval and discussion. In one way, it’s great that we are becoming part of the history of our industry by making our definitions better and more accessible.

The problem is that often, this happens mid-conversation. I ran into this issue a few times over the last month as I wrote my book titled “Audience First.” Whenever I mentioned that particular phrase, people either understood it to mean “audience-building,” being “audience-focused,” or were plainly confused about the term. I tried sharing my explanation of what I understand the term to mean, which caused a similar confusion level. 

It turns out that many founders have a preexisting notion of this phrase. To them, it means “build a following, then sell them something.” This isn’t wrong, it’s definitely part of what I understand it to be, but it’s a very limited perspective. The “Audience First” approach to business starts long before you build an audience: it starts with putting the audience at the center of every decision you make, from whom you serve to which product you create. But apparently, that is not the majority definition.

The interesting part is how young the “more common” definition is. Google Trends only registers increased interest in the phrase “Audience First” mid-2015, and the first articles about it meaning audience-building appeared around 2017. That’s not even four years ago! Yet people get quite defensive about the terminology — to a point where it feels almost disrespectful to try and change their minds.

That’s why I took some time to reflect on how much of my definition was wishful thinking. I found that I had hoped that people would quickly see and appreciate the expansion of the term from something very strict to something more inclusive. And even though a few voices on Twitter don’t represent the whole community, their insights gave me pause. What I found particularly instructive was that people were actually looking for a term to describe what I wanted “audience first” to mean — it just wasn’t “audience first.”

And since I love my community for the learning opportunities they provide for me on a daily basis, I chose to lean in and find a better term with them. I posted a poll on Twitter with a few alternatives and found many very helpful people both vote and share their reasons as a reply. From the looks of it, “audience-driven” and “audience-focused” are the terms that both describe what I mean and resonate with my Twitter followers, who themselves are my audience. An audience-first definition of “audience-first” that resulted in “audience-driven,” if you will.

Alright then. That very quickly made me realize that I needed to change the name of my book. No more “Audience First.” Good thing I just finished the first 53.000-word draft after a month-long writing marathon. With the book’s contents fresh in my mind, I could now look for a better and even more descriptive title. In fact, I initially picked “Audience First” because that is what I wanted to write about, but while I wrote, I found the act of embedding yourself into communities and audiences much more interesting. 

That’s why the current title for my latest book is “The Embedded Entrepreneur: Building an Audience-Driven Business” — still a work-in-progress but getting much closer to what the book is about. At this point, I am considering dropping the “audience” wording for “community,” but I’m not quite there yet. 

In a way, I am glad we’re still discussing the terms and phrases that we use in our still-nascent industry. It allowed me to reflect on a choice I made a year ago and update the parameters of that choice with new information, resulting in a different outcome. I’m glad to be part of a community that is both so ruthlessly honest and supportive.

I hope that sharing my thoughts with you gives you some insights into my approach to community interaction and how we collectively define the things we talk about. 

It certainly was quite an interesting passagio for me, and I am grateful for all the appoggio I received along the way. (If you are an Opera Singer, please don’t yell at me for this lame joke.)

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