Playing in White Spaces

This morning I was listening to the story of Steve Martin in his stand up days. His name is one that comes up repeatedly in any book I've read or podcast I've listened to when the topic of art as a learned practice comes up. His book Born Standing Up has been on my 'to read' list for some time so maybe I'll move it to nearer the top.

The angle of the story this morning was about him finding his audience and recognising his role. His hugely successful stand-up career wasn't long, only a few years. He quit at the height of his success when he was performing at stadiums in front of 40,000 people. Not because he burnt out, but because he recognised that the material couldn't keep evolving in the way the audience needed it to. But he was far from an overnight success. He worked devotedly for years before that without commercial success.

So what changed to turn things around from playing to a crowd of 100 to 40,000? It wasn't so much his material. It was how he delivered it. He paid extreme attention to what his audience responded to positively. He began to deeply understand his audience and tried to understand their world view. He didn't just focus on the content, he focused on the spaces in between. The nuances of his movements. "He realised he was the ringleader of the party, not the provider of funny".

You look at his work now and it doesn't seem all that special. But if you watch his episode on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld, you get a sense of just how well revered he is in the comedy community. The type of reverence that Jerry Seinfeld reserves for the true kings of comedy, the people he learned from and admires. Because Steve Martin created a new genre of comedy. He was so committed to creating original content that he rarely borrowed lines from other comedians, and when he did he always asked permission first.  Not only did he worked really hard at creating something that nobody else was doing, he paid close attention to tailoring it to what his audience wanted. He acted in service of them.

Why do we look down upon servitude so often? Being in service of people is a privileged position. I think sometimes we buy into the power stuff too much. We get so caught up in the need to be clever and look like the expert that maybe we miss opportunities to please the audience we serve. I'm using the term audience loosely here. I don't mean it in the passive, receiver of performance kind of way. I'm speaking about it as the people you're trying to connect with. As a pharmacist, it's patients, their families, the care providers, our colleagues. We hope to contribute to better use of medicines, so the audience we seek to serve is anyone that plays a role in that medication management cycle really. Our service is to assist them in playing their role the best they can.

If I think about my research on cancer and chronic conditions as an example, I think it's easy for pharmacists to get fixated on issues concerning chemotherapy because that's the bit that cures the cancer and that's the bit that makes people sick. That's kind of the equivalent of developing a good 'bit' in a comedy routine. But that's not necessarily where our value lies. That's not what makes us special. Just as there are plenty of people producing funny content, there are also plenty of people who know stuff about chemotherapy and it's side effects who are providing information to patients and care providers. But it doesn't always lead to better outcomes. It only leads to a better outcome if it connects with that person and influences their behaviour in some way.

I wonder what would happen if more of us started paying more attention to the white spaces. The stuff other people aren't paying attention to. The questions that patients don't feel comfortable asking their doctor. The niggling side effects they've just accepted as their new normal. The challenges they have in popping the tablets out of the blister pack since they developed peripheral neuropathy. Started listening more closely to their stories. Started paying much more attention to the work we do and the responses we get. What happens when we use less complicated language? Do people open up more when I ask the question this way, instead of that? If I sit like this, does that make it better or worse?

It's completely natural to focus on developing expertise in our domain knowledge, but I think we need to be realistic about it. Helping most people does not require supreme mastery of domain knowledge. More than competent, surely, but B grade is probably good enough for most people. Just in time deeper knowledge will probably get you by for most of the other times. But just as it is with Steve Martin and his comedy routine, if the content of the bits is good, it's the delivery that makes it great. If we want to build better connections with the audience we wish to serve, if we wanted to truly optimise our impact, then we maybe we should start paying closer attention and play around in those white spaces.


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