DRMacIver's Notebook

Working with the audience

Working with the audience

From Lois McMaster Bujold’s “A Civil Campaign”, page 137:

“Madame Vorsoisson”, Mark said with dignity, “is a very sensible woman. When presented with compelling facts, she doesn’t let a thoughtless emotional response overcome her clear reason.”

“A Civil Campaign” is probably my favourite book in the Vorkosigan series. The Vorkosigan series is largely an “Adventures! In! Space!” series, but as it goes on there’s increasingly fewer adventures in favour of exploring the lives of the characters.

Adventures in A Civil Campaign primarily center on a number of things:

  1. Planning for the imperial wedding.
  2. Miles (the protagonist of the series) attempting to woo the aforementioned Madame Vorsoisson, with a thoroughly inappropriately military approach.
  3. Mark (Miles’s clone/brother) attempting an early stage biotech startup.
  4. Many exciting politics as a hereditary patriarchal nobility adjusts to things like gene tests and gender changes.
  5. Probably some other things I’m forgetting.

This exchange is about the third. Mark has just fed Ekaterin (Madame Vorsoisson) some of his startup’s food product. It is a vaguely pleasing but mostly a bit bland product that I imagine as being a bit like cream cheese. The product is nutritious, flexible, cheap to produce, and has significant environmental benefits. It should be a miracle product that will make Mark extremely successful.

Also it comes from bugs. The bugs are particularly disgusting looking. They call it bug butter. The bugs are called butter bugs.

Also, they’re trying to sell their product made from genetically engineered bugs on a planet that regards mutations with visceral horror.

Ekaterin has, kindly, reacted primarily to the quality of the bug butter as a food product rather than its origins. Miles and everyone else have reacted with horror to the name, the branding, and the general visceral association of the food product with its origins (it’s vomited up by horrifying bug creatures).

Mark believes that Ekaterin is in the right and that Miles and the others are in the wrong. Mark is wrong. Mark is bad at startups.

Oh, Ekaterin is of course behaving very well. It’s good to be able to suspend emotional reactions and look at the potential in a situation. However, Mark is conflating how he feels people should react to his product with how people are actually going to react to his product. Miles and everyone else are providing him with valuable insight.

Mark does eventually turn this around, mostly because of Ekaterin’s help on branding, but without her he would have been insisting that people are reacting to his actions wrong and complaining about the unfairness of it all.

This is an easy trap to fall in to, both in startups and in general: If people react badly to your actions that might be unfair, and it’s legitimate to feel aggrieved about it, but ultimately at some point you need to ask whether you want to have an impact or not, and if you want to have an impact it’s usually better to ask how you can effectively work with people’s reactions.

It’s all very well to demand that people react to your actions differently, but it doesn’t usually work. If you want to change the world, if you want people to use your product, you need to start from where you are and work with the audience you have. Even if you do, ultimately, want to change their behaviour, you’re not generally going to get there by demanding that they comply - you need to instead work with rather than against their existing reactions.