The April edition of Free Range Thinking (a short newsletter on nonprofits and storytelling, available for download here) shares an insight that should be second nature to all arts managers — the compelling and endearing qualities of flaws and imperfections.
The story focuses on Character, LLC, a consulting company that revamps and refreshes brand icons, such as M&Ms, Goldfish crackers, and Ronald McDonald. Among other things, the company runs an intensive Character Camp for brand managers, who tend to make a common mistake:
When corporations bring their characters to camp, [Character founder David] Altschul says, the most frequent problem is perfection. ”The characters are charming, friendly, and helpful,” Altschul explains, ”and the closest they come to having a flaw is when they’re described as a little mischievous.” What the marketing managers find delightful, however, is deadly dull to the audience. It’s the flaws, Altschul says, that make characters interesting. Or as his partner, Brian Lanahan, succinctly puts it, ”Superman is boring without kryptonite.”
It’s an insight as old as theater — conflict, flaw, and tension are what make narratives compelling. And yet, read through most arts marketing materials or grant applications and what will you find? Perfection, triumph, success, and positive spin. Their performances are always exceptional. Their audiences are always ecstatic. Their reviews are always resounding (or mysteriously missing from the packet). Their communities are always connected and enthralled. In short, they are superhuman, disconnected, and insincere.
I’m not suggesting that cultural nonprofits shouldn’t publicly celebrate successes — heaven knows they’ve earned them. I’m just reminding us that imperfection and struggle are part of what makes great art great. And evidence of that same struggle in an arts organization makes the insulated and iconic seem more real and human.
So the next time you find only superlatives in your communications or your grant narratives, take an honest look at what you’re talking about. Odds are that there’s a flaw somewhere in your organization’s character, or a target you didn’t quite hit, that will make your story more powerful and more real.