Think twice before you complain about these words. They can be valuable tools to move the cultural industry forward.
I’ll kick off this article with a shameless brag: I am fluent in museum and cultural organization jargon. Fluent.
I could spend all day discussing ways to increase symbolic capital that underscores an institution’s brand equities to enhance their transformative experiences. Sometimes, I even utilize the word “utilize” (when “use” would work just fine), for no discernible reason.
I know that I am not alone in this talent.
Indeed, this kind of word usage can be off-putting or confusing. While it may convey connection between people within an industry, it can also have negative consequences – such as isolating outsiders. I’m not sure that we need these buzzwords.
But there are some words within the cultural industry that we do need – and I think it may be important to highlight their value.
Sometimes, I’ll hear someone say the word “engagement” and somebody else groan, “That’s such jargon!”
Jargon is commonly identified as, “Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.” But is “engagement” jargon, or is it simply a broad term? And does it even matter that a certain word may be commonly used within an industry if it helps that industry move forward?
Every once and a while, this article about “MuseVom” makes its rounds and makes me feel deflated for the cultural industry – not because there aren’t some decent points, but because those points are confused. It states that words like “engagement” and “stories” and “meaningful” and “activate” make the inner-industry authors want to vomit.
Imagine if a banker said, “Ugh! ‘Investment.’ That’s such jargon and it makes me want to vomit!”
If your job makes you want to vomit, then maybe you should get a different one.
I think we need some of these words, and I think whining about them or trying to remove them makes the tasks before us harder, not easier. Certainly, not all jargon is actually useful, but broad terms such as ‘relevance,’ ‘engage,’ ‘activate,’ ‘content,’ and ‘stories’ are increasingly at the core of what we do. They can provide a shared language to discuss strategies to effectively carry out our missions. Maybe they are jargon. Still, some of these words have value.
Hear me out.
Some “broad terms” that can help us
You may notice something interesting about all of the “jargon” words below: These are broad terms that attempt to name the building blocks of the bridges between people, collections or performances, feelings, and actions.
If these words seem nebulous, perhaps it’s because they are – we’re trying to discuss complex concepts related to human behavior and motivation! But to talk about influencing people (which is our aim, after all), these words are more blessing than curse. In fact, we may need them in order to move forward.
This word – like nearly all of the words on this list – receives criticism because it is broad. Indeed, it is undefined when it stands alone, but perhaps that’s the point. This word can mean everything from getting someone to “like” a social media post, to their visiting, to becoming a member, to donating, to signing up for an email list, to pressing the button on an exhibit, to successfully inspiring people (an ultimate goal). As cultural organizations, we aim to motivate these behaviors on our pathways to achieving mission-based and financial goals. This word helps us refer to the broad swath of these activities. It helps us refer to this prerequisite to achieving our goals.
A goal of many cultural organizations is to get folks to act in the best interests of themselves, their communities, and the institutions. “Activate” is similar to “engage” in that it is a broad term related to inspiring behavior. Like “engage,” it is a verb. It recognizes that our goal is often to motivate people to do something.
“Content” is a bit different for cultural organizations than it is for for-profit companies delivering goods and services, and I think that is why this word may be particularly important for us – and even broader. An energy drink brand doesn’t call its flavors its “content” – but cultural organizations call the things that make up their onsite experiences “content” all of the time. For cultural organizations, this word refers to social media posts, aspects of an exhibit, the make-up of a performance, the topics covered in a program, etc. It’s a big term, to be sure. It’s essentially the whole of the stuff that we do or say.
Relevant and/or Meaningful
These words are nebulous because they refer to that connection that happens when someone experiences a cultural organization’s messages or offerings and feels something (e.g. awe, wonder, interest, curiosity). Feelings are tricky. Still, providing meaning and relevance may be prerequisite to action. If a person doesn’t care about a thing, it’s understandably more difficult to get them to do that thing.
It’s hard for me to believe that anyone is complaining about the use of this word, but here we are. “Stories” are valuable because they can provide a method for creating meaning by connecting an object with a human experience or an emotion. Stories can create an important bridge between the internal (i.e. feelings, emotions, the human experience) with something external (i.e. an item in a collection, a performance, etc.)
Broad words allow us to talk about strategy
These “jargon” words often function as umbrella terms – and that’s the point. This can allow us to talk about human behavior without being unnecessarily specific or excluding items during strategy conversations. In Nina Simon’s book, The Art of Relevance, she starts the opening chapter by writing, “Relevance is a key that unlocks meaning. It opens the doors to experiences that matter to us, surprise us, or bring value to our lives.” This kind of term and similarly broad definition allows us to have deeper conversations about something at the crux of what cultural organizations aim to do and why they matter.
The book is called The Art of Relevance. Consider some possible choices that are not the title of this book:
The Art Of…Displaying the Exact Painting Of A Bass That Reminds Thomas of Fishing With His Grandfather and Inspires Him To Share the Story With His Son, Jacob
The Art Of…Including the Proper Information on Gravity That Matches the Second Grade School Curriculum
The Art Of…Casting the Proper Actress to Sing the Power Ballad That Inspires Jennifer In the Audience to Go Back to School
The Art Of…Designing the Sea Otter Exhibit So That Max Makes a Resolution to Consume Fewer Single-Use Plastics.
You get the picture. All of these “arts” are important, but there’s value to having the ability to discuss the broader “art of relevance” in the first place. We need a way to talk about action, feeling, behavior, and meaning-making that helps us think critically. Understandably, the words that allow us to zoom out the telescope can allow us to see the most.
These broad terms (e.g. relevance, engagement, meaning, activate) provide a guiding framework to help professionals grapple with the purpose of their institutions. These words are arguably at the core of our existence.
It can be easier to drill down than beam up
Another benefit of these words is that they need not be broad! Adding clarifying words can drill them down in ways that can be useful and inform action! If “engagement” meant only “getting people interested in becoming members by signing up for an email list,” then we would lose many avenues for discussion, and opportunities for efficiencies and creativity. These words are broad, but they can be drilled down to create meaning and inform tactics.
I’ve noticed that the criticism about these terms more often comes from managers than from executive leaders. This frustration may be reasonable. After all, a CEO repeatedly touting, “Be more relevant!” can be extremely confusing and frustrating! (What does that even mean when repeated endlessly to an Education Programs Manager?!) While they may inform strategic discussion, these words can make for meaningless, confusing, and frustrating directives.
I wonder if some of the frustration about these terms isn’t a problem with the words themselves. Perhaps it is the result of some leaders forgetting to drill them down when it is necessary. Indeed, these words may be best used to enable strategic conversations, and then further clarified for discussions about tactics.
These words provide tools to discuss people and behavior, and that’s the focus.
All of these words have something to do with people. Note that words like “archive” don’t make their way into these jargon conversations. “Archive” is at the core of what some organizations do! Perhaps words like “engage” will enjoy a similar status in the future.
At our best, cultural organizations arguably are not about things – they are about people. I often wonder if the pushback concerning these words is a symptom of cultural organizations transforming from inside-out to outside-in organizations. Or, rather, I wonder if the pushback may represent growing pains as we become entities that focus more on the people who we are trying to serve than more traditional “we experts know best” approach. Temporary pushback may illustrate the struggle of adjusting to an evolved way of thinking. I’m not sure that this is the case, but I’d like to offer it as thought-fuel.
We have much better ways to spend our energy than whining about “jargon” – especially if it’s a word that may actually serve a purpose. Here are some ideas for that energy:
- Helping to actually get new audiences in the door
- Making sure nontraditional visitors feel welcome onsite
- Integrating trends that can make-or-break an organization’s success
- Breaking down barriers to attendance
- Maintaining public trust in cultural organizations during challenging times
We don’t need to pivot our synergy around our core competencies to create buy-in so that nobody is “drinking the Kool-Aid.” There are better ways to use our words.
…But if the idea of engaging people in your organization’s mission makes you want to vomit, then please go get a job that’s better for your tummy.
The rest of us are busy working to create a better world.