Q Media: Audio Tour Experts

Delivering your goals, to your visitors, within your budget.

“Quality content” — Just what the heck does that mean?

I wish I could tell you the number of times I’ve heard some version of “What we want is quality content,” “We’re all about quality content,” or the ever popular “Our visitors deserve/demand/expect quality content.” The way the phrase is bandied about you’d think you’d be able to go to your local “content” store and pick up five packages of the “quality” variety.

Stasha at Quivera National Wildlife Refuge while working on the Barton County Scenic Byway Audio Tour. A "quality content" production if there ever was one.

Stasha at Quivera National Wildlife Refuge while working on the Barton County Scenic Byway Audio Tour. A "quality content" production if there ever was one.

The problem is that semantically the phrase “quality content” is meaningless. It’s a subjective judgement call usually based on the opinion of the person making the statement. It should carry the same weight as someone saying “content I like” or “content I don’t like.” It helps to be more specific. In Q Media’s case we define a quality production as one that “delivers your message, to your visitors, within your budget.” We further refine that after we find out what you’re trying to achieve. For one of our typical clients though, defining quality content may be as simple as saying “content the visitor enjoys,” or “content the visitor likes” or “content that gives the visitor the emotional payoff they came looking for.” NOTE – replace the word “visitor” with the word “audience” and you’ve just revealed the secret to blockbuster success in the film and theatre world.

I’ve listened to and viewed high production value (read: expensive) audio and video programs that were so awful the audience wandered off (if the organization was lucky) or stayed and tittered (if it was unlucky.) Due to the nature of my job, I’m almost always in a position to query the person at the museum who was responsible for developing the offending media piece, usually as part of my method of distinguishing between matters of the client’s aesthetic taste and technical judgement for another project. And almost always, the defense of poor quality will fall under one of the following three errors of judgement:

  1. Not understanding the difference between technically profficient and emotionally engaging.
  2. Prefering academically correct over conceptually clear.
  3. Placing undue value on the “praise of peers” over the “engagement/entertainment of visitors.” 

Technically proficient vs. emotionally engaging. In this scenario you can often “see the money on the screen” or hear it in the audio: celebrity narrators chosen for their name recognition but not necessarily their suitability; beautiful music or sound effects that add little or nothing to the visitors connection to time or place; visual productions with wave after wave of sweeping vista shots in lieu of anyone actually “doing” something that relates to the human experience.  The visitor will often leave the experience wondering “how they did that” rather than marveling at whatever the human connection was supposed to be there.  

In the theatre world this is often known as “praising the set;” in other words, if an audience leaves your show talking about the beautiful sets or the magnificent lighting, anything other than the greater meaning of the performance, then the show is a failure.  As an audio example there is a celebrated tour of a historic site – one that several of my friends have visited. Knowing what I do for a living they always report back their experiences. In the case of this tour every friend has mentioned taking the tour but not one, when asked, could tell me one meaningful thing they remembered from the experience, but they all remember the nifty reverb effects and the fact that you can “choose” a character you want to follow through the tour. Nobody said they “enjoyed” it.

Emotionally engaging content has but one definition – it affects the listener/viewer on an emotional, as opposed to intellectual level. It doesn’t take a lot of money to do this but it does take a LOT of skill. And in my experience, even more than skill, it requires acknowledging that effective, pre-determined, emotional impact IS a legitimate goal.  

Academically correct vs. conceptually clear. Some folks clearly have strange ideas of what’s “fun.” They could literally live in a library or could name every nerve, bone, muscle, gland, organ, tissue type, etc. in the human body or could recite the name of every post-reformation Baroque artist by name, chosen medium, city, state, religious and marital status. (OK, I made that last one up.) But the point is these folks — and not only do you know who they are you know if you are one of them yourself — possess a super human level of knowledge of very specific subjects. The problem is that they expect the rest of the world to aspire to the same level interest and commitment. And their obligation, as they see it, is to raise the rest of us poor saps up to their level. For these good people, it is less important that we visitors to their world are engaged and happy as it is that we receive the “correct” information, are given only the “correct” terminology, presented in their “correct” verbiage; and if we the visitor are provided with those things, then we should ultimately have the “correct” experience.

In these cases I often hear the overused phrase “dumbing down.” “We didn’t want to dumb it down,” they say. “If we’d replaced X word with Y word then it’s dumbed down.” “If we’d used a reference as opposed to an actual date, it would’ve been dumbed down.” Since when is it considered “dumb” to be understood? Why am I considered intellectually challenged simply because I, an academically advanced and successful business owner, don’t know what the term “pentamente” means off the top of my head?

Let me be clear, accuracy is absolutely essential to the production, however, accurate does not, nor should it, trump clarity. For example, I am currently working with a client to “fix” an audio tour script. The original writer used the word “cyclorama” to refer to some large, curved murals. The client changed it to “large, curved murals.” The writer changed it back noting that “cyclorama” is, indeed, the correct term. Well, be that as it may, who the heck knows that? I do, thanks to twenty-plus years in the theatre. Of course in that case we often referred to it as the “cyc” and it may or may not have been painted as part of a set, and it may or may not have lit from the front or the back, and it may or may not have had “flown” in and out, and on and on and on. Too much info. But the average Joe doesn’t know (read: doesn’t need to know) that. In fact, the point of this part of the tour has nothing to do with the fact that a large curved mural exists so much as it has to do with what is painted ON the mural.   

Something is conceptually clear if the average Joe or Jane, who’s competent enough to get to your site, can come into the experience a blank slate, knowing nothing but the basics (THE basics!) of the language, and never have to wonder “what the heck are they talking about.”

Praise of peers vs. engagement/entertainment of visitors. Referring back to my opening description of “poor quality content” that I’ve personally observed and then had the opportunity to discuss with clients, there are those strange programs, oddities really, that for some reason just don’t work. For these productions it’s often hard to put your finger on the problem. The writing is fine, the music and effects are fine, the construct and concept are fine, the execution is fine but the end result is hopelessly uninspired and worse, uninspiring. For me, this has often been not only the hardest error to identify but in my case, the most difficult to overcome.

The client discussion surrounding these pieces generally start with something like “we wanted a production just like [fill in the blank].” It then moves on to an unusually long list of who “reviewed” the work in progress. “We had the script reviewed by ______ (often 5 of more people), conducted __________ # of surveys, got input from _________  the [special interest] group(s). The end result is soup by committee and the predictably bland taste.

Input is important. Review and recommendations are important. But too often “input” by interested parties ends up becoming “orders for change.” Essentially, you end up compounding the second error regarding academic vs. clarity because you’ve just added scores of “experts” who are not trying to achieve your goals, rather they are trying to get you to achieve theirs. It’s like turning over the piloting of the ship to every quartermaster, harbor pilot, merchant, passenger that climbs aboard. Of course it’s important to correct for factual errors in an appropriately clear fashion, but everything else must be filtered though a single point: to engage your audience. 

Now I’m also aware of reality. Heaven knows I have my share of projects out there with that one thing that gets under my skin everytime I hear it. Often, it’s a piece of text that the “major funder” of the project insisted on including or a segment of pompous legalese, or some other legitimate but unfortunate bit of business that really has nothing to do with the visitor’s experience. None of us are so naive as to admit that such things can or even should be eliminated (except for in my mythic and perfect world) but it is important to recognize the non-legitimate changes to direction and weed them out.

A word about “entertaining.” Some of our clients initially see that word and recoil in horror with visions of “Disney-fication” and “morally bankrupt” squeezing any thought of positive entertainment out of their heads and certainly out of the discussion. However, please bear the following in mind, if for no other reason than good discussion – entertainment is necessary to the human condition. Something is entertaining when it pushes the right buttons in the entertainee. When you want to be scared witless, you find a way (movie, roller coaster) to provoke that response by an external stimulus. When you want romance (movie, book, walk in the park, candle-lit dinner for two) you do the same thing. When people come to your site, whatever it is, they are seeking an emotional experience. Even people who say they want to learn something are actually seeking an emotional payoff for either what or how they are learning.

Entertaining your visitor is not sacrilege; it is necessary. And in my opinion, it is a honor and a privilege.

The ship must stay on course. The captain (client) and the pilot (producer) must make sure of it. But first both the client and the producer must agree on the course and understand that while peer input is to be sought and respected, engaging and entertaining the visitor is where the ship is heading.   

I’ve seen a few other, rarer reasons for poor quality content including incompetent leadership, a sabotaging “team” member, and utter lack of skills. But I have never experienced a poor quality content that was a result of the size of the budget or the worthiness of the subject matter.

“Quality content” is emotionally engaging, easily understood, and entertaining to your visitors. 

As mentioned at the outset, “quality content” is a matter of opinion and ultimately, the opinion that matters is your visitors’.

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