What Star Trek: TNG can teach us about selling to diverse audiences
Strap in – we’re going to get a bit nerdy in this one. Engage!
Those who know me know that I have an unabashed love for Star Trek: The Next Generation – I watched it all the time as a kid (with commercials and everything, and I couldn’t even pick the episode – who knows what it would have been like if I had streaming? I certainly would have been able to avoid the first 2 seasons more easily).
When watching any of the Star Trek variants, there is a whole bunch of suspension of disbelief, and I’m not even talking about the fact that they have a transporter or can travel faster than light. I’m talking more “all of the aliens look mostly like humans, and they all speak English.”
It’s hard enough to believe that everyone on Earth speaks English (if there is a single Earth language in the future, it’s probably going to be Spanish or Mandarin), let alone all of the aliens. The explanation is that they have a “Universal Translator,” which allows for instant comprehension of any extraterrestrial language. But, one of the most famous episodes, “Darmok” (season 5, episode 2) is about when the universal translator fails, because the structure of the languages are completely different.
At the beginning of the episode, Captain Picard tries to communicate with an alien species called the Tamarians, and gives his best pitch (which also sounds sort of like an SDR email):
Would you be prepared to consider the creation of a mutual non-aggression pact between our two peoples? Possibly leading to a trade agreement and cultural interchange. Does this sound like a reasonable course of action to you?
The Tamarians respond with a bunch of “proper names of individuals and locations” as
Captain Obvious Data points out:
Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra; Shaka when the walls fell; Zinda! His face black, his eyes red!
As we discover later in the episode, the Tamarians’ language is all references to stories within their culture. Darmok and Jilad at Tanagra refers to two people (Darmok and Jilad) joining together to fight a beast on an island (Tanagra). As Picard summarizes it – “a danger shared might sometimes bring two people together.” But without knowing that story, the words don’t really mean anything.
Imagine if I said “George Washington, at the cherry tree,” most Americans would know that I’m talking about honesty or the inability to tell a lie (let’s just put aside the fact that the cherry tree story never actually happened. We’ll also put aside the fact that, while George Washington did some amazing things, he had hundreds of slaves, so maybe we shouldn’t hold him up as some kind of paragon of morality. Just sayin.). But use that phrase outside of the US? Depending on who you’re talking to, they might know who George Washington is, but they almost certainly won’t know the cherry tree story. Without context, that phrase is meaningless.
Enter selling to diverse audiences and Memes
Memes can do the same thing – we can communicate a whole lot in a meme. Just today, one of my neighbors sent a picture of her husband over the group chat – he shaved his COVID beard but kept the mustache, and she wanted to know what the rest of us thought. My response was this:
This gif translated to: “Tom Sellack has an awesome mustache, and he would certainly approve of your husband’s mustache, therefore he should keep it.” Without that context, it’s just a random picture of a handsome mustachioed fellow. As of this writing, I don’t know whether he kept the mustache.
Update: The mustache is no more. Tom Sellack wasn’t enough.
Using gifs and memes in presentations
When using gifs or memes, ask yourself if the meme stands on its own – like any joke, if it has to be explained, it’s not a good joke. Then, ask yourself if it reinforces stereotypes. Even if the stereotype portrayed isn’t anyone in the room, you still want to eliminate them as you never know how people will interpret it (also, it’s not cool).
If you do end up doing something that offends the audience, own it and apologize. You may not think its offensive, but that really doesn’t matter – we don’t get to decide how our audiences feel. We all have biases, unconscious or otherwise, and all we can do is work toward eliminating how those biases impact how we interact with other people.
The takeaway here is that when using memes, be sure you are sharing context. Shared context is the space you enter when your audience is engaged in your storytelling or your solution. How to engage your audience from the beginning of your presentation? Try our Blockbuster Demo Openers and feel free to leave your feedback!