It’s a cold January morning and work traffic is trying to squirm their way through the Washington, DC Metro Station. Amidst the crowd a violinist starts to play. Out of the thousand people on their way to work only a handful responds to the tunes filling the station. If anything, they briefly turn and look at the violinist before checking their watch or getting pushed along by their mothers.
After 45 minutes, the performer has gathered 32 dollars. Most of which donated by people who didn’t stop to listen but made a contribution none the less as they walked passed the violinist.
After an hour the man by the name of Joshua Bell – one of the greatest musicians in the world – picks up his coat and hat after playing one of the most complicated and beautiful pieces ever written. He carefully packs up his instrument, an in 1713 hand crafted violin valued at $3.5 million dollars. A masterpiece by legendary violin maker Antonio Stradivari at the peak of his ability. The same violin which enthralled a crowd willing to pay $100 for a glimpse of this performance just two days before at the Boston Theatre.
This performer, this artist didn’t capture the attention of but a handful when playing unannounced, and posing as any street artist.
The story above is entirely true, and part of an experiment as conducted by the Washington Post back in 2007 called ‘Pearls Before Breakfast‘. The original experiment explored our perception of value. The perceived value of the artists performance, despite its brilliance (or actual value) was 0 to well over 95% of its audience. There were no cheers, standing ovations or even an encouraging applauses.
The awkward times,” he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord — the embarrassed musician’s equivalent of, “Er, okay, moving right along . . .” — and begins the next piece.
This of course in sharp contrast with his grand performance two days earlier. In the Boston Theatre, amongst the spotlights and centre stage every ‘fiddle’ was greeted with a warm wave of enthusiasm, clapping of hands and people rising from their soft seats for every finale.
The difference? Did the violinist just have an off-day? Did the acoustics of the subway didn’t translate his music well or was he playing for an audience less interested in classical pieces of music?
Of course none of the above was the deciding factor. His performance failed to ‘catch on’ because of one thing only: Context. It was the stage of the experiment that determined the perceived value of the virtuoso’s performance, and whether we choose to give it attention or not. Absorb the beauty and applaud, or ignore and rush past it.
How context builds value
Dan Ariely, Author of Predictably Irrational has scientifically explored how context impacts perceived value. In this book he explains how the same eight dollars is perceived as being worthy of a substantial investment (in time) to being worth nothing at all. When these 8 dollars are saved on a 18 dollar pen, we’re happy to drive that extra 20 minutes to the store to get it, but when we can save the same 8 dollars on a $448 suit, most of us won’t drive that extra mile.
He explains this behaviour by the way our mind works. It quite lazily follows a pattern and navigates by context. 8 dollars in the context of 18 is quite a substantial amount. 8 dollars in the context of 448 dollar isn’t, hence we are not stimulated to take action. An artist in a subway follows the path of the mediocre street performances and tells our mind to keep on walking. To prioritize getting somewhere above witnessing ‘America’s best violinist’ for free, or simply appreciating the beautiful music. (And vice versa, could a mediocre violinist also reap a standing ovation for his fiddling when performing at the Boston Theatre?).
Ariely argues context is to provide a stage. A platform to stage your idea instead of letting it float into nothingness. Nothingness doesn’t guide us, it makes decision making harder or leaves it wide open to the observers own interpretations. Context is a way to determine perspective and perception, and follow it through to the benefits of implementation.
So with every idea you need to ‘sell’ for adoption or implementation consider its context. Context can be found in any of the following elements:
- The Story: Describe the sequential events preceding and following your idea
- The Framework: Describe the processes that are being affected by your idea
- The Individual: Describe the lives of the persons who are being influenced by your idea
- The Heart: Describe the emotions involved with your idea
- The Proximity: Where is your idea in relation to other, alternative ideas
The better you illustrate the context in these paths, the better you do at building your stage: A metro Subway at rush hour or the Boston Theatre at Saturday night.
Context, context, context
The video below starts out with a guy dancing somewhat extravagantly and alone. At the beginning he is a loner, a nutter even maybe, but as soon as someone joins him (0:30) in his extravagant dance they become an act. When a the third person joins the dance (0:53) it makes them a movement. The perception changes with the context, and the crowd that follows makes him a leader and main topic of a world wide viral video:
The person or his dance never changed, but in perception he goes from loner to leader.
So the the next time you have your brilliant insight, your Great Idea, remember it is the context that provides its value. It’s truly remarkable to see the time people spend on getting the idea versus the time to present it within the right context. How do you build your stage? Do you play at the Washington DC Subway station, or perform at the Boston Theatre?