The Gift of Knowing Your Audience - Patricia Raybon

Who does your work serve? Getting to know your audience helps you serve them better and helps you grow in God's love. Guest Patricia Raybon is a professional journalist who has spoken to a wide variety of audiences. Throughout her career, she's published in magazines such as USA Today and Newsweek and delivered critically-acclaimed works of non-fiction. But Patricia has recently learned to communicate in a new way with her first work of fiction, a murder mystery set in 1920s America. Her new book, All That Is Secret, was selected by Parade Magazine as a Mysteries We Love selection for Fall 2021, and by Masterpiece on PBS among Best Mystery Books of 2021 As Recommended by Best-selling Authors. With All That Is Secret, Patricia opens a new phase in her career that hinges on truly getting to know and understand her audience.

Scripture References

Matthew 15:24

Matthew 21:28-32

Additional Resources Referenced

All That is Secret, by Patricia Raybon

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​​Leah Archibald: Making It Work is brought to you by The Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Theology of Work Project.

Mark Roberts: Welcome to Making it Work.

LA: Through conversation, scripture and stories, we invite God into work’s biggest challenges... so that you can live out your purpose in the workplace.

MR: I’m Mark Roberts.

LA: And I’m Leah Archibald. And this is Making It Work.

You've probably heard that communication skills are essential to success in the workplace. You might have even worked on your communication skills before, whether it's practicing your delivery before a big presentation or beefing up your PowerPoint graphics. But there is one preliminary step to effective communication that is often overlooked in prep sessions, knowing your audience. Knowing your audience, understanding who they are and what makes them tick, is so important that it can make the difference between a message that stirs people to action and a message that reaches nobody. So how can you find your audience? And once you find your audience, how can you tailor your communication strategy to strike a chord with them?

Our guest, Patricia Raybon, is a professional journalist who has spoken to a wide variety of audiences. Throughout her career, she's published in magazines such as USA Today and Newsweek and delivered critically-acclaimed works of non-fiction. But Patricia has recently learned to communicate in a new way with her first work of fiction, a murder mystery set in 1920s America. Her new book, All That Is Secret, was selected by Parade Magazine as a Mysteries We Love selection for Fall 2021, and by Masterpiece on PBS among Best Mystery Books of 2021 As Recommended by Best-selling Authors. With All That Is Secret, Patricia opens a new phase in her career that hinges on truly getting to know and understand her audience. Patricia Raybon, welcome to the Making It Work Podcast.

Patricia Raybon: Thank you so much. I'm delighted to be here with you today.

LA: So we are just so delighted to pick your brain. And the first question that comes to mind is, what made you wanna switch from writing non-fiction to writing fiction?

PR: Short answer, I love story, and I wanted to learn how to write a story, a fictional story. That's the short answer, but I'll share this backstory, that I grew up on a pew, on a church pew. And so from a very young age, I was in a Sunday school room hearing the stories of the Bible, the battle stories of the Old Testament with its heroes and sheroes, the miracles and the parables of Jesus, and the acts of the apostles. And so two things happened, I learned that there are stories. I learned that they matter, because they were coming out of the Bible. I learned that Jesus teaches through story. And I learned to love them.

LA: Do you...

PR: Well...

LA: No, go ahead.

PR: I was just gonna say this other thing, there's one context. In the context of this podcast, I grew up with a family of people who work. And both my mother and my father graduated from historically black universities when there was nowhere else for them to go. My dad was an accountant by training, worked for his entire career with the US Air Force finance and accounting center here in Colorado. My mother was an elementary school phys ed teacher. These were working people. When I was a child and my feet hit the floor in the morning, the first thing we had to do was to "Make your bed." I still do that. And so I grew up learning how to work, and I grew up loving story.

So when I had a third grade teacher asked me one day, "Patricia, would you like to be a writer when you grow up?" I said, "Yes." And she said, "You are a writer." And so, in the context of work, what she was saying is, "You are a writer, and there is work connected to that." And so when it came to here recently deciding to write a novel, that said to me, "Do the work to learn how to do it." And because I grew up in a family of people who work, it became my latest work project something that I love, which is story, learning how to write it. And so that's a long answer, but that's what's behind the decision to try it, to try to write a story.

LA: So Patricia, you've said that part of your research in this book was figuring out exactly who your audience is, who are you trying to communicate with. What did you need to learn about your audience? And how did you go about figuring that out, who your audience is for this book?

PR: Well, I knew that every book needs... Every author and every book needs a specific audience to sell. So at some point, writing becomes... After it's the creative work, it becomes the marketing work, the business work. And so at Tyndale House, which Tyndale produced and published my murder mystery, there was a lot of discussion about the potential for this mystery novel to have crossover appeal. But I just had an awareness that I needed to pay attention to my core audience. Who was the core audience for this book? Sure, it'd be great for it to have crossover appeal, but who's the core audience? And so that question took on special meaning when I decided to invest a little bit in targeted advertising for Facebook.

And so that kind of investment required me to specifically identify a particular audience of people. And I thought about it, and I finally made myself, gave myself permission to say, "The audience for this book are women over 45 who love Jesus and a good mystery." And when I said that, I wasn't saying a word about crossover, I was talking about people like myself. And once I fell in love with the idea that this is an audience I know and I like and I want to honor by acknowledging them, then I was able to create the advertising that found them. And so I created ads for women over 45. The ad for All That Is Secret, the blurb says, "Sherlock Holmes always needed a praying sister."

And it says that because my lead character is a young African-American theologian, and in the In African-American culture, the word "sister" is an identifier. I think you're probably familiar with that. And so there was, in those few words, some information that said this character who happens to be a fan of Sherlock Holmes, she's a theologian who also loves Sherlock Holmes stories, and she's also struggling with her prayer life and her God life. And so, by acknowledging that I was writing a story with a faith character who also loved Sherlock Holmes, it just cut through, eliminated a lot of people who would not be interested in a mystery novel if the character has a faith dilemma.

LA: And at the same time, entices a lot of people who that would be, who that would enrich their leisure time experience of reading a mystery novel.

PR: That too, so maybe... And so some of those people may have come along for the ride who ended up being in the crossover category. But the core audience was the one I was looking, I was trying to speak to first. I just ran an ad on Twitter just because it's fun for me, it's just... I like trying it. And so I created an ad for that audience, my core audience, and it's a video showing a vintage chandelier, crystal chandelier, 'cause part of the story is my lead character whose background is poor ending up solving the murder by taking herself into an elite setting. And so the crystal chandeliers, it has a feminine aspect to it. And so when I was looking at the analytics for that ad, most of the people who responded to it are female. And then I used my faith language. And so, it really helped me... It was an eye opener... It was an epiphany for me that while an author wants everybody to read his or her book, a book is not for everybody. A ministry is probably not for everybody. A work agenda is not for everybody. So who is it for? And how can I best speak to those people first?

LA: I love this...

PR: Well, I was just gonna say, I'm not sure if I hadn't tried writing a novel if I'd ever spend any time really thinking about it that way.

LA: Yeah. Now, Mark, I wanna hang out on this point a little bit because Patricia just made the leap. She said a book is not for everyone. You know, even a ministry is not for everybody. And I wonder if the one communicator who probably touched more people than anyone else in the history of the human life, which is Jesus, had a kind of a core audience at the beginning.

PR: That's right.

LA: And Mark, I wanna know what you... Do you think he... Now, he wasn't testing ads on Twitter one against another, doing his AB testing. I mean, he had all the resources of God that he needed. He could do those in the spirit level or whatever. No, I'm getting ahead of myself. But Patricia or Mark, do you think that he identified his core audience for his own specific reasons?

MR: Well, we know he did.

PR: Yes.

MR: One of the more, for some of us, troubling passages in the gospel, remember a woman comes to him that needs healing, and he says, "Well, I've come for the lost of Israel." We're like, "Wait a minute, Jesus. You're not gonna serve this woman?" And then he ends up serving her, but there was clarity there that was... And again, for us, it's kind of stunning. Now ultimately, of course, Jesus is for everyone, but for a season, and in that season of his physical life on earth, He was pretty focused there. And there are probably many other ways you could determine his focus, especially if you paid attention to, well, how did he communicate? And then you try to say, "Well, who are the people that are gonna relate to those parables, many about work and agriculture? And so it's pretty clear that Jesus was not really too much trying to reach the Roman centurions, though there was some interest in him from the Roman army. He was open to the other. So there was the crossover possibility, to use Patricia, your language, but he was pretty clear about what he was to do in that season of life. I mean, he didn't, for example, get on a ship and go to Rome. He could have done that and said, "You know, hey, I'm actually king of the world here. I'm the Lord."

And he didn't do that. And so I think that can give us some permission, or even more than permission. But I laughed at Patricia, 'cause when I did my first book [chuckle], and the publisher wants to know who are you writing for. And it's like, "Well, I wanna write for everybody." Yeah, you know, you can't do that. Who's this really for? And initially, it was very challenging to say, "Well, I guess I'm not really gonna write for people who are looking for something that I'm really not doing", and there's clarity in that. So I really appreciate your story. And you're right about the Facebook ads, I've done some of those. You can just put it out there to whole Facebook, but that's pretty silly. You can actually do so many specifications. So I love it that you have thought that you're able to define your audience as you are and be open to the possibility that there are others. So for example, I don't quite fit into your audience since I'm not a woman; however, as a boy, I read almost every Nancy Drew book 'cause I ran out of the Hardy Boys books. And since then, I also like mysteries, I actually... I love a good female protagonist, so I can be your crossover. But you're right, you probably didn't write that primarily for me.

PR: Right.

LA: I think you'll really like All That Is Secret, Mark, 'cause it really moves. It's a page-turner.

PR: Thank you. In terms of it moving and having excitement, thank my husband for that. He said, "Just keep it exciting." And we both love movies, and we love thriller movies and mystery movies, and so I understood what he was saying. So when you get to those... There's a lot of those places in this book. So when you get to those places, say, "Ah, Dan Raybon."

MR: Alright, alright, [chuckle] that's great.

LA: But there are a lot of theological elements that are woven through this book as well. As you've mentioned, Patricia, your main character is a theologian but who's also struggling with her belief and her prayer life. And so even though the book is very fast-paced, there's this theology that comes out naturally through the work of the characters; in this case, the work of solving a mystery. So you have a very real faith-work interaction in this book. And as I was reading, I was thinking, I wonder, Patricia, if this is something that you've seen to be true in your own life. So for me, I feel like my faith really comes alive when it gets tested in a work situation. I can have an idea of what I believe, but when I'm really tested or I got a tough decision or something's challenging me, the rubber meets the road, that's when I know when I really believe. And that's kind of what's going on for these characters too caught up in this mystery. I wonder if that comes out of any work challenges you've had in your own life.

PR: Well, it comes out of that, but also it comes out of my life as a woman of color having to navigate racism every day. And I know that's hard for people who don't experience it to believe that that's the reality for people of color, but it is. Leaving one's home means confronting bigotry every day for the most part. And so in the case of this novel, it's set in the 1920s in Colorado when the state was ruled by the Ku Klux Klan. Colorado, I don't know if you know this, had the second highest Klan membership per capita of any state in the nation in the 1920s. Every county in Colorado had a Klan klavern. And the leaders from the governor on down were dues-paying members of the Klan; police chiefs. Sheriffs, jury commissioners. And so, having grown up, in my case I age myself but it's true, before the Civil Rights Act and before the Fair Housing Act and the Voting Rights Act, I wanted to explore a young woman's attempt to solve a crime while also having to navigate a world that that devalued her.

And so in that way, the story does mirror my own personal experience. But because it's in another decade, in the 1920s, I could not make it a contemporary exploration of race and faith, but provide enough historical distance to allow the story to be fun to read even though she had this big challenge. And so people have thanked me for that, and I was gonna share with you, I got a note from the CEO of Tyndale about a week and a half ago. He sent it through my publisher there, saying how much he... He said, "Patricia I thoroughly enjoyed reading All That Is Secret. I read it almost in one sitting. You pulled me through the story with the fascinating characters and so on, and with the tension experienced by the Black characters and community living alongside a white majority culture. And I appreciated Anna Leigh", that's my lead character, "I appreciate her struggle and her understanding of where God fit into these complications of her life."

And I appreciated his feedback so much because he grasped exactly what I was attempting to do, which is to share this young woman's struggle and challenges because of her race while also trying to solve a crime. Because that's the thing about... For a person of color, in terms of work, after dealing with that kind of atmosphere in a lot of workplaces you still have to go home and figure out what's for dinner and how are my husband and I are gonna solve this argument that we're having, or theologically, how am I going to work as unto the Lord when I have a supervisor who won't give me the time of day? And so those are interesting questions for me personally and theologically, and I wanted to put them into a story because I became aware that people who would not read a non-fiction reflection on that that I had written, would read an entire novel.

LA: Yeah. So what is your hope that readers would take away? I love this comment from the CEO of Tyndale, of how he really got the sense of what God meant for you, or for your lead character, in the midst of these struggles. Is there a specific message that you hope readers would get about God's presence in the midst of that struggle?

PR: That is the message. The takeaway is that God that keeps us anyway. And so while my character never says that in those many words, that's the message of the story. And that's what I hope readers come away with, understanding that no matter our struggle, mine particularly is because of my age and background very often intersects with race and faith, but people have all kinds of different challenges. But no matter what, our God is a keeping God. And so my character, who's come from a pretty challenging background, by the end of the book will have come to understand that. And so that is the takeaway that I hope readers get to.

LA: In some ways, I'm just so grateful that you addressed these questions in the genre of a mystery, because it is kind of a mystery.

PR: Yes.

LA: Or at least it's a mystery, it's a mystery to me that, as you say, God is a keeping God. Why God would want to continue to search for us and find us amidst all the troubles in the world, that is a mystery, and that is an action story. So in many ways, it seems like a very appropriate genre to address these questions. Mark, what do you think?

MR: Well, partly Patricia, I just think you're giving a great gift to your readers, especially your readers who aren't Black, who wouldn't understand many things. One of the great powers of fiction-writing is the ability to invite people into the experience of others and to grow in understanding, and it just... That's really important. And so for you to write out of your experience... And you could very well write an autobiography or other things, and maybe you will do that. But to be able to put it into fiction, it's just a way to draw people in. Good fiction has that power to expand our minds and our hearts, and somehow in ways that non-fiction is maybe less able to do, except of course a powerful biography or something like that. But I just think... And even in my own life, I think of reading, say, Beloved by Toni Morrison. That was a... That's not my world, but I could enter into that world, and that was this a huge gift. So the fact that you're doing this, and then it's also something that is obviously meant to be fun and intriguing, and it's just... There's a complexity in what you're doing that is really quite amazing and wonderful and... But again, it's the gift your giving, that's really great.

PR: When I think about it, my only regret is that I didn't turn to fiction writing a lot sooner, because I've always loved novels. There's a film doctor named Robert Maki whose written a book called Story, which is about... It's really for screenwriters, but it's about cinematic writing. But he says what you just said in that he says it this way, that, "We don't go to story to escape life but to find life." And as I re-read his book before working on mine, I gained an appreciation for the opportunity to use a story to help people go, as you say, to places and situations that they ordinarily would not and would not have to. But if they go there, there will be a lesson waiting. And of course, our model for that is Jesus teaching through the parables.

MR: Yes.

PR: "There was a certain man who had two sons," and as soon as we hear that we just... Our radars go straight crazy up because we recognize it as a story. This is a story, and stories teach things.

MR: Yeah, that's great.

PR: And so I just love that about it. And I've loved that... I was telling my granddaughter... I have my 13... I have five grandchildren, one of them is 13, and she just finished reading Dune. [chuckle] And so I was saying to her, "Isn't it interesting how the writer in the process of writing learns lessons as well?" And so I love what my... Some of the things that my lead character taught me that I wouldn't have thought about otherwise.

MR: Oh, that's wonderful. By the way, you mentioned wishing you had started earlier, but it seems that this is not the end of your fiction writing, you're rather promising that this is a series, right?

PR: Right. And boy, I didn't see that coming. [chuckle] Because I finished, with God's help, the manuscript for the book. My agent sold it to Tyndale. And then... Well, Tyndale came back and said, "We want this, and we're making a three-book offer, because readers love series, mystery readers love series." And so, in fact, I finished, again with God's help, book two. We're editing book two now. And that was the first thing people would say, "Oh, I really like... I really love this book. When's the next one?" [laughter]

MR: Yeah, that's true though with mystery writing, the ones I've read. So, well, I'm glad that you're well into the next one, so that's awesome.

PR: Yes. So I'm very grateful for that. It's humbling work. I am daily humbled by the invitation to sit down with the Lord and think about the world that he is inviting me to create and share with people. And I'm so grateful that they're interested and are reading it and are asking for more.

LA: I think we'll close on that note, because just what a wonderful way to describe the blessings of doing work with God. And if we have people in our audience thinking about their work and who they communicate with, what a beautiful example of working with God to communicate to the audience who really is standing there waiting to hear what you have to say. So, Patricia Raybon, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast. It's really been a pleasure.

MR: Yes indeed.

PR: Thank you for having me.

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