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If you are creating a public platform syllabus and have identified who your audience is, you are ready to get started with Step 2 of the syllabus process: thinking about what challenges your audience members face in their individual and collective journeys. The principle behind a platform syllabus is that the hero of the story your platform tells should be the audience. Your job is to act as a guide (think Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings) for the hero. Your syllabus should act as a plan for how you will guide your audience using your expertise.

Let’s say you have identified your hero, your audience, describing them by demographics and psychographics they might share, as well as their needs, desires, and goals. Is that enough information for you to go on as a guide? We would argue no.

As a guide, you can’t support your hero without knowing the obstacles they face as they pursue their goals, and your hero can’t trust you if they don’t see that you understand the issues that they face. Donald Miller’s StoryBrand Framework asserts that, for a brand’s story to make people pay attention, whether they be customers or audience members, you need to make it clear what problem you can help them solve. He breaks down the imagined hero’s problems into three categories, external, internal, and philosophical.

All three kinds of audience challenges are important to include in your syllabus. Think through what your audience’s challenges might be, so that you can address them through your public work and be the guide that they need.

External Challenges

External challenges are visible and practical issues that people face as they go through their day or work toward their goals; they are related to the survival instinct. The problem might just be the cause of minor irritation, or it could be a barrier to achieving something.

If you are a brand with a product to sell, an example of the target customer’s issue could be that there are no affordable headphones with high enough quality sound on the market for a young aspiring musician, or it could be that the customer is hungry.

In public scholarship, the external challenge is often something that causes personal or professional failure or stagnation. For the academic who specializes in behavioral economics and personal finance, for example, with a lay audience that is interested in improving their financial situation using cutting-edge behavioral science, their main problem might be that they never seem to have enough money despite earning well, or that they aren’t saving enough for retirement or for a house. A different audience, say, finance professionals, might have a different set of problems, like having trouble guiding their clients to spend, save, and invest in ways that help them meet their goals.

Internal Challenges

External challenges are often symptoms, or expressions, of internal challenges, which are usually related to insecurities or doubts about status, relationships, belonging, or fulfillment. Miller’s marketing strategies build on the fact that, while companies offer solutions to external problems, customers often buy to solve their internal conflicts.

A young, unknown musician might be feeling unfulfilled because they can’t do what they want to do; the hungry customer may want to feel belonging by sharing in the experience of a popular snack, or may be wanting to feel special. The company should tailor their marketing messages to fit those internal needs of the customer to sell their affordable headphones, snack food, or high-end restaurant experience.

When you identify your audience’s challenges, you practice empathy for your audience, and this empathy enables you to modify the ways that you present your work so that it speaks to the audience you want to reach. The behavioral economist’s target audience might have a lot of self-doubt and insecurity about their ability to handle money well. The other possible audience comprised of finance experts may feel frustration and shame about their performance or insecurity about their status and professional reputation when they are not able to help their clients the way that they want to.

Philosophical Challenges

Philosophical challenges go even deeper than internal challenges. These are about beliefs and belief systems, about what is right and what is wrong, about truth and what is important. Consumers might buy certain products to solve their external and internal problems, but they become loyal customers when they can see that their values align with the brand.

If the young musician believes that quality headphones should be affordable because they value access to upward socio-economic mobility for creative people with few resources, the company selling affordable headphones might want to emphasize their role as a solution to that important and unfulfilled value. The snack food brand might sell their product by telling consumers that they deserve to reward themselves by eating something unabashedly unhealthy. The upscale restaurant may appeal to consumers who are highly conscious of the ethics of various farming activities, or who simply believe that expensive means better.

Since public scholarship deals more with ideas than products, the philosophical challenges section can get very complex. Here are some types of philosophical challenges you might find, and some examples for the audience of the behavioral economist:

  1. Beliefs that prevent parts of your target audience from engaging with your content in the first place (the hero doesn’t leave home)
    • I’m lazy; I’m just not good with money
    • My clients aren’t trying hard enough; my clients aren’t taking responsibility; I am a bad [job title]
  2. Possible audience assumptions that contradict your assumptions in your work (the hero currently disagrees with the guide)
    • Humans do, or should, behave rationally all the time
    • The government is/isn’t on my side
  3. Conflicting messages that the audience might struggle with (the hero needs the guide’s expertise to discern the nuances and the implications of arguments)
    • You should be as frugal as possible <-> It’s important to splurge now and then
    • Poverty is a personal issue <-> Poverty is a systemic issue
  4. Ideas that form the basis for practical applications you advocate for (the guide supports the hero’s understanding and helps them achieve what is right)

Once you have described what problems your audience is experiencing, we go on to Step 3: determining how you will help solve the above problems and empower your audience. We will cover this next step in our next blog post.

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