And you may feel confident that you know the reason Parton has been successful for more than 50 years...talent, of course. After all, she writes (she's composed more than 3,000 songs!), makes records (25 of her releases have reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart), and has a unique sense of style.
But Parton has another superpower that's not so obvious--one that she talked about in a New York Times interview to promote her songs for the Netflix movie Dumplin'. (The main character in the film is a Dolly fanatic who decides to compete in a beauty pageant as a protest.)
Parton's secret? Empathy.
"I can relate to everybody about anything," Parton said in the interview.
That ability to relate is key, "because, as a songwriter, I have to keep my feelings out on my sleeve," Parton explained. "Some people harden their hearts just to get through life, and I think if I do that, I won't be able to write. I try to keep my heart open, even to the point of having to suffer more because I take everything so personal. But that's why I can write for other people: I try to keep myself where they are."
Parton's empathy goes beyond the traditional idea of "know your audience." That concept, of course, is based on the premise that the more you understand the demographic profile, needs, and preferences of the people you're trying to reach, the more successful you will be in getting through to them.
However, like Parton, I've found that just knowing your audience doesn't go far enough. In order to break through today's noise and nonsense, you have to go well beyond knowledge: You have to love your audience.
What I've learned is that you can't feel separate from--or worse, superior to--people if you want to engage them. You've got to sit right down at your audience's messy table and buy him or her a beer.
Your love has to be real--not manufactured or manipulative--and unconditional. You have to clearly see your audience members' faults, but love them anyway. Your love has to be unwavering, despite your audience's inattention, inconstancy, and even infidelity.
Parton knows this: Only by truly loving your audience can you communicate in a way that's truly about them, not about you. The leap to loving brings you in touch with what matters to people. Suddenly, you're able to communicate in ways that profoundly connect. You're not on the other side of the chasm from your audience members: You're right there next to them, talking softly, saying what they've always wanted to hear.
By getting to know your audience, finding out what your audience really cares about, and, most important, accepting audience members for who they are, you will communicate based on unconditional love.
The Times article cites Linda Perry, who produced and co-wrote the song "Girl in the Movies" with Parton. "She's very aware of everyone in the room and what their job title is," Perry said. "And she's very considerate of people's time, even if it's someone just coming in and bringing coffee."
For Parton, this connection, this empathy--this love--for her audience comes naturally. "Everybody I talk to, they don't drain me," she said. "I'm learning something about them, which helps me learn something about myself."