The idea was (and is) that people react better to seeing examples, instead hearing lectures. If we needed to write about changes to the state budget, for example, we should show readers those changes with stories about people affected by them, rather than tell readers about the changes with some dry, boring recitation of numbers and quotes from elected officials. That's why so many news stories focus on anecdotes. They're trying to show you something about an issue, rather than just telling you about it.
This is hardly a new concept, of course. Much of the New Testament of the Bible is written in parables, after all. I suppose there might have been some other ancient book, with the exact moral lessons, that spelled everything out explicitly, instead leaving it to the reader to figure out, and is now forgotten because it didn't pass the test of time. No one wants a lecture.
So "show, don't tell," works in other contexts. I thought about this earlier today when reading Twitter. One (very thoughtful!) fan I follow complained that a security cast member told her to smile when she was going through bag check.
Having had this happen to me countless times since I was a child, I share her frustration. Want me to smile in your theme park, at your show, or in your business? Then show me a reason to do that. Do not command (another form of tell) me what to do.
One of the reasons why people visit theme parks is to escape from their routine, a large portion of which for many people involved getting bossed around by others. Obviously, as popular attractions, theme parks need to manage the huge crowds that come into their parks. But part of the beauty of great theme park operations lies in the ability of cast and team members to be able to manage people without any one of those visitors feeling like they've been managed.
As a theme park employee or contractor, as soon as you tell someone what to do, you've busted that wonderful illusion. You have exposed the machinery underneath the experience. You have broken "the magic." We might as well be back at work, being ordered around in a meeting, or on the road commuting, with traffic officers telling us where to drive. Where's the fun in being told what to do? That's the routine we are trying to escape.
The telling feels even more oppressive when it is coming from someone in a security uniform, and that feeling is amplified when security is ordering around women, people of color, or children — individuals who too often are the disproportionate target of suppressive demands IRL. Men telling women to smile especially evokes a long history of emotional diminishment. The best security officers are aware of these risks and work to make everyone they encounter feel welcomed, even as they endure a bag check or metal detector scan.
Yes, making that happen does mean treating each person differently. After all, treating everyone exactly the same defines the industrial process we want to escape by visiting a theme park. We are looking for a personal experience here.
How to do that? While each individual encounter will be different, "show, don't tell" provides a great place to start. What someone to smile? Offer them a smile, first. Great people warmly, but don't make demands. Say, "Hello" but follow it with something like "I am so happy to see you," or "There's so much wonderful stuff happening," instead of "How are you doing today?"
The last approach is cliche — an empty question that nevertheless puts someone under social pressure to respond. The others are just an unconditional expression of happiness. At a security check, the company already is making demands of its customers. Open the bag, turn out your pockets, walk through the scanner. Why compound that hassle with any additional requests? Instead, just give. Give people a smile. Show people your happiness to be here. Don't ask any unnecessary questions and do not make any unnecessary demands. If a guest isn't feeling that joy, let the guest have her or his space.
I know, having worked at Disney World, that the core of that job is making people happy. But no individual can force another person to feel happy. All you can do is offer happiness and recognize that it is up to your guests to catch it... or not.
Having been around since dinosaurs roamed the Earth, I have learned that a direct command almost never inspires someone to change how they feel. Check that. Direct commands do make people change the way they feel, but they make us feel worse: frustrated, picked upon, and even angry.
Let me stop telling and start showing, then. The first time I got a front-row seat for a Disney parade, Captain Hook walked over to me, sitting on the Main Street curb. I was probably around 10, and looking back, am sure that I was sitting with a blank expression on my face. Being an emerging theme park geek, I was fascinated by the operation of the parade — the floats and the people, all working together in precise choreography. I wanted to study every move. As an obsessive perfectionist, I loved what I was seeing, so close in front of me. But, knowing me, when I am that deep in thought, my face isn't smiling.
So there came Captain Hook, to call me out. He bent over and motioned with his hands in front of his mouth, curling them up as if to make a smile. I felt the eyes of hundreds of people on the parade route turn toward me, as Hook singled me out for doing something wrong.
But I hadn't done anything wrong, which offended my extra-sensitive, pre-teen sense of justice. I had felt happy, just trying to understand how Disney pulled off this parade. Now, I felt angry and humiliated by being shamed in front of such a large crowd. I refused to watch any more Disney parades until I got a job as a cast member and no longer had a choice. And I hated Captain Hook well into adulthood.
What if Captain Hook had just come over to the little kid he saw with what looked like a scowl on his face and performed some gag, instead? What if he gave me a reason to laugh, instead of an order? What if he showed me something funny, instead of telling me what to do?
I would have loved it — one more funny thing in this wonderful parade for me to study. Whether my face showed it or not.
If your reaction to all this is to say, "you're too sensitive — lighten up," I sincerely hope that you don't get a job working in a theme park with that belief. Everyone is who he or she is. Telling people not to feel the way they feel is not supportive — if anything, it's abusive. Theme parks ought to provide an escape from such ugliness in life.
Everyone is different. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. But respecting people means that you offer something before you even think about making a demand. Working in a theme park is hard. Cast members deserve thanks for all the crap they take from guests, every day.Yet they shouldn't add to that pile, either. This is "show" business, not "tell" business, after all.Tweet
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