Listen Up!

We need to talk.

Industry-wide, I see a significant step in the development process being missed; costing millions of dollars, eating up months and sometimes years, causing no small amount of waste and resulting in tragic shortfall of vision, again and again.

I recently returned from this year’s SATE Conference of the TEA at Disneyland Paris. This conference (“SATE” stands for Storytelling, Architecture, Technology, Experience) is an annual gathering of Creatives and Producers from the myriad, disparate sectors of the Themed Entertainment Industry (TEA stands for Themed Entertainment Association). Unique in its intimate size (around 200), SATE offers rare, informal access to some of the biggest or most groundbreaking thinkers and doers in theme parks, destination entertainment, museums, attractions and theatre in the world…creators of compelling experience.

At the conference, a virtually iconic and widely-respected leader of one of the more successful companies in the business was sharing anecdotes of some of his projects in the context of working in other cultures.

The point being made was that of the importance of Listening when entering foreign cultures and attempting to create, develop, work and build in partnership with said culture. As examples, two instances were cited wherein crucial, pertinent information came to light extremely late in the process. The point was that, had the principals not been listening with acuity at a fortunate, given moment, information crucial to successful execution of the project might have been missed.

What I believe was missed was the fact that the primary key to listening is asking questions…questions that, in these two, cited instances, had not been asked.

No question: Listening is of key importance. Virtually countless are the times a producer , director or any company or principal has parachuted into a foreign context and attempted to manifest some change or new thing without truly being in tune with the culture and specifics of the country or context into which s/he is plunging. That being said; even that requisite Listening must be guided by a preceding, underlying, fundamental discipline…Asking.

This is stronger than what is what is termed, in sales and retail, the Open Probe. This is asking direct, focused questions that help those across the table explore their own assumptions about you, about themselves and about their cultures and vision.

A previous post on this site was about Exploration of Assumption (April 4); referring to the assumption(s) inherent in vendor, audience and client. Virtually always, in the way of realization of a vision’s full potential lie the fields of not only one’s own assumptions but also what one’s client or audience might be assuming is or is not understood.

Assumption isn’t always obvious. In fact, most often it is insidiously subtle. We assume things about our surroundings simply due to the fact that we see things a certain way and accept that this is the way these things are… And often, in the context of cultural idiosyncrasy, we don’t even see for ourselves what we are assuming.

If we don’t see it, we can’t alert others to it.

One must, assiduously and regularly, examine what may be being assumed in interactions between the two, primary parties. Any two parties. It is so easy to fail to do so, and such failure will eat up time and resource in virtually every instance.

The first example was of a theme park being built in Asia. Six months in, the site was locked and construction had begun, but the core theme, the overarching Story that was to frame all experiences in the Park, had not been found or defined. Evidently, the team had been exploring and pitching themes, but nothing had stuck.

One day, when walking the property, apparently someone mentioned that the name of an adjacent mountain was “Phantom Mountain.” (Name changed to protect…)


It turned out that a handy, mystical legend or myth that was eventually and successfully developed into a compelling theme for the park had been sitting there, next to the property, for the entire time. No one had thought to ask about adjacent topography.

Presented as a delayed victory, I see this as a failed exploratory process. Months might have been saved had Assumption been Explored in the early meetings. Remember, it is not solely one’s own assumptions that call for examination and circumventing; the client is also working through a personal filter of a set of unseen or unarticulated assumptions that s/he may not see, at all.

You gotta ask!

The client or host is immersed in an environment and culture that is as familiar as one’s skin; leaving him vulnerable to the inability to casually distinguish between what is unique to an outsider, what is or may be important to fuel or expedite a process. Thus, it takes an extra discipline, a focus more acute on the part of the Producer or Creative Director to dig for and elicit information that may not even seem important enough to be dismissed by those inherently in possession of that information.

Is this making sense? To uncover facts or traditions that influence experiences in other cultures, the onus is on us to ask questions that uncover the Assumed on the part of the hosts / clients. These invisible tidbits can affect anything from nuance to overarching story and be so familiar to those in possession of the information as to not even register on the radar.


Then, Listen.

The second anecdote shared was of an installation in an Arab Country, wherein with only a few days until opening the fact that a special entrance to the property be built, especially for the Royals and VVIP’s was imperative. The usual Guest Services special entrance would not in any way be sufficient for the culturally crucial special treatment of this Upper of Upper Classes.

I can’t imagine how this could have been missed in the very first meetings on design; not to mention the raft of subsequent porings over plans and schedules. Someone failed to ask a critical question and an entire installation was designed and built without a crucial component. This, in very recent history.

This was not a failure to Listen; it was a failure to Ask…then Listen.

Exploration of Assumption.

‘Tis critical to every process, and not a one-time thing. One must keep in mind that one is very likely assuming at most times, and regularly apply the discipline of self-examination to avert expensive, obstructive negative result. Concurrently, we must know that those across the table from us, too, are equally assuming deep and imperceptible wells of pertinent information that we, as Concept Developer or Producer or Principal, need to know.

The opportunity to Listen is around us at all times. Especially when parachuting into and  moving through a new culture (any culture, actually; including one’s own); keeping one’s ears open at all times, hearing what is behind what is said, can result in the catching and absorption of nuance and detail that will very likely affect the creative process, and affect it positively when caught early.

Listen; yes. Ask, and Listen.


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