Comfortable Disorientation

At the core of my Five Tenets is this one, which would be my favorite were I to pick just one. In order of importance, it’s probably the most important; though, as with anything woven or interrelated, these all do depend on the presence and exercise of the other four in order to be most fully effective.

Labeling the technique Comfortable Disorientation pretty much articulates, in those two words, the quality that I believe underlies the success achieved when the spectrum of these tenets are applied to best effect and the audience members or guests temporarily forget everything outside the Experience to find themselves fully immersed; given over to your control. Feeling safe in not knowing what’s next…

And, that’s the key; Feeling safe in not knowing what’s next.

To create, at one fell swoop, in one instant, both a sense of disorientation and the sense of being safe and taken care-of on the part of your audience: comfort without complacency. To virtually pull the rug from beneath them while assuring them of the presence of the safety net… Effectively executed, this technique results in an immediate, deeper level of trust on the part of the audience and an intangible yet greater willingness to suspend disbelief; to further quiet the left brain and allow us to wrangle their right lobes and take them further into fantasy, reverie, even camaraderie…

Once they know they don’t know; and know that they’re “safe” – the guests become more completely ours for the journey we host… The camaraderie comes from the fact that each individual is experiencing the instant dissolution of preconception (if you will) and the concomitant reassurance that something possibly better and certainly more  interesting may await, and all are sharing this unique, yin/yang at precisely the same moment, in the same time and place. This creates an immediate, deeper connection amongst the audience; as no longer is the experience simply a shared one, it is unique and happening only here, only now.

Theme parks strive for this all the time, often with what I call the Venice Effect; bringing guests through a queue that is often labyrinthine, usually feels a bit cramped — limited sightlines, low ceilings — to then be suddenly released into a space that seems vast by comparison.

This covers the Disorientation part – though not always is it Comfortable…

Creators of Experience virtually always have one of these in play in any created or produced experience or show. It is the presence of both, in the right balance and with the right timing, that has the inherent power to render an experience most deeply compelling and resonant.

This might be accomplished through a move so simple as that of bringing an audience into a theatre or venue via backstage, perhaps starting in an alley with no hint at the ultimate destination space, so there is no Preconception (we’ve Liberated them from that!). They’re backstage before they realize it’s an actual Backstage, then walking across the stage and into the auditorium in the same moment that they actually appreciate where they are… They then have the opportunity to see said auditorium or space, of which they may have a previous experience, from an entirely different perspective.

Disorientation. Comfort.

One of the most effective of my applications of this was for the theatrical tour for Stanford University to which I’ve previously referred. It was simple, powerful, low-tech and inexpensive…

After a day of Conference and a cocktail reception in the format as was and is expected at pretty much any such event, it was time for the doors to open for dinner. The gong sounded, the doors flew open and the guests began to pour into what they thought was the “ballroom”…


A vast, high-ceilinged dark space lay before them. Some thirty yards distant, across the dark floor, was a free-standing, 20-foot, circular curtain curving away from them to left and right; over the top of which spilled a bright, warm light. Their destination was clear, this “island” of light, floating in the darkness; a safe place.

In the darkness between doorway and destination stood a double row of flashlight-bearing volunteers, shining these lights down onto the floor, effectively reassuring those entering the space that there were no cables or cords, trapdoors or obstacles to trip them up on the smooth and clear pathway to the sparkling destination, across the space.

Palette of Preconception thusly cleared and audience effectively disoriented, they were at the same time reassured that this had been thought through; there was no doubt where they were headed and how they were going to get there…intrigue and excitement built, as they still did not know what was behind the curtain.

Once across the space and having passed through the curtained barrier, the guests entered this space-within-a-space to find themselves surrounded with architectural iconography from every decade of the University’s history and most sections of campus, in various sizes and scales, in two and three dimensions as well as by projection. Immersed in the colors, textures and visual cues from their own experiences of their time(s) on campus, as they looked closer, each could see that these icons were juxtaposed with one another in unusual ways; quite dissimilar from their geographical relationships, on campus.

This mixture of differing scales, different formats and dimension, familiar colors and shapes combined to fuel curiosity and intrigue individuals, compelling them to look closer, to explore and become familiar with what had been previously familiar in their past, rediscovering those iconic buildings and installations of which they had had previous experience. Disoriented, and quite comfortably so…

It’s different, every time and for every client or story to be told; it takes application of the previous two Tenets to get to the point of discovering how to Comfortably Disorient. I offer that it’s well worth the work…

This is simply one approach to Comfortable Disorientation; this one for an “event” Experience. The technique, though, can certainly serve as quite effective in Experiential and Pop-up Marketing, Theatrical,

Surprise sans Startle, Awe without Shock, Comfortable Disorientation.

I expect that y’all may well already do some of these same things; this is just what I label it. I hope this is helpful or inspirational in some way.

Again, thanks for reading!

Kile Ozier (kileozier) on

“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

-Robert Browning

Next Week: Successive Revelation

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