Wandering in the Wilderness

There’s a natural human inclination to tell stories. Stories do lots of great things – they entertain, they illuminate, they create bonds among strangers as we share common experiences. Stories are social lubricants and educational tools. But sometimes the story gets in the way of doing what we need to do. Here’s an example.

When I was very much younger, I accompanied a friend, an amateur filmmaker, to enter a movie he had made in a film festival / contest. This was back in the days of Super 8 film stock in actual physical reels, so we had to get in a car, film canister in hand, and drive to the venue to deliver his entry.

Not being terribly organized, neither of us had called ahead, and we had only a sketchy idea of how to get to the place, so we got lost. We drove around in the general area of the venue for a while, eventually stumbling over it by sheer luck. We went in and were met by a very nice functionary at a table, whose job was to sit there waiting for people like us to show up, sign up, and hand over the goods.

The functionary said something official and nice; something like, “can I help you?”

My friend responded by launching into the story of our adventures to date, starting with his decision to make his film and working its way through the creative process, the necessary artistic trade-offs, meandering its way to our Mosaic wandering, each wrong turn excruciatingly detailed. The nice functionary’s expression became confused and a little panicked, and my friend’s voice took on a noticeable strain as he came to the realization that he was lost in the verbal tall weeds with no clear way out.

In desperation, I grabbed the film canister from under his arm and thrust it at her, saying “we want to enter this in the festival.”

Her face brightened instantly. She was back on solid ground, knowing with whom she was dealing (a filmmaker), what he needed her to do, and how to do it. In just a few minutes, she had entered my friend’s film in the festival, and, after spending a few more minutes chatting about films and filmmaking, we were on our way.

This was my first experience of the power of fewer words. The nice functionary really didn’t need to know the history of my friend’s entry, our logistical difficulties and the attendant angst they generated; all she needed was just enough information to do her job. Once she had what she needed, she could do it, quickly and efficiently, and she felt much better about the whole situation.

That last part is key: until she knew why we were there, we were just a couple of scruffy, vaguely incoherent guys. Once she was safely back in her cognitive home territory, she knew who we were (filmmaker and lackey), and how to deal with us. And things went smoothly, and pleasantly, from there.

It’s just this way with all interactions in which we need someone to do something, and they need information from us to do it. It’s best to get them into their comfort zone quickly, and there’s nothing like clear, succinct information for making someone feel secure about the situation. Once they feel secure, they’re happier, and when they’re happier they’re better able, and more willing, to help.

The other object lesson from this adventure? Always call ahead. Or pull a Google Map. Or do something, anything, more organized than jumping in the car and charging off.

(A stipulation: I am very much aware of the irony inherent in the fact that I illustrated the importance of succinct communication with a drawn-out story from years past. In my own defense, I’ll refer back to the first sentence in this post: people like stories.  I’m a people. So I like stories.)

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