Throughout my marketing career, I’ve had enough experience with crowd mentality to know, unless there’s a prize at stake, most people don’t like to go first.
Back when hair was high, and Madonna was, if only in her own mind, Like a Virgin, I was collaborating with an IHeartRadio station in Boston for a client of mine. The station was doing a live remote program and brought a psychic into the large retail location. The on-air personalities and team asked for volunteers to have their future told, and there was no response. Not even crickets. There was zero, yes, zero response. I actually witnessed the audience take a step away from the psychic and the station’s morning crew. This was live radio; the silence threatened to propel listeners to their phones to complain about the station going off air. I steeled myself to get this party going. I overcame my own reservations for the sake of the advertiser and volunteered. The psychic’s predictions led to a weird short lived relationship with a man I believe was in the witness protection plan (story for another day), but also jump started what became a line to “be read”. Once involved the audience shared a memorable experience that they undoubtedly talked about for years; I know I have. An event becomes memorable when we engage, when we have a shared experience of something novel and a little bit scary. What’s that old adage, it’s not what you say, but how you make people feel. People who successfully face their fears feel good about themselves.
Flash forward to last weekend. A wonderful band was playing in an open air setting. The crowd quietly enjoyed the music in lawn chairs. It wasn’t my event but when I heard one of the organizers talk about needing to get a volunteer to learn the two-step, I felt her pain and said “I’ll give it a try”. A talented younger man took me right down front to showcase his ability to teach anyone to dance. I gave him fair warning. I listed my legal disclaimers – I can’t carry a beat, don’t know my left from my right, and will without realizing it steal the lead despite a complete lack of ability that might make that a wise choice. He said “fine”. Though the lawn might have been scuffed up, I am proud to report that no people were injured in the ensuing lesson, perhaps because I’d kicked off my shoes to lessen any inflicted toe stomping pain. The song was short and I’d completed my selfless, self appointed role; and felt good that I’d overcome my shyness and primed the pump of audience participation.
It felt so good to be helping out that when I noticed a photo display was being under utilized, I asked my husband if he’d pose with me. The goal was to encourage others to take advantage of the fun photo opp and backdrop that included hay bales and a barn door graphic that supported the country theme. As a photographer and writer this was well within my comfort zone. I arranged the photo as I wanted and requested the help of a nearby guest to actually take the picture. He then brought the rest of his family over for a picture, and then a young single man, and then more kids and it went on and on. Exactly as planned. My theory had always been that if you are trying something first and aren’t very good at it, other people will feel more comfortable about giving it a shot. This theory was borne out with the photography.
Ahh, but the dance taught this old doggie a new lesson. If you look really bad doing something, potential participants shift beyond the “Oh I could do as good as that, I’ll give it a try” to “Man I never want to look that ridiculous in public.” No one danced. Not one person. In fact, the instructor got the heck out of the dance area and headed straight to the bar with enough speed to blow my hair back. But in my defense – the two-step is actually a three-step 1,2, back. That’s three right? No wonder I was confused, but I digress. I was dreadful. Sure, one super kind older woman said “Well good for you for giving it a try.” But the objective was not achieved. No one would be talking about how they participated and had fun at the event because they had joined in. All that “Dance like no one is watching” was poppycock in this situation.
But then a shimmer of positivity creep into my brain. Maybe all the people who witnessed my massacred two-step, will, for the rest of their lives, chat with their friends about that awkward lady who made dancing a two-step the most cringe-worthy spectacle ever witnessed. And they’ll share a laugh, and feel really good about the fact that it wasn’t them.
I’m just not sure I should be hoping for that.
Photos and text (c)Alison Colby-Campbell