But today's blogpost isn't about the conference and Agile. Today I want to share with you one of the most magical experiences in my life and what I've taken away from it as a learning and development professional. So, some context - the conference was supposed to happen in Nashville, Tennessee. Unfortunately Nashville was hit by one of the biggest floods in many years and that made us move the conference venue to the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. At first I was a bit disappointed - I'm not one for amusement parks and in fact, I passed up my first opportunity to be at a Disney World in Hong Kong because I don't really care for the rides. "Just another amusement park.", I thought. Then again, I don't like sitting in a hotel when I'm in a new place and if I was going to be in Orlando, I had to go to Disney World if only for the record. Having spent time at the four major Disney World parks, I now have a completely changed opinion. In that itself, I've learnt a lesson to never judge a book by it's cover. The magic of Disney World is something for you to see to believe. If you don't like amusement parks, my words will have little effect on you, but I know that if you do chance upon this amazing place, you'll understand why Disney World is such a popular destination. Each day that I visited the place, I felt a strange heart warming happiness - unlike anything I've ever felt before. I felt like a child once again and yet I didn't find anything childish. There were important lessons for parents, children, professionals - in fact, I kept relating the way Disney does their business with the way we should train and present. Today, I want to share with you what I've learnt about my trade from these dream merchants.
Keep things Simple
"I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with 'expressing' myself with obscure creative impressions." - Walt Disney
Disney movies maybe an elaborate affair in production, but for the audience, they're incredibly simple stories and morals to digest. If you think of any movie, you'll realise that the storyline revolves around a simple moral. Finding Nemo is about parents letting their children take chances and for children to realise why their parents care. Tinkerbell teaches you to believe in yourself. Toy Story and Up are about friendship, loyalty and the spirit of adventure. There's not a tale in the Disney cabinet that takes effort to understand. I love this, because the simplicity of Disney movies make them memorable for not just youngsters, but also grown ups.
It's a lesson for trainers and presenters - simplicity takes effort. Simplicity is not equivalent to being simplistic. It takes great creativity to powerfully express an idea and yet make it easy to understand. I have never forgotten how Crush the turtle from Finding Nemo says to Marlin, "You never really know. But when they know, you'll know. You know?". I'm not a parent yet, but that's a great parenting lesson right there - it comes halfway through the movie after a significant amount of storytelling. The key is that Disney took the pains to tell a story that would make that message stick. And stick it has. When we do our presentations and training, what's our simple message that will always stick through? It's food for thought, isn't it?
Set a Theme
"We like to have a point of view in our stories, not an obvious moral, but a worthwhile theme. ... All we are trying to do is give the public good entertainment. That is all they want." - Walt Disney
Disney World's success is in being the world's first theme park. It's not just an amusement park with rides, it tells a story. So while Magic Kingdom is about making dreams come true, Animal Kingdom is about celebrating our planets biodiversity. If Hollywood studios is about celebrating backstage action from our favourite movies, Epcot is about education, science and innovation. Every corner of these parks, stays true to it's theme. Steve Jobs, one the best presenters of our era, does this with uncanny predictability. For example when he keynoted Macworld 2008 to announce the Macbook Air, he started off with the theme, "There's clearly something in the air today." To this day, it remains one of his most memorable keynotes in the way he introduced his latest family of notebooks.
Themes allow our brains to relate items of information to each other. Our brain stores related information in contiguous areas, firing more neurons which eventually leads to better retention. Dr John Medina's book on Brain Rules is a fantastic text on how our brain works and even he says, "Our brain pays attention to patterns." So create that pattern by setting your theme and watch your audience sink into the experience.
Entertain before you Educate
I spent a lot of my time in Epcot, Disney's educational park. I was particularly amazed at how Disney has gone to great lengths trying to make education fun. I wish I'd experienced this as a kid - I would have taken a stronger interest in science. Each ride was not just fun, but it was memorable. On Mission Space, I learnt how astronauts have to train to go on outer space missions. On Soarin I learnt about California and it's beautiful landscapes. On Living with the Land, I learnt how new ways of making agriculture more productive. On Test Track, I learnt how car manufacturers test their vehicles. On each of these rides, I learnt a little bit but had heaps more fun. Our brains are conditioned to remember interesting events. To create strong memories, we need an affective context. Disney creates an affective context on each of their rides and shows and I think if I can find use for some of the things I've learnt, I'm unlikely to forget these experiences.
As Dr Medina says, "The brain doesn't pay attention to boring things, and I'm as sick of boring presentations as you are." That statement is quite conclusive in that we need to do more to make our topics interesting and fun for our audience. Hiding behind the excuse that a topic is dry isn't enough anymore; in fact, it's a waste of time. If we care about our topics enough, we need to find ways to make them interesting. Sometimes it's not easy and we need inspiration. Hans Rosling's fun talk on an incredibly dry topic, is testimony that this is possible.
Create an Immersive Experience
"Until a character becomes a personality it cannot be believed. Without personality, the character may do funny or interesting things, but unless people are able to identify themselves with the character, its actions will seem unreal. And without personality, a story cannot ring true to the audience." - Walt Disney
One of the key things I noticed with the Disney World experience is how committed the entire crew is to ensuring that you're totally immersed in the experience. When you enter the haunted mansion, it's not your ride that begins, your attendant emerges saying, "Your time has come." When I got onto the Kilimanjaro Safaris, it wasn't about getting onto a jeep - it was about going on a two week trip and keeping your eyes out for poachers. The attention to detail is so minute that when you take the train from Rafiki's planet watch, you don't go to the Africa exhibit, your attendant sees you off to Harambe village in Africa. The Asian exhibit has moisture affected walls just as you'll see in India; a dhobi ghat with clothes strewn across the steps just as you'll see at many places in our country. All the Disney characters stay true to their mannerisms, every moment of the day. For long everything felt so real that I believed I was walking through a real life Disney movie!
The immersive experience creates hugely memorable experiences. The race to find the poachers, the quest for the Iguanadon before asteroid impact on earth, the extreme g-forces when our rocket took off from the space station, have created a huge impression on me, which I'm unlikely to forget. This is a crucial lesson for trainers in particular - we learn lessons where we're kinesthetically part of an experience. As Nick Shackleton-Jones often mentions - it's ridiculous to think about learning as just knowledge transfer. The trainer of the future, inspires and involves learners in an experience of co-creation through storytelling, scenarios and simulations. Our approach with ThoughtWorks University has been a step in this direction.
"Fantasy, if it's really convincing, can't become dated, for the simple reason that it represents a flight into a dimension that lies beyond the reach of time." - Walt Disney
At Disney World, the show takes precedence over everything else. Perfectionism is the name of the game and you'll notice that they've gotten so good with their shows that they know how to run them without fail, each time. They don't put a step wrong, whether it's Donald's walk, Mickey's wave, the fireworks at Magic Kingdom or the Jammin' Jungle Parade. It appears they've practiced so hard that to improvise is never a chore. The flawlessness of execution is something for you to see, to believe me. The result is a perfect show that'll ring in your memory for years to come. As practicing experts, we're in a similar situation when we teach or present. We can choose to go out there and play it by ear, or do our audience a favour and practice diligently. There's heaps we can learn from the art of public performance, and we owe it to our audience to give them the most engaging, interesting and entertaining learning experience possible. The thought about performance also reminds me that Disney doesn't overdo live performances. If there's something that could be a recording, then they just leave it that way. For example the briefings for the rides - they seem live, but they're not! This is yet another lesson for us - never do a live demo if it doesn't add significant value. It's a recipe for disaster, creating an additional point of failure for your presentation or workshop. This is not to say you shouldn't do anything live. You just need to be pragmatic about what's valuable and what's not.
It's tough to write all about my Disney experience in words. Call me shallow, corny or cheesy - there are 17 million others like me in this world! I loved being at Disney and learning about Walt has given me heaps of inspiration for the next few years. I guess it should suffice to say that I'm almost a new, refreshed person after my time at the parks.
On a sidenote, please drop in a comment to let me know how you found today's article. If you're in Bangalore, do catch me for a coffee and I'll show you some of the pictures from my visits to Disney. I'm in Chicago as I write this post, and I'm missing the place already. I could stay there forever!