Complaints as a Window to the Soul

Through various public platforms like TripAdvisor as well as a few private platforms where ticket buyers are able to offer up feedback with varying levels of anonymity, my shows have been open to feedback and criticism for the past three years. The experience has taught me a great deal that I would never have learned otherwise.

This is, of course, a self-selected sample which is prone to bias. I know that an unhappy audience member is far more likely to express their displeasure than a satisfied one is to leave a positive reivew. Thankfully, in spite of this bias, the vast majority of this feedback has still been positive. But I still spend a great deal of time figuring out what to do with the negative ones.

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*This is Glenn Ottaway.
He never complains about anything in real life
but I like to imagine this is what I imagine my anonymous online critics look like.

Some of them point to genuine issues with the show that I've been able to fix and those criticisms, when offered with at least a hint of niceness, almost always lead to a better show for the next audience. 

Some of it is simply things that are not within anyone's control. I recall a period of a couple of months where the City of Toronto was replacing streetcar tracks immediately outside of our venue. That construction cut the nearby parking down to next to nothing. It's an important reminder that entertainment is about the full experience and it starts even before the audience leaves their homes. And while there's nothing to be done about the parking, the experience can start to make up for that immediately by being met by cheerful staff and being shown swiftly and effortlessly to your seats. 

A significant amount of "criticism" is less about the quality of the show and a mismatch between what they were expecting. As I occasionally demonstrate with one of the tricks in my show, what you are expecting to see goes a long way to shaping what you do see, but it also makes seeing unexpected things unpleasant. Regardless of the show was "good" or "bad" if it doesn't line up with your expectations, there's an opportunity to be unhappy.

Some of it boils down to taste. I've been labelled as "extremely funny and entertaining" and "totally boring and unfunny" by different people describing the same performance. So it becomes an effort to properly shape the promotional materials which go ahead of the show so that people know what they're getting into and people who are liable to find my style of performance boring are given the opportunity to stay home. 

Some are just pure vitriol enabled by the anonymity of the internet. They sting, but are fortunately easy to discount because they don't have much content beyond the superficial desire to make others feel bad.

What's most frustrating — although ultimately the most instructive — is the criticism that makes no sense... at least on the surface. Some of the reviews memorable for strangeness include individuals:

  • Gave the show a negative review because the chicken curry was too salty.
  • Gave the show a negative review the chicken wings were cold (this was at a venue which didn't have chicken wings on the menu... or anything else chicken for that matter.) 

I once had a conversation with the owner of of one of the Magic & Martini venues about a very unusual situation about an unsatisfied would-be customer who bought a ticket to one of the shows but left before the show had begun and none of the staff who tried to help him had the slightest idea of why he was unhappy. One reported a complaint about a wobbly table (which they fixed) and another reported a complaint that the the showroom didn't feature the venue's full dinner menu (they brought him the full dinner menu and said he could order off of it.)

The lesson for us (and to anyone involved in the service industry) is that people rarely tell you the real reason they're unsatisfied! But it's typically not for lack of honesty. It's because they don't know themselves. 

The amount of thinking that the brain does without our knowledge is astounding. (See the recent Veritasium video and discussion here.) We make so many decisions in a day without being consciously aware of them. When a decision gets made as a reflex or based on emotions, it may have causes but we don't have reasons for it in the usual rational sense of the word. But when asked for reasons, we invent them. So frequently, the reasons people give for something aren't the actual reasons; they're made up ex post facto.

Now for all of those people who were unhappy, something put them in a bad mood. But we can't trust them to accurately relay the reason for it; most likely because the real reasons are unknown. That's why I began taking the approach that the show begins before the audience puts their shoes on and leaves their homes. It forces to take a much more inclusive view of the performance to try and bring as many aspects of the evening under control to guarantee our guests the best possible experience. 

But anyone who knows anything about magic knows that the secret has always been in the ridiculous amounts of preparation behind the curtain.