The only business I really know anything serious about is show business. And though people in the entertainment business like to think of it as singularly zany and unique, my guess is that it’s not that different from any other business, like dentistry or home finance or auto repair or artisanal cheese-making.
When a bunch of people get together to focus on one basic task, they end up repeating basic human organizational behavior. For instance, in Hollywood, a huge amount of time and effort is spent telling other people exactly how they should do their jobs differently. In my corner of the entertainment business, this is what is called “giving the writer some notes on a script.”
But surely somewhere, right this minute, at a dry cleaner’s, say, there’s someone giving someone else some “notes” about the shirts. “Hey, is there any way, and I don’t have a solution, this is really just a thought — You’re the shirt guy. You know how it should be and I totally defer to you here — but there’s a sense that the shirts in the box have this crease in them, and it would be, I think, a lot more appealing if we could have the shirts in the box, but without the crease?”
Which leads to a perfectly human counterreaction, which is to sigh loudly and say “no” as often as possible accompanied by a certain amount of profane muttering under the breath. People don’t like to be told how to do their jobs.
But sometimes, you can’t help stepping into other people’s territory. Sometimes, that’s a key part of your job. When I was just starting out as a writer and producer in television, I would often ask the people in the organization — the production crew, the network executives, the editors, and designers — to make small adjustments or for additional stuff. I would, in other words, go around to the various teams and ask them to do things differently, which as we all know is super, super irritating.
And that’s when I noticed that the answer to all of my questions, or at least every important question, was always no. Can we get a helicopter for this shot? “No.” Can we get some outdoor advertising for our premiere? “No.” Can we get smoke to come out of the suitcase? “No.”
When I was just starting out, I regularly took no for an answer. Can we lift this section of the scene? “No? OK.” Can we lose the noise on the soundtrack? “No? OK.” Can we make the elevator in this scene more crowded? “No? OK.”
But one day, and I don’t know why I tried this, maybe I was having a flashback to childhood, I asked, “Can we make this set larger?” And of course, the answer was “No.” But instead of saying, “OK,” I waited a second. “Can we make this set larger?” “No.” And then another second or two: “Can we make this set larger?” “No.” And then for the third time: “Can we make this set larger?”
Which was when the dam broke. “Oh, you want to make it larger? Yeah, I guess. I mean, yeah, we can make it larger.”
I had made an important discovery about human organizational behavior: The first answer is always no, which is why you have to ask it at least two more times.
Because no doesn’t mean, “No, we can’t.” No means, “No, I don’t want to, and I think I don’t want to more than you want me to.” Repeat your request a few times, and you tip the balance. You signal that you want something more than the other person doesn’t want to do it.
Children, the original downtrodden employee victims of bizarre and irrational bureaucracies, know this instinctively, which is why they know ahead of time that every meaningful request will have to be made several times. They’re in the family business, which, like every other business, is a lot like the entertainment business.
Rob Long is a television writer and producer and the co-founder of Ricochet.com.