By Eddie Pipkin

Image by Guy from Pixabay

I got to attend my first Formula One race last weekend in Texas.  Aside from all the fast cars and great music (it being Austin, after all), it’s impossible for an old ministry event organizer like me to go to any major shindig without analyzing the nuts-and-bolts processes that keep the crowds moving and happy.  The fall international race at the purpose-built circuit course in the hills outside Austin hosted 450,000 attendees over the weekend, definitely more people than your average church trunk-or-treat event.  But event management principles are universal, whether world class or neighborhood friendly, and one of those principles is that it’s always better to underpromise and overdeliver than overpromise and underdeliver.

I had a Texas-sized appetite on the first day and wandered over to the food stalls, where I got excited about the Giant Chicken Fiesta Taco, which was $18, but believe me when I tell you that was one of the more affordable choices.  Except when I ordered it, the nice guy behind the counter said, “Yeah, I don’t know why they put ‘giant’ on the sign.  We didn’t have anything to do with that.”  It was a perfectly acceptable regular-sized taco with a small side of spicy rice, but it was an underwhelming meal for the money.  I wouldn’t have been nearly as disappointed, though, if they hadn’t gaslighted me with that promise of a larger than average portion.

On the other hand, for my next meal at the racetrack, I got the chicken nachos, which were stretching the limits of the paper container in which they were served, a bed of chips slathered in cheesy sauce and topped with chunks of chicken.  The server was absolutely delightful, and when I asked her if they could throw on some extra jalapenos, she smiled and said, of course they could!  She walked over and generously doused my entrée with a handful of spicy slices.  Score!!!  In that case, I suddenly felt like I had gotten more than my money’s worth!

First of all, be sure and deliver what you say you’re going to deliver.  Don’t make excuses and don’t exaggerate to lure in partakers (who will ultimately feel shafted and sidelined when the hype doesn’t match real life).  Even better: Deliver more than you promise – go above and beyond.  As a lifetime theme park aficionado, I always note that those “wait time” signs they post at the most popular attractions are never quite accurate.  That’s because, if they say 45 minutes, the wait may only be half an hour.  And if they say an hour, the wait is usually only 45 minutes.  That’s because in that scenario, a person gets to the front of the line and says, “Wow, that wait was shorter than we expected!”  They have a happy experience.  If the wait had been longer than expected, the opposite would be true.

Secondly, the attitude of forward-facing staff and volunteers can generate rainbows on even a cloudy day.  An authentically enthusiastic and helpful person is worth major bonus points when people are thinking about how many stars to award your efforts (and while I mean the awarding of stars to be metaphorical in this case, it is true that we are all composing customer service reviews in our heads wherever we go and whatever we’re doing in this social media saturated age).  Having someone with serious hospitality skills to help us navigate our expectations can help us reframe them in positive ways.

Church leaders, full of enthusiasm and eager to get everyone as excited as they are for the next big thing, are famous for overpromising and underdelivering.

If you market a new study with the phrase “life changing,” you’ve set the bar pretty high.  Maybe less hyperbole and more realistic expectation setting would serve a more targeted purpose.  A phrase like, “You will find this new class offers practical, useful life hacks” turns out to be less fraught with grandiose expectations than vowing to rock someone’s world.  If you promise a weekend retreat is going to include “nonstop family activities,” you probably don’t want to schedule four hours of afternoon free time.

It’s a useful corollary that it’s okay to tamp down expectations, too.  If you know something is going to be less flashy than people expect, acknowledge that up front, and be clear with them about what you’re trying to accomplish.  That’s managing expectations, and it can be a powerful tool for helping people meet you where you are and leave from there with a smile on their faces.   Context can be key.  If people know how much work went into an event or program, they are much more forgiving of glitches and rough edges.

Remember these guidelines:

  • Don’t promise something that isn’t finished yet. Know what you have to offer before you offer it.
  • Resist the urge to make everything you ever do sound bigger and better than the last thing you did. Descriptive adjectives should always be used judiciously.
  • Don’t assume that your unbridled enthusiasm for something is the same as other people’s level of enthusiasm. Certainly, encourage them to embrace your excitement and discover the awesomeness of the ‘something’ for themselves, but freely acknowledge that all ‘somethings’ are not for all people, and if they prefer a different ‘something,’ that’s okay.
  • When you’re setting goals and milestones, keep them realistic with a rigorous commitment to reasonable metrics and possibilities.
  • Once you’ve told people what to expect, do what you can to seize opportunities to deliver results that are above and beyond.  Add a little extra.  People will feel special.

I’ve written thus far in this space in terms of public events and programming.  But these same principles also apply in our interpersonal relationships.  Whether manager-to-worker or worker-to-manager, team leader to worker bee, or even when it’s peer to peer, these are good principles to practice.  We should try not to promise things that we fail to deliver.  It’s tempting to make overenthusiastic promises either out of a sense of obligation or because we just don’t want to disappoint people, but in the end, if we consistently overextend ourselves, we create even greater disappointments.

How do you do keeping your promises and deliveries in balance?  Do you fall into the habit of overpromising and underdelivering, or do you let a healthy respect for reality be your guide?  Why do we get so caught up in unrealistic promises to others, and how can we promote more reasonable practices for our teams?  Share your own ideas in the comments section.  I promise I will respond to all who do. (but I won’t be promising any fabulous prizes.)