Made to Stick is a book that will help you communicate ideas. And the traits or principles that help us do that include Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Credibility, Concreteness, Emotions, and Stories. In this post, we will begin to look at Unexpectedness.
The first part of communication is to get people’s attention. Some communicators have the authority to get attention. A policeman, or a parent would be good examples. But the most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern.
Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. Constant sensory stimulation makes us tune out. For instance, the hum of an air conditioner, or traffic noise, or the smell of a candle are sensory stimuli that we get use to and often don’t recognize after a period of consistent exposure. We may become aware of these only when something about them changes.
Our brain is designed to be aware of changes. And we won’t succeed in communication unless we break through the clutter to get people’s attention. In addition, we complicate our messages to the point that we won’t succeed unless we keep people’s attention.
To understand this, we need to understand two emotions that commonly provoked by naturally sticky ideas. The first is surprise. The second is interest. Surprise gets our attention, while interest keeps our attention.
From our last post, we learned that schemas enable profound simplicity and help create complex messages from simple materials. The Heath’s tell us now that our schemas are like guessing machines. They help us predict what will happen and how we should make decisions. When something unexpected happens, our schemas have failed and we are surprised.
Surprise jolts us to attention. It is triggered when our schemas fail and it prepares us to understand why the failure occurred. When our schemas fail, surprise grabs our attention so that we can repair them for the future. Surprise acts as an emergency override when we confront something unexpected and our guessing machines fail. Activity comes to a halt and is interrupted, and our attention focuses involuntarily on the event that surprised us.
Unexpected ideas, then, are more likely to stick because surprise makes us pay attention and think. That extra attention and thinking sears unexpected events into our memories. Surprise can prompt us to hunt for underlying causes, to imagine other possibilities, to figure out how to avoid surprises in the future. They make us want to find an answer and big surprises call for big answers. If we want to motivate people to pay attention, we should seize the power of big surprises.
The surprise, however, isn’t enough. We also need insight. To be surprising, an event can’t be predictable. But to be satisfying, surprise must be ¢â‚¬Å“post-dicatble¢â‚¬. The twist makes sense after you think about it, but it’s not something you would see coming. To make your ideas sticky, you have to break their guessing machine and then fix it. So we need to target an aspect of our audience’s guessing machines that relate to our core message.
Here’s the process: 1. Identify the central message you need to communicate – find the core. 2. Figure out what is counterintuitive about the message – i.e., What are the unexpected implications of your core message? Why isn’t it already happening naturally? 3. Communicate your message in a way that breaks your audience’s guessing machines along the critical, counterintuitive dimension. Then once their guessing machines have failed, help them refine their machines.
Keeping People’s Attention – The Power of Mystery
Mysteries exist whenever there are questions without obvious answers. When we set up a good mystery, we move to a higher level of unexpectedness. It is created from an unexpected journey, not an unexpected event. We know where we’re heading – we want to solve the mystery – but we’re not sure how we’ll get there.
Robert McKee is a screenwriter. He says, ¢â‚¬Å“Curiosity is the intellectual need to answer questions and close open patterns. Story plays to this universal desire by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations.¢â‚¬ In his view, every great script is designed so that every scene is a ¢â‚¬Å“Turning Point¢â‚¬. ¢â‚¬Å“Each Turning Point hooks curiosity. The audience wonders, What will happen next? and How will it turn out? The answer to this will not arrive until the Climax of the last act, and so the audience, held by curiosity, stays put.¢â‚¬
Curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge. Gaps cause pain. It’s like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap.
One of the implications of gap theory is that we need to open gaps before we close them. Our tendency is to tell people the facts but they must first realize that they need these facts. The trick to doing this is to highlight some specific knowledge that they’re missing.
If curiosity arises from knowledge gaps we might assume that when we know more we will become less curious because there are fewer gaps in our knowledge. But the opposite is true. As we gain information, we are more and more likely to focus on what we don’t know.
The application of this is quite obvious – in our preaching and communication we need to create tension via the surprise element and keep attention but putting together a good story.
One way to do this is to create new metaphors, often by simply mixing metaphors. For instance, Len Sweet uses the word Pneumanaut. It peaks curiosity: What is it? It sounds familiar and we need to close the knowledge gap and understand it. I’ve used this word in conversations with people in my church and it keeps their interest.
Another way to do this is to learn to tell a good story. Watch the great mystery shows of our day: CSI, and Shark come to mind as well as the great mystery shows of the past, shows like Matlock and the like. Examine some of the great mystery movies. Take a class on fiction writing.