Friday, March 05, 2010

Made to Stick: Using Suprise

To deliver your message successfully, you have to get the audience's attention and then hold the audience's attention. One way of doing this is through using surprise and the unexpected.

Unexpected ideas inspire us

In a speech to Congress in 1961, President Kennedy clearly summarised a new goal for America:

(Transcript, here.)

Kennedy's idea is huge, surprising, and (obviously) provoked reactions like "Is this worth it?", and "Why should we do it?" Kennedy clarified the reasons America needed to embark on this endeavour in a speech at Rich University in 1962.(*)

(*) Let's leave aside discussion of the real motivations for the Apollo project for now.

(Transcript, here.)

Get the audience's attention

You can get your audience's attention by surprising them. This works because we tend to think we're good at predicting what's going to happen next; we think we have a good understanding of the world around us. Surprise heppans wehn taht understanding fails us; when things occur that we don't expect.

After experiencing something unexpected, we then start paying extra special attention - trying to understand why we failed to predict what was going to happen (which is something I've hopefully just demonstrated).

Surprise means we've failed to predict what's going to happen, which causes us to pay attention so that we can make better predictions in the future.

So, how do you create surprise when you're trying to design and deviler a message?

In the previous post, I talked about identifying the core of your message. I used the example of 'time management', and narrowed my message down to the core of: Only do stuff that adds to you being the person you want to be.

To surprise people you need to explore what's counter-intuitive about your message's core. What are its unexpected implications? The authors of Made to Stick, the Heath brothers, have a nice turn of phrase about this: "Uncommon sense". Things that are common sense are obvious, and therefore easy to ignore (because we'll have guessed what's coming and won't be surprised). It's the part of your message that makes uncommon sense that will "break your audience's guessing machine".

In an attempt to illustrate, I will try and figure out what's counter-intuitive about "Only do stuff that adds to you being the person you want to be." I expect this will be reasonably hard - consider what's about to follow to be a bit of a brainstorm, rather than a final draft:

+ Without time management you'll never be happy
+ The person you want to be needs to be deliberately created
+ Creating yourself involves sculpting in time - paring away the bits that aren't you
+ Doing whatever you want is like junk food for your soul

I like that last one. I could think a bit harder and come up with more options, but let's go with that for now. So my counter-intuitive example is this:

Not using time management is much like eating a king-sized block of chocolate every day. Regularly eating junk food is a bad idea if you want to be healthy. In the same way, doing whatever you want, whenever you want, without thinking about it, tends to stuff your life with things you don't really want or need. And the end result is you don't end up with enough time to do the things you really want or need to do.

Hold the audience's attention

Curiousity comes from recognising that we have gaps in our knowledge. Apparently we have a psychological need to fill those gaps (as the number of morning tea conversations I have that involve me consulting Wikipedia will attest).

The process of raising audience's awareness that they have gaps in their knowledge leads to them wanting to stick around until you fill those gaps with answers, facts or stories.

Made to Stick outlines a bunch of ways you can create these gaps in your audience:

+ make them publically predict something which they get wrong
+ make them realise that they disagree about the topic with other audience members
+ provoke their interest with something unfamiliar
+ highlight their current knowledge and then point out some specific knowledge they're missing
+ make them realise they need your facts.

Made to Stick highlights a principle here that's also true in screenwriting: shift your mindset away from "What information do I want to convey?" to "What questions do I want them to ask?" People will stick around to find out the answers to questions that interest them, and (according to Made to Stick) they'll even stick around to find out the answers to questions that don't.
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