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Unexpected Journey

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The first problem of communication is getting people’s attention, the brothers Heath tell us in our second chapter of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Last week we learned that to make our message stick, we must keep it simple and meaningful. This week’s book club chapter is entitled Unexpected, and that’s the second quality of a sticky message.
The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern…Our brain is designed to be keenly aware of changes…Surprise gets our attention.
This summer I did a video Bible study series with my boys, ages eleven and thirteen. You can imagine how thrilled they were to give up an hour of their summer vacation each day to sit inside with mom. The producers of the videos, however, understand teens very well. They found a way to spark attention. The video opened with a “commercial” featuring a young couple placidly walking in the park. Soft music played as different scenes filled the screen—the young man pushing the girl on a swing, the couple holding hands as they lean on a bridge... Eyes glazing over, my boys waited for a serious message about chastity or some related topic when suddenly, a man in full tartan regalia jumps into the scene. He dances to a rap song in his kilt as the young couple runs away. We laughed hysterically at the unexpected turn of events. Yes, surprise jolts us to attention. But how do we maintain attention once it is achieved? Surprise alone does not accomplish sustained attention, the authors tell us. For attention to stick, we also need insight. The Guessing Machine To understand this higher level of unexpectedness, say the Heath brothers, we need to understand that our pre-existing schemas are like guessing machines. What we know about our world aids us in making decisions by helping us to predict likely outcomes. When an outcome is unexpected—when our schemas fail—surprise helps us prepare to understand why the failure occurred. For a meaning that sticks, surprise must lead to insight related to the message being communicated.
…So, a good process for making your ideas stickier is: (1) Identify the central message you need to communicate—find the core; (2) Figure out what is counterintuitive about the message…(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.
An Unexpected Journey One effective way to fix the guessing machine—to create enduring interest--is to use mystery. The brothers Heath quote social psychologist Robert Cialdini, who did extensive personal research to help him with writing and teaching.
Mysteries are powerful because they create a need for closure. You’ve heard of the famous Aha! experience, right? Well, the Aha! experience is much more satisfying when it is preceded by the Huh? experience.
Mystery, says Heath and Heath, is created not from an unexpected moment but from an unexpected journey. Present your message in the form of a mystery, and folks will hang with you until it is solved. Filling in the Gaps An important component to the effectiveness of mystery is gap theory. Brought to our attention by behavioral economist George Loewenstein in 1994, gap theory says that curiosity happens when we detect a gap in our knowledge. These gaps are painful to us, says Loewenstein, and to stop the pain, we seek to fill those gaps with knowledge.
One important implication of gap theory is that we need to open gaps before we close them…The trick to convincing people that they need our message, according to Loewenstein, is to first highlight some specific knowledge that they’re missing.
This can be as simple as presenting your audience with a question that they do not have the answer to. Unexpected So this week we see that to gain someone’s attention, the element of surprise is handy. But to sustain attention, that surprise needs to be intimately tied to a journey that will lead the audience to insight about the core message. Whew! And I thought stickiness was as simple as a toddler and a lollypop. Not much mystery there. Join us for our discussion next Monday when we explore quality number three of what makes a message stick: Concreteness. Related posts: Charity's Unexpected-Stickiness Lyla's Uncommon Sense nAncy's Unexpected Monica's Unexpected and Unexpected, and We Remember Sandra's Surprise! Erin's The Dump and Run Conversationalist L.L.'s There's a Branch in My Tea Cup (Or, How to Get Someone to Read Your Blog) Glynn's Singing Opera in Journalism Class Other posts on Made to Stick: Simple Photo by Claire Burge, used with permission. Post by Laura Boggess.
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