Surprise Me!

Posted by

Surprise can be very effective. An element of surprise will help make your message more "sticky", as the Heath brothers point out in their book; it's the 'U', for "Unexpected", in their SUCCESs formula. If you think back to presentations you attended and what you remember best, you'll often find a memory that's attached to such an element of surprise - a surprising fact, statement, or something unexpected the presenter did. Or, sometimes, just an unexpected accident that happened during a presentation.

So how, exactly, does surprise work?

System 1 and System 2

Susan Weinschenk, in her book, refers to research by Daniel Kahneman, who introduced the idea of two "systems" in our perception and thought processes. System 1 mostly runs on automatic - it makes intuitive decisions without us really noticing. System 2 is responsible for the effortful thinking, i.e. decisions which we really have to think about. Weinschenk then goes on to show how you can frame your message to explicitly address one or the other system, depending on what you want people to do. This may sound a bit manipulative but is a useful tool to have at hand.

The element of surprise is one such tool. Admit it - while attending your average presentation, you are mostly operating on automatic. Facts, figures and statements are just flying by. You acknowledge them, somehow, but not much of it will actually stick with you for long. Or, if you are already familiar with the topic, you'll do a mental nod, "yeah, I know this already". In other words, it's mostly your System 1 that's following the presentation.

The way surprise works is that it makes System 1 stumble for a moment, saying "Wait, what?"; and then, since it can't handle the situation easily, pass things on to System 2, which will happily start processing the incoming information. As Susan Weinschenk phrases it:

If you want people to think about something rather than just glossing over the information, then you may need to surprise them.

The welcome side effect of this handover between the two systems and the resulting attention the information gets is that it will be remembered much better than all the information that you processed on automatic.

Making Use of Surprise

Surprise, as discussed, is a good way to "wake up" your audience (I sure hope they weren't literally sleeping!), so you can use it somewhere in the middle of your presentation to regain their attention. You can also use it for maximum effect right at the beginning of your presentation, when you have the audience's full attention; Garr Reynolds calls this the PUNCH approach.

You also have the audience's attention at the end of your presentation. While you probably want to use this spot to repeat your main message to really drive home your point, you could also combine this with an element of surprise. For example, when pitching a product you could announce that everyone in the audience will get a free copy, which they probably didn't expect.

Be careful, though, not to use surprise for show only. It must make sense in the context of your presentation and your message. It can even be something controversial or counter-intuitive - as long as you can back it up. Using surprise for show only, however, will alienate your audience once they've figured that out and will result in loss of your credibility.

Make use of the power of surprise, but use it wisely.

(Image Credits: Wondering by Ramzi Hashisho, from stock.xchng)

If you'd like me to talk or write about this topic, you can hire me to do so.
Please email me for details.