Advertising
Advertising

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 2): Unexpected

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 2): Unexpected
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

He was dead the whole time! Darth Vader is Luke’s father! She’s his sister and his daughter!

The endings of movies like Sixth Sense, The Empire Strikes Back, and Chinatown — and the stories that lead up to them – stick with us for years and even decades because they trigger a deep psychological reflex: surprise. They come at us out of nowhere (seemingly – repeat viewings tend to reveal dozens of clues) and literally force us to sit up and take notice.

Advertising

Psychologists see surprise as something akin to the “fight or flight” reflex. The typical expression associated with surprise – rigid body and widened eyes – signals the mind’s desire for more information. We stop still and take it all in.

Breaking Patterns

In order to be truly unexpected, an idea has to break the preconceived notions and routines that we live our lives by. Trivial changes go unnoticed or, when noted, quickly forgotten. In order to evoke surprise, an idea has to interrupt our established ways of acting or thinking – as the surprise endings of the movies listed above force us to reconsider the meaning of the whole movie. Sixth Sense is a movie about a psychologist’s relationship with a child, up until the very end, when it… isn’t.

Unexpected ideas, then, demand some action from their recipients; they ask us to change our view of the world, or at least some part of it. There is, of course, a danger here – ideas that should be surprising become expected when overused. 9/11 was truly unexpected – and the events of that day will stick with us for a long time. But now that we’ve been on heightened security alert for going on six years, does it surprise anyone to find that the threat level for US flights as I write this is “Orange: High Risk of Terrorist Attacks”? There is no longer any information contained in that statement – it’s always orange. What should be a sticky idea indeed has instead become merely the status quo, the expected.

Advertising

Hook ‘Em and Reel ‘Em In

Surprise helps make ideas sticky in two ways. First, it gets our attention – we notice the unexpected in a way we don’t notice the expected. Think of your drive home from work: how many times have you arrived home with almost no recollection of anything you saw on the way? Can you remember what color the car in front of you was? But if a three-car pileup or high speed pursuit should happen to take place, I’ll bet you have something to talk about when you get home!

Second, surprise keeps us engaged. Once we notice something unexpected, we experience a powerful urge to understand it, to integrate it into what we already know. The Heath’s call this “The Gap Theory of Curiosity”, drawing on the work of behavioral economist (didn’t know there were behavioral economists, did you? Surprise!) George Loewenstein, who holds that gaps in our knowledge, once exposed, cause us discomfort and pain.

Advertising

We’ve all directly experienced this, of course – I remember well the agony of waiting three whole years to find out if Darth Vader was really Luke’s father. Mystery novels, movie trilogies, serial fiction, and potboilers rely on this need to keep us coming back or turning the pages. The new Harry Potter novel is approximately a million pages long, but you just keep turning and turning, page after page, chapter after chapter, all in a quest to find out “what happens next?”

Using Surprise

Knowing how people react when surprised can help us make our ideas stickier. Knowing that people will pursue a piece of information once it gets their attention, we can “prime the gap” by introducing a surprising fact and promising an explanation. Your local evening news does this all the time, with their teaser commercials during prime time. “Is something in your cabinets killing you? Find out at 11!”

Advertising

Priming the gap doesn’t have to be sleazy, though. Imagine a teacher telling their students something surprising to get and keep their attention through the class period. TV news spots are sleazy not because they use surprise, but because they use it in the service of the trivial (if it were really important, what moral right in the world would they have to withhold it? Image “Are terrorists attacking our town right this moment? Find out at 11!”) They trigger our need to know – if Loewenstein is right, they actually intentionally cause us pain – in the service of getting us to sit through a bunch of commercials before finally paying off with a useless, stupid piece that tells us absolutely nothing.

Simply Unexpected

The power of the Heath’s Made to Stick is how the six principles of stickiness interact with each other. No idea need satisfy all six principles, but the more the better, and when two or more principles come together in one idea, they reinforce each other, multiplying the stickiness factor.

Consider, yet again, Einstein’s famous formula. I said last week that the simplicity of Einstein’s formula, summing up one of the great mysteries of the world in 5 symbols E=MC2, made it sticky. But it also made it unexpected – who would have thought that the nature of mass and energy could be summed up so simply? Its simplicity itself was surprising, energizing decades of research in an attempt to prove Einstein was either right or wrong – and then to explore the ramifications of the idea. Scientists are still working on the implications of Einstein’s theory of relativity, a century later – now that’s sticky!

How have you, or could you, use the unexpected in your own work? It probably won’t surprise you to see me ask you to share your own ideas in the forum — but overlook that and do it anyway.

More by this author

Back to Basics: Your Calendar Learn Something New Every Day 10 Tips for More Effective PowerPoint Presentations How to Improve Your Spelling Skills 11 Ways to Think Outside the Box

Trending in Communication

1The Gentle Art of Saying No 217 Ted Talks for Kids to Inspire Little Minds to Do Big Things 310 Toxic Persons You Should Just Get Rid Of 4Striving Towards Secure Attachment: How to Restructure Your Thoughts 5Being Self Aware Is the Key to Success: How to Boost Self Awareness

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising

The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

Advertising

But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

Advertising

What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

Advertising

But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Advertising

Read Next