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Breaking Patterns

What is it about some stories and ideas that makes them unforgettable? Have you ever come across a piece of work which stuck with you for longer than you’d anticipated? Why do some things have this effect on us and how do we achieve the same with our ideas?

Another aspect which determines the ‘stickiness’ of our ideas is the element of surprise. Ideas which are psychologically more memorable are surprising and interesting; they grab our attention by defying our expectations, and keep our attention by teasing our curiosity. The key is to make sure you still make sense whilst also creating a ‘huh’ moment which develops into an ‘aha!’ moment. Looking for knowledge gaps in the minds of people and then appealing to their curiosity in a surprising way is what accomplishes that element of unexpectedness.

One way to achieve unexpectedness is to break patterns. Humans like to think in patterns, everything usually seems to follow a structure, however, break one of these patterns or structures and you have automatically achieved the unexpected.

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Just as we mentioned in our previous blog post, making an idea sticky always starts with identifying the central message you want to communicate, in other words: finding the core. Now, to add that ‘surprise factor’, we need to figure out what is counter-intuitive about the message: What are the unexpected implications of your core message? Communicate your idea in a way that breaks your audience’s guessing machines along the critical, counter-intuitive dimension. Then, once their guessing machines have failed, help them refine their machines.

A trick which plays out to be pretty effective is the use of a mystery story. We’ve all experienced situations where our curiosity has made us go to great lengths. Our curiosity is the intellectual need to answer questions and close patterns. Telling stories plays this universal desire by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations. In other words, the key is to open gaps first by presenting your ideas, then working to close them – give facts first.

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Here are two good examples from the book which portray how someone might use the element of surprise in real life situations:

Getting attention with the unexpected: A TV commercial for the new minivan started as a typical car commercial: Announcer describes all its new features as a happy family piles into  the car and drives away, then – bang – a speeding car plows into it. The screen fades to black: “Didn’t see that coming? No one does.”  It was actually a seat-belt or safety ad instead of a car ad.

Using the unexpected: A journalism teacher announced their first assignment: To write the lead for the student paper. He gave them facts: The entire school faculty will travel to the state capital on Tuesday for a meeting with the Governor. Those were the facts, and all the students had to do was determine the most important message of the story i.e find the lead. They all missed it: No school on Tuesday!

One thing which the whole idea of being unexpected emphasises on is the fact that we need to break trends and patterns if we want to stand out. Things like advertising and marketing can be seen as an art, meaning that the solution to each new problem or challenge should start with a blank canvas. Rather than borrowing the ideas of others and going with the safe option of following a trend, taking a completely new approach could work out a lot better.

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