Making it stick: Be unexpected

This is Part 3 of a seven-part series on making speeches and presentations memorable.  It is based on the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath.

One of the reasons most of us love surprises – I mean good ones – is that we do not expect them.  Whether it is a surprise gift or a chance meeting or good movie, it is the unexpected that intrigues us.

In fact, when you think of a movie that people do not like, one of the main complaints is that it was so predictable.  There was no mystery at all.  On the other hand, if someone says “I never saw that coming!”, chances are that person enjoyed the show.

The same holds true for public speaking.  Being unexpected is the second indicia of stickiness in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, “Made to Stick”.

The Heaths say, “If you want your ideas to be stickier, you’ve got to break someone’s guessing machine and then fix it.”  In other words, you have to break their pattern of thinking.  You have to create surprise and interest, but you must do so in a relevant and thoughtful way.  Being unexpected in a constructive way involves much more than just doing something crazy.

The Heaths continue: “The easiest way to avoid gimmicky surprise and ensure that your unexpected ideas produce insight is to make sure you target an aspect of your audience’s guessing machines that relates to your core message.”  To put it another way, they say that you need to open a hole and then fill it.

Want to see unexpectedness in action?  Below is a great example: the talk that Daniel Pink gave at a TED conference in London in July 2009.  Pink, who is interested in the changing nature of work, is the author of the best-selling “A Whole New Mind” and other popular books.

In the presentation that you are about to watch, Pink looks at the science of motivation (i.e., offering greater incentives, usually financial ones) and how it affects our performance, particularly with regard to activities that require creative thinking.  The surprising (dare I say, unexpected) conclusion is that offering people more money usually results in worse performance for these kinds of activities!

Now, I do not want to steal Pink’s thunder, and so will leave it to him to explain further.  It is a very interesting subject.  However, I want to analyze the talk in terms of its unexpectedness, in terms of how Pink deftly opens a hole in our thinking and then fills it.  As you watch the speech, note the following milestones (in terms of the time of the talk):

  • From 0 to around 1:15, Pink is unexpected in a humorously clever way.  This has nothing to do with the heart of the talk, but it is a great way to get your audience’s attention at the outset.
  • At 4:00, Pink starts to dig his hole.  Note the comment, “Now this makes no sense, right?”
  • From 4:30 to 4:45 he digs some more.  Our footing is starting to become unstable.
  • At 5:15, he throws up a slide where the word “mismatch” is highlighted.
  • From 8:00 to 12:00 he gathers momentum until he reaches a crescendo.  Drawing on examples from studies around the world, Pink is no longer merely digging; he is into major excavation!
  • Then, just when we are sure that we are going to fall, Pink throws us a rope at 12:15 with “a new approach” and some “good news”.  And as we hang on, he fills the hole that he has created by giving us ideas on what does work in terms of encouraging people to think creatively.  He puts us back on terra firma.

This talk is one of the best examples that I have seen about how to use unexpectedness to create audience interest and make the message memorable.

I encourage you to look for ways to throw your own audiences off guard in the future.  Just be sure that the unexpectedness relates to your core message.  Just be sure that you catch them before they fall!

For the next post in the series, please click here.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
This entry was posted in Delivery, Making it Stick, TED and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Making it stick: Be unexpected

  1. Pingback: Making it Stick: Keep it Simple | Manner of Speaking

  2. Pingback: Speaking Bad: Eight Tips from “Breaking Bad” | Manner of Speaking

  3. Pingback: The Twist in the Tale : Spectacular Speaking Turin

  4. Pingback: The Twist in the Tale | Manner of Speaking

  5. Prasenjit Mitra says:


    Thank you very much for the commentary on the talk. Yes, this is a great example. I hope to learn from this one.

    Actually, I have had the opposite experience which puzzles me. I am questioning whether audiences love suspenses or not. In essence, I would like to figure out what type of suspense works and what does not. When is it that the audience says “I loved the twist at the end” and “You lost me in the body but I see how it comes together now”. And, some see the latter as a negative!

    When I say part of a story and then take the audience meandering into by-lanes (all related to the main topic) and then bring them all back at the end, my listeners complained that they did not understand in the middle where I was going. Then, they say that after the speech was over, at the end, everything fell into place, but, in the middle they were “lost”.

    I have to figure out what is the best way to introduce surprise twists. As with everything it seems like an art. If there is some science of good suspense and bad suspense, you possibly know it. 🙂 I’d love to know if you care to comment.


    • John Zimmer says:

      Hi Prasenjit,

      It is indeed a tricky issue, balancing suspense while making sure that the audience is not lost. Just remember that as you have lived with the speech for so long (and for events in the speech, even longer), what is obvious to you will not necessarily be obvious to those hearing it for the first time. The best advice I can give you is to practice the speech in front of others and then get their immediate feedback as to whether they understood it or not. And ask them direct questions such as, “When I told the story about X, did you understand where I was going?”



  6. Pingback: Speeches from Film: Up in the Air | Manner of Speaking

  7. novelwhore says:

    Hi John:

    Thanks for posting about Dan Pink. I really enjoyed your timing commentary on the TED talk! We’re also inspired and motivated by his work and appreciate your interest in the man behind the groundbreaking bestseller, A WHOLE NEW MIND.

    I’m excited to let you know that December 29, 2009 marks the release of Pink’s latest book, DRIVE. I’ve pasted a quick synopsis below:

    Bursting with big ideas, DRIVE is the rare book that will change how you think and transform how you live.

    Forget everything you thought you knew about how to motivate people – at work, at school, at home. It’s wrong. As Daniel Pink explains in his new and paradigm-shattering book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, the secret to high performance and satisfaction in today’s world is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

    Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, Pink exposes the mismatch between what science knows and what business does – and how that affects every aspect of our lives. … In DRIVE, he reveals the three elements of true motivation.

    We hope Daniel Pink’s DRIVE will open your eyes and change the way you think in 2010!

    Please visit and for additional details.

  8. Dan Heath says:

    A great speech along with great color commentary! I learned a lot from watching and reading this. Thanks for the series, John!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Dan, thanks very much for taking the time to comment. I should be the one thanking you as the series’ genesis was the book that you and Chip wrote.

      All the best,


  9. Todd says:

    You picked a fabulous example for making your point! I love Dan Pink’s work.

    I’ll keep looking for unexpected ways to grab the audience’s attention.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks very much, Todd. Dan Pink is great and the speech did fit the subject. Sometimes we get lucky that way! Cheers! John

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.