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 a good example of 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.

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  1. 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.

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

    1. 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,

  2. 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.

  3. John,

    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.



    1. 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?”



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John delivered a keynote address about the importance of public speaking to 80 senior members of Gore’s Medical Device Europe team at an important sales event. He was informative, engaging and inspirational. Everyone was motivated to improve their public speaking skills. Following his keynote, John has led public speaking workshops for Gore in Barcelona and Munich. He is an outstanding speaker who thinks carefully about the needs of his audience well before he steps on stage.

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TA Leader, Gore and Associates

I first got in touch with John while preparing to speak at TED Global about my work on ProtonMail. John helped me to sharpen the presentation and get on point faster, making the talk more focused and impactful. My speech was very well received, has since reached almost 1.8 million people and was successful in explaining a complex subject (email encryption) to a general audience.

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CEO, Proton Technologies

John gave the opening keynote on the second day of our unit’s recent offsite in Geneva, addressing an audience of 100+ attendees with a wealth of tips and techniques to deliver powerful, memorable presentations. I applied some of these techniques the very next week in an internal presentation, and I’ve been asked to give that presentation again to senior management, which has NEVER happened before. John is one of the greatest speakers I know and I can recommend his services without reservation.

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Senior Data Scientist, Expedia Group

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Secretary General, World Road Transport Organization

I was expecting a few speaking tips and tricks and a few fun exercises, but you went above and beyond – and sideways. You taught me to stand tall. You taught me to anchor myself. You taught me to breathe. You taught me to open up. You taught me to look people in the eye. You taught me to tell the truth. You taught me to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. I got more than I bargained for in the best possible way.

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World Cancer Day Campaign Manager, Union for International Cancer Control

John gave a brilliant presentation on public speaking during the UN EMERGE programme in Geneva (a two days workshop on leadership development for a group of female staff members working in the UN organizations in Geneva). His talk was inspirational and practical, thanks to the many techniques and tips he shared with the audience. His teaching can dramatically change our public speaking performance and enable us as presenters to have a real and powerful impact. Thank you, John, for your great contribution!

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HR Specialist, World Health Organization

John is a genuine communication innovator. His seminars on gamification of public speaking learning and his interactive Rhetoric game at our conference set the tone for change and improvement in our organisation. The quality of his input, the impact he made with his audience and his effortlessly engaging style made it easy to get on board with his core messages and won over some delegates who were extremely skeptical as to the efficacy of games for learning. I simply cannot recommend him highly enough.

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John joined our Global Sales Meeting in Segovia, Spain and we all participated in his "Improv(e) your Work!" session. I say “all” because it really was all interactive, participatory, learning and enjoyable. The session surprised everybody and was a fresh-air activity that brought a lot of self-reflection and insights to improve trust and confidence in each other inside our team. It´s all about communication and a good manner of speaking!"

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CFO European Dairy Supply Chain & Operations, Danone

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