Manner of Speaking

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):

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.