The science of surprise: How to make your work unforgettable

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Every day, two million blog posts are published online.

Of the few that actually get clicked, 55% of readers spend fewer than 15 seconds reading. Factor in that the average reader gets through 250 words a minute, and you’ve got a measly 62 words to grab someone’s attention.

That’s it.

And this isn’t just for writers. That 15-second rule applies to your design, your app, your site.

Every day on the internet is a battle for attention, and most of us are losing.

So what do we do? We try to game the system. We try to follow the ‘hacks’ and ‘tricks’ that promise to help us come up with better ideas, and capture our audience. After all, we want to be more than just words on a page. We want to be valued, examined, and (most importantly) remembered.

Because when people remember us, they come back for more, trust what we have to say, and may even eventually buy from or hire us.

But it doesn’t take long to realize there are no hacks or tricks. Not really, anyway. The only hope we have of creating something truly memorable on purpose is to understand just how our memory works.

Why creativity and memory are just two sides of the same coin

What you create and how you consume are closely tied together.

Whether you realize it or not, every time you sit down to write, design, or build something, you’re bringing your years of experience, memories, and interactions to the table.

You have a wealth of information your brain has been storing for decades, and you can pull from that treasure chest with almost no effort. And, just as you’re a walking vault of memories and experiences — your audience members are too.

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That’s why your memories are essential to both the creative process, and the impact that process has on the people who come into contact with its end result. As a creative, you’re using your memories to put ideas together that others wouldn’t. Because in the end, your memories make up your understanding, and help you dream up concepts no one else can.

As Steve Jobs famously explained:

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

When you connect the dots for your audience it seems too simple. As if it were something they should have known already. Those moments stick with your audience.

And when you achieve this ‘stickiness’, you become part of your reader’s own collection of memories, thoughts, and experiences. Your ideas hold long-term influence (however small) over the way they experience the world.

So, how does ‘making yourself memorable’ work?

While there isn’t necessarily a ‘hack’ to creating memorable content, there is a simple science behind it — one that combines the novel (the idea you’re presenting with your work), with the familiar (the memories and cognitive processes your readers already have cemented in their own minds).

It’s this connection of the seemingly disparate — new and old, weird and expected, traditional and avant-garde — that will make someone remember you. But in order to do that we need to understand how the brain reacts to shiny, fresh ideas versus familiar concepts.

The science behind the way your brain reacts and remembers

It’s a no-brainer (puns!) that novel experiences stick in our minds longer than familiar ones.

Think about it. You’re much less likely to remember your drive to work if nothing special happens. However, if there’s suddenly a cow in the middle of the highway, you’ll find yourself thinking about it for hours or days afterwards.

This isn’t coincidence, either!

Studies have shown that novelty actually increases the brain’s plasticity (a.k.a. your neurons’ ability to create new pathways), which improves memory, and your ability to learn and process new facts and ideas. The weird and unexpected naturally stay with us.

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However, you can’t just keep throwing new ideas at the wall and expect them all to stick. Taking in and understanding new ideas takes a lot of effort, and our brains are lazy. So along with novelty, we also mentally equally crave consistency and familiarity.

When events or ideas are easy to understand, we call this cognitive fluency. And just like in language, it’s the same idea — your brain is able to understand the concept wholly without any ‘translation’.

But it goes one step further. Cognitive fluency is also the way we feel about taking in new information. If we understand a concept, we find it ‘easy’ and our lazy brain is happy.

Take websites as an example.

When you first visit a site, there are certain elements you expect to see: a navigation bar at the top for getting around, or a check-out cart in the top right corner for an e-commerce site. It doesn’t matter if you’re shopping Gucci online or reading your sister-in-law’s blog: almost every website has these things.

However, when a site doesn’t conform to these expectations it’s harder for our brains to decode and we almost automatically judge it as either too complex or poorly designed.

Stop by the website for Comme Des Garcons, a Japanese fashion label and you’ll conceive that it’s utterly unnavigable.

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You can’t purchase clothes on the site, learn more about the designers, or find out who their PR manager is. When you visit, you may remember it — but largely because of its avant-garde nature. It might stick with you because you don’t get it.

However, While concepts like this are cool, they also don’t make the reader, viewer, or shopper want to come back again.

Compare that to the website by Crane Brothers, an Auckland-based contemporary menswear and tailoring company.

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Notice how the image on the front page captures your attention with a Picasso-like man in a suit. However, the website is also easy to navigate, with a simple scroll up to the menu. You can see the option for the drop down menu in the top right hand corner as well.

You can also click anywhere on the Picasso homepage image and be taken to their selection of similar clothing.

Seeing this, you’d probably come back to shop here over Comme Des Garcons, right?

That’s the difference between novelty for novelty’s sake, and novelty to present a new idea.

Creating memorable work means walking the line between the familiar and the strange. It’s creating an environment that’s safe and then introducing your unique element into it.

So while the idea that ‘new ideas have to be cradled in old ideas’ may seem a bit paradoxical, it does make sense when you think about it.

Our brains have evolved to create mental ‘shortcuts’ based on what we know (our cognitive fluencies). If something’s a ‘no brainer’ that’s because you literally aren’t using most of your brain to understand it.

So instead of fighting against your lazy brain, why not work with it?

Old ideas — ones that we’re happy to believe wholeheartedly can be used as a vessel for something new. Think of it like a Trojan horse for your brain.

In the websites above, the mental shortcut is what we expect to see on a website. We’ve been conditioned to expect certain elements in certain spaces and when that doesn’t happen we’re likely to give up and move on.

So how can you actually use these ideas in your writing, podcasting, or video content?

Now comes the fun. Let’s take a look at how to bring all of these ideas together into a blog post or other piece of content. How can we use the way our brains have been conditioned to create memorable work?

To start, let’s look at one more example of a mental shortcut we all have that we can use as our Trojan horse.

If I were to ask you “What color are bananas?” you’d tell me “Yellow!”, even though bananas can also be green or brown.

That’s because we’re conditioned to think of bananas as yellow, first and foremost. “Banana = yellow” is just part of our brain, and once we identify those ‘no brainers’ there are a number of ways we can add in our unique and novel information.

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1. Adding in personal anecdotes

Putting new ideas in the context of familiar experiences can increase the impact of whatever it is you’re sharing.

Let’s say you’re writing about the newly-discovered, scientifically-backed fact that 4 bananas a day can increase your productivity massively.

If you present that idea on its own (no science, no context, nothing), most people won’t believe you. But, present it first by explaining your own struggle with productivity, and the science that backs up your claim? And you’ve got an idea that will stick in people’s minds.

2. Sharing common experiences, or creating a character

Another great way to build an emotional connection with your audience is to create a character they can relate to, whether it’s you, a client or friend, or a total stranger.

To use the example above: talking about how bananas improve cognition isn’t a very engaging way to share the idea. However, if you tell a story about a dizzy, distracted, but otherwise charming entrepreneur named Diane whose life and business were changed by the power of 4 bananas a day, your audience is much more interested in learning what happens to her.

Every entrepreneur struggles with their attention span. Everyone wants to find ways to do better. So this story makes the novel idea instantly relatable.

If you talk to your audience about the things they experience every day you give their brains something to latch onto, and a context for your idea.

3. Using visual aids

While the average reader will spend about 2.6 seconds skimming an article before reading, science has shown that people will actually look at and read every image.

The reason is, visuals are simply easier for our brains to parse. Our brain sees writing as individual designs that need to be decoded, whereas visuals can be understood far more rapidly. That makes images another key to establishing familiarity and comfort with your content.

And because we can ‘decode’ an image quicker than we can read a paragraph, they’re another incredible vessel for your unique ideas. It’s why we’ve seen such a rise in infographics and data visualization — it’s just easier for our brain to take in an image.

So for your banana post, why not create an image for it? Show a banana and break down the individual elements in it that are helping you become a better, more productive person. Or show Diane pre and post-banana.

The final piece: creating ‘effective surprise’

Now that we’re clear on what will help people stay comfortable, how does one create the right kind of novelty that grabs people’s attention without upsetting their cognitive fluency?

Yes, we’re more likely to remember a novel situation. But there’s a limit! You can’t just be talking about website conversions and throw a random meme in there that’s completely out of context.

You need to create the right balance, which cognitive Psychology pioneer Jerome Bruner called ‘effective surprise’, and the hallmark of creativity. He writes:

“The road to banality is paved with creative intentions. Surprise is not easily defined. It is the unexpected that strikes one with wonder or astonishment. What is curious about effective surprise is that it need not be rare or infrequent or bizarre and is often none of these things. Effective surprises … seem rather to have the quality of obviousness about them when they occur, producing a shock of recognition following which there is no longer astonishment.”

To translate, the highest level of breakthrough you can offer a reader (that involves them accepting your idea) with your piece is to make them feel like they’re learning something they already mostly understood. It’s an “Aha… of course!” moment that takes them by surprise, but also feels comfortably inevitable.

Back to our banana example, an article done right on the scientific findings will help the reader say: “Of course bananas will help me be more productive. Bananas contain vitamins, minerals and amino acids that enhance brain function. And I can totally relate to the story about Diane. I have the same problem! Time to buy crazy amounts of bananas.”

So, before you get to work on your next ‘made to be memorable’ piece, consider how you’re going to connect the dots; using your own experience, and the understanding of your audience to nestle your novel concept in a familiar casing.

That way, it’s easily digestible, engaging, and sticks with your people. Kind of like bananas.

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