How to Grab Attention: Introduce the Unexpected

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Made to Stick" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How can you strategically grab attention and get people to listen? Can you do it without being gimmicky?

To get someone to hear your message, you first have to get them to notice you. The best way to grab attention is to break a pattern and introduce the unexpected. People tune out sameness, but you can get them to tune in by changing something up.

Keep reading to learn ways to grab attention.

Sticky Messages Are Unexpected

The “U” in the SUCCESs formula for creating “sticky” messages stands for “unexpected.”

The first challenge of communication is getting people’s attention. Some people—for instance, parents or the president—grab attention simply because they have authority. However, most people have to attract attention in some other way.

The best way to do it is to break a pattern: introduce the unexpected. Sameness makes people tune out. They become aware of things only when something changes—for instance, you snap to attention when your car or refrigerator starts making a strange noise. Your brain is engineered to be acutely aware of changes.

Here’s an example of how breaking a pattern got people’s attention. On every flight, flight attendants are required to give safety instructions, but they’ve become so routine that no one listens to them. However, one flight attendant was able to grab attention by saying things they didn’t expect. For instance, during the seemingly obvious instructions for how to fasten and unfasten a seatbelt, she said: “For those who haven’t been in a car since 1965, the proper way to fasten a seatbelt is to slide the flat end into the buckle.”  Regarding the exits, she said: “As the song goes, there might be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only six ways to leave this aircraft.” Passengers applauded her routine when she finished.

Her spiel did two things a message must do in order to stick: 1) get people’s attention: create surprise and 2) hold their attention: generate interest. She created surprise with her first unconventional remark, then maintained interest as she made additional jokes, which made people wonder what might come next.

Grab Attention

Some ideas are naturally sticky because they present surprising facts. For instance, the Great Wall of China is the only man-made structure you can see from space. Or, you only use 10 percent of your brain capacity. (Both of these statements are false.)

When you surprise people, you nullify their ability to guess what’s coming next, or as the authors call it, “break their guessing machines.” When we realize we’ve guessed wrong (our schemas have failed), we snap to attention, which is a built-in biological response to prevent us from getting something wrong in the future. Our eyebrows go up, our eyes widen, and muscles tense as we stop everything in order to process where we went wrong.

An advertisement by the Ad Council triggered this response. The ad for a new minivan shows a father picking up his son after soccer practice and driving along attractive, tree-lined streets while the narrator describes the van’s features. The dad stops at an intersection, the camera cuts to the boy, who’s looking out the window, then the father pulls forward. Suddenly, the van is broadsided by another vehicle. The screen goes black and these words appear: “Didn’t see that coming? No one ever does. Buckle up—always.”

The ad surprises by defying people’s schema for minivan commercials (minivans deliver kids safely). Viewers are more likely to think about checking seatbelts before the next trip. Surprise makes us stop and think.

Surprise usually is short-lived. However, there are a few instances where surprising ideas generate ongoing attention—for example, conspiracy theories and gossip—where we want to know more or figure out what’s going on. Because of the surprise factor, conspiracy theories tend to crop up when a celebrity dies young, like JFK or Kurt Cobain, and people are trying to get their minds around it. In contrast, old people’s deaths typically don’t generate conspiracy theories.

Avoid Gimmicks

A pitfall to avoid when using surprise to grab attention to your message is the gimmicky surprise. Attention-getting gimmicks are typically not relevant to the core message and leave your listeners feeling puzzled or cheated.

For instance, a Super Bowl 2000 ad for a dot-com fell flat when it grabbed attention through surprise, but viewers couldn’t figure out the message. It showed a college marching band performing at a football game, when suddenly a pack of wolves ran out of the tunnel and attacked the musicians. (Shortform note: here’s a video of the ad.)

To be effective in making your message stick, surprises must make sense in retrospect—when the listener thinks back, he or she must instantly see the logic connecting the surprise with a core message. To put it another way, if you disrupt your listener’s guessing ability, you have to fix it by showing how the surprise makes sense.

In summary, to use surprise to grab attention:

  • Determine the core of your message.
  • Think of an unexpected implication of your message, or an aspect that violates common sense.
  • Use the unexpected element to defy your listeners’ schema or ability to guess.
  • Help them adjust their schema by showing them how the surprise actually makes sense.

Create New Schemas

Here are two examples of using surprise to upend old schemas while also replacing them with new, unforgettable schemas.

1) Nordstrom department store: Nordstrom’s mantra is extraordinary customer service. The company conveys to new employees just what that means through stories that replace old schemas with striking examples of how “Nordies” do it differently by, for example, ironing a just-purchased shirt so the buyer could wear it to an immediate presentation; refunding a customer for returned tire chains even though Nordstrom doesn’t sell tire chains; gift-wrapping items a customer bought at Macy’s.

These surprising stories replace employees’ past ideas of common-sense, efficiency-driven customer service with Nordstrom’s version of uncommon sense: going the extra mile no matter how absurd it may seem. The surprise element in the stories underscores the company’s core message.

2) Journalism lesson: Writer Nora Ephron recounted a lesson from a journalism teacher that “reset” her idea of the purpose of journalism. The teacher assigned students to write a lead based on a set of facts. The entire faculty of Beverly Hill High School would be attending a conference Thursday on new teaching methods. Speakers would include anthropologist Margaret Mead and California Governor Pat Brown. The students wrote leads focusing on the facts presented—for instance, “Governor Pat Brown and Margaret Mead will address the Beverly Hills High School faculty at a conference Thursday…”. However, after glancing through the students’ work, the teacher set it aside and revealed the correct lead: “There will be no school Thursday.”

Ephron replaced her old idea of journalism (simply presenting the facts) with a new one: reporting the meaning of the facts. In a single, surprising lesson, Ephron’s teacher transformed his students’ schema of journalism.

How to Grab Attention: Introduce the Unexpected

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Chip Heath and Dan Heath's "Made to Stick" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Made to Stick summary:

  • What makes some messages “stick” while others go unremembered
  • The six criteria for shaping your message so it resonates
  • Why many companies are blinded by “the curse of knowledge”

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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