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Expect the unexpected

By Rebecca Trigg

Unusual events are far more likely to be remembered. Surprises cut through the everyday. So how could we use 'the unexpected' to make messages stick? Rebecca Trigg considers the power of surprise.

When I was 21, I lived in Amsterdam for a year. It was the third year of my uni degree. By day, I was an intern at the global HQ of one of the ‘Big Six’ accountancy firms – but by night, I was exploring the vibrant underside of one of the most exciting cities in the world.

We used to go a club whose motto was ‘Expect the unexpected’. There was a hidden doorway, on the outskirts of the city – away from prying eyes and tourists. Inside it was dark, luxurious, quirky – filled with drag queens, ageing rock stars and street artists. It felt like another world. It was the opposite of clubs that I’d grown up with in my home town – clubs that were full of the same people, doing the same thing, week in and week out. (Mind you, there was one week, circa 1990, when a man brought in a cat in on a lead – that’s pretty much the only thing I can remember from years of going out in Northamptonshire. Sorry Northants folk).

But my Amsterdam nights out gave me an appetite for adventure. There’s something tantalising about the unexpected. It’s thrilling. Admittedly, now I live in a ‘naice’ Cambridge village and the unexpected tends to be when the Tesco delivery driver arrives ten minutes early. But I still have a desire to do things differently, and that stretches into my day job of creating learning and communications content for clients.

Unusual events are far more likely to be remembered. Surprises cut through the everyday. Now, doesn’t that sound like something that might be useful in our industry?

We love a surprise

The human brain loves a surprise - "We find that so-called pleasure centres in the brain do not react equally to any pleasurable substance, but instead react more strongly when the pleasures are unexpected. This means that the brain finds unexpected pleasures more rewarding than expected ones” says Dr. Gregory Berns, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Emory.

The amygdala is the region that responds to interest, surprise, attraction, and motivation. It also helps us find prior knowledge - so that interest, surprise, attraction, and motivation can be attached to something we’ve learned in the past.

“When people are surprised by something or someone, the brain goes through the ‘surprise sequence’… a strong neuro alert that tells us that something is important about this moment and we have to pay attention. Our cognitive resources are basically hijacked and pulled into the moment.” - Tania Luna, co-author of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected.

What happens in the brain when we’re surprised?

When new information is presented to the brain, it does a “scan” to see if it recognises that information. If it does, then the brain knows how to respond. If the information is new, the synapses light up like crazy. If the information is boring, the synapses just sit there. No fireworks, no learning.

The hippocampus plays a key role in memory formation while the nucleus accumbens is involved in processing rewards and novel information. Previous studies have suggested that information transfer between these structures may be associated with enhanced memory… "We know that unexpected events are more likely to be remembered than predictable events, but the underlying neural mechanisms for these effects are unclear,” says Lead researcher, Dr. Nikolai Axmacher from University of Bonn, Germany.

And again, in English! - Experiencing something unexpected triggers a response in the brain that promotes longer-term memory encoding.

The advertising world already knows this

Marketeers have tapped into this already. Think about Christmas adverts – which ones stay in your mind? For me, it was the IKEA ad (and grime hit) ‘Silence the critics’. IKEA’s ad agency, Mother, said: “We tried to find things that people weren’t necessarily used to seeing come to life as that would make for the most surprising visual and music pairing.”

Unusual pairings are powerful. You may have seen this story about expensive ovenware firm Le Creuset (mainly found in your granny’s kitchen and in odd colours in TKMaxx) partnering with Star Wars to do branded merchandise.

This partnership is so utterly unexpected, it’s brilliant. It was all over social media and led to a renewed interest in posh ovenware because it was so surprising.

It works for outdoor advertising too. There was a great unexpected sign at Helsinki airport. It made visitors feel like part of a special tribe, and its unusual tone meant it got reported by news outlets across the world.

Helsinki airport poster - it reads - Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November. Except you, you badass. Welcome.

Other memorable ads include the Arnold Schwarzenegger head-on-wheels PPI campaign (who would put Arnie together with PPI?) and a Russian meerkat advertising insurance (one of the most successful campaigns in history). I’m sure you’ve got your own favourites too.

So what does this mean for learning?

“We found that the dopaminergic system of the human brain seems to be wired in a rational manner - tuned to learn whenever anything unexpected happens but not when things are predictable," - Michael J. Kahana, senior author and professor of psychology at Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences.

That’s right - surprises help us learn! Our brains hold new information better when it’s unexpected. This sounds like bad news for predictable learning content. Whenever your audience is given what they expect, you’re missing out on an opportunity.

Health and safety for Channel 4

We’ve done some fantastic work with clients that play with the element of surprise. Channel 4 came to us and asked us to create a health and safety course. You might expect it to look like this:

First page of boring health and safety training

Instead, it looked like this:

A Barry White themed music video backed up with a memorable ‘What would Barry do?’ awareness campaign led to an impressive increase in calls to their helpdesk and resulted in fewer accidents at work. This piece of work won a Learning Technologies award in 2019.

Asbestos awareness for Co-op

Co-op came to us for some asbestos awareness training for stores and Funeralcare homes. What could have been an e-learning module listing the dangers of asbestos containing materials became a music video, a parody of MC Hammer’s classic 90s hit ‘Can’t touch this’. Because if there’s one thing you need to remember about asbestos, it’s not to touch it.

Feedback was that people loved it – a catchy bespoke song (about what could be seen as a dry subject) made the learning memorable and effective. And frankly, who would have put MC Hammer together with asbestos training?

It had demonstrable impact too. This approach led to a 90% reduction in asbestos-related calls to Co-op’s Facilities Helpdesk.

So next time you need to create a piece of learning or communications content, think about ways to delight and surprise the learner. You can still make your message matter, but by using techniques that play with the element of surprise you’re more likely to deliver something that people remember and that really changes behaviour.

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