The Element of Surprise

"Bueller? Bueller?" How do we ensure our communications efforts aren't making our audience fall to sleep? Source: Paramount Pictures

Remember that scene from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when the teacher is running through attendance? You know the one: “Bueller? Bueller?” (Hughes, 1986). Later in the film, the teacher is giving an economics lecture in the same monotone voice while the camera pans from one glassy-eyed student to the next. It goes to show that regardless of the importance of the information you are presenting, if the delivery itself is lackluster then you can expect that your audience will start to ignore you (or worse, fall asleep
on their desks).

One of the major challenges that communicators face, regardless of their field, is getting their audience’s attention. In an interview with Fast Company magazine in 1998, Seth Godin explained the problem:

Marketing is a contest for people’s attention. Thirty years ago, people gave you their attention if you simply asked for it. You’d interrupt their TV program, and they’d listen to what you had to say. You’d put a billboard on the highway, and they’d look at it. That’s not true anymore. This year, the average consumer will see or hear 1 million marketing  messages – that’s almost 3,000 per day. No human being can pay attention to 3,000 messages every day. (Taylor, W.C., 2006, para. 8).

Whether we’re logging into Facebook, turning on the television, or walking down the street, we are inundated with messages asking us to buy, or buy into, someone’s
message. This is big business. According to Coca-Cola’s website the brand spent 2.6 billion on advertising in 2006 (FAQs, 2006). If one of the most iconic brands in the world had to spend that much to keep people interested, what does that say to the rest of us? How do we get our message through the fray?

In their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath explain how adding an element of the unexpected can help a message to stick with its audience. If getting people’s attention is the problem, then shaking them out of their
routine is likely the answer. According to the Heath brothers, “Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. Consistent sensory stimulation makes us tune out” (Heath & Heath, 2007, p. 64).

We create schemas – structured clusters of preconceived ideas – based on these consistent patterns. Schemas help us to organize the world (Schemas (psychology), n.d.). For example, when I press the power button on my computer I assume that it will turn on. When I press it and it doesn’t turn on, then that small element of surprise is enough to get my attention and break my routine.

If we want to get our audience’s attention we have to break their schemas. This idea was illustrated in Volkswagen’s Fun Theory campaign. The idea behind The Fun Theory was that positive behaviour change will result when an element of fun is integrated into the desired change (The fun theory, n.d.). My favourite example is the piano staircase. The creators wanted to encourage more people to walk up the stairs in a subway station than to take the adjacent escalator. This was accomplished by creating piano key stairs that played music when they were stepped on. The element of surprise (and fun) was a success – by the end of the  video (this was all filmed) everyone was taking the stairs (Rolighetsteorin, 2009).

Charlie Todd of Improv Everywhere is in the business of breaking schemas. Whether his troupe of improv actors are riding the New York subway with no pants on, or are frequenting Best Buys dressed in blue polo shirts and khaki pants (looking identical to employees), they are building an element of surprise into everything they do. The result is shared experiences that people remember. As Charlie says in his TEDx talk, they create fun stories that people can tell others. His rule is similar to that of Volkswagen’s Fun Theory – no matter what make the experience a positive one (Todd, 2011).

What can communicators draw from these examples?

  1. Determine your message
  2. Find out what is counterintuitive about that message
  3. Communicate the message in a way that breaks the audiences’ schema
  4. Leave the audience with a positive message

Have you ever used the element of surprise to communicate to your audience? What was the result?


Heath, C. &  Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some  ideas survive and other die. New York: Random House.

Hughes, J. (Writer/Director).  (1986). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  [DVD]. Long Beach, California: Paramount Pictures

Rolighetsteorin.  (2009, October 7). Piano stairs: The fun theory . Retrieved from

Schema  (psychology). (n.d.) Retrieved from

Taylor, W. C. (1998,  March 31). Permission marketing. Fast Company. Retrieved from

The Coca-Cola  Company. (2006). FAQs – Advertising.  Retrieved from

The fun theory.  (n.d.) Retrieved from

Todd, C. (2011,  November). The shared experience of absurdity . Retrieved from  ttp://

Bryna Jones is the Director of  Communications at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, and a member of the International Association of Business Communicators. Bryna’s  project experience includes communications and marketing planning, advocacy campaign development, social media strategy, government relations, and project management. She also has considerable experience in copy writing and public


About Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited

Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited (HSAL) is a multidisciplinary strategic planning and public affairs consultancy, focused on environmental and land use planning, stakeholder relations (including communications, facilitation, public consultation and engagement), socio-economic impact assessment, communications, engineering and related services. We have the expertise to predict and decipher technical and public policy issues, and significant experience mitigating them, building consensus and attaining even the most complex approvals. For more information, visit
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