In one of my favourite episodes of NBC’s 30 Rock, Liz Lemon has a crush on her gorgeous new neighbour, Dr. Drew Baird. He’s a pediatrician, he bakes and he’s played by Jon Hamm. Liz finally gets the nerve to ask him out on a date. He awkwardly agrees. Sure, he’ll go out with her…on Valentine’s Day (“St. Valentine’s Day,” 2009).
In my last post, I discussed how communicators can get their audience’s attention by incorporating an element of surprise into their messaging. Asking a stranger out on a date on Valentine’s Day is out of the ordinary. Liz made enough of an impression on Drew that he agreed to the date. But what do we do as communicators once we’ve gotten the audience to agree to ‘go out with us’ (listen to our message)? How do we get a ‘second date’ (keep their interest)?
The examples of surprising communications that I provided in The Element of Surprise are localized – they occurred quickly, and were focused on short term engagement. Many communicators have more complex messages to deliver. We need to get people’s attention, but we also need to keep it.
According to a 2005 report commissioned for the United Nations Environment Programme by Futerra Communications, people are motivated to:
- Know and understand what is going on around them;
- Learn, discover and explore; and
- Participate and play a role in what is going on around them (“Communicating Sustainability,” 2005).
In short, we are curious creatures, but we like to make sense of the world. When something surprises us we are driven to seek out more information about it. In order to make communications messages ‘stick’ in the long term there must be a piece of information that incites further investigation. There must be a ‘mystery’ to solve (Heath & Heath, 2007).
Creating intrigue can engage the audience in situational interest – that which is transitory and specific to the context of the message (Shraw & Lehman, 2001). Curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge (Heath & Heath, 2007). We already know that we are driven to understand and explore the world around us (“Communicating Sustainability,” 2005). It is only natural then that in order to satisfy our interest we need to fill the knowledge gap.
In Steve Crescenzo’s article, Creative Communication: What can we learn from the ‘real world’? he references Cosmopolitan magazine and the headlines it uses to draw the reader’s attention. Cosmo often poses questions that open knowledge gaps such as “Are you addicted…to Dating?” By using headlines that pose a question, the author opens the knowledge gap. In order to close the gap, you’ve got to buy the magazine. See how that works?
This messaging is counterintuitive for many communicators who have traditionally been encouraged to discuss facts and figures. Factual information might be vital to the audience, but statistics alone do not illicit curiosity (“Communicating Sustainability,” 2005). To do that, we must convince the audience that they need our message. Situational psychology confirms this: “Interest plays an important part in the learning process, determining in part what we choose to learn and how well we learn this information” (Shraw & Lehman, 2001, p. 1). Thus, curiosity can lead to long term interest.
When we begin to date someone we ask them questions. If their answers intrigue us we ask them for a second date. There’s a lesson for communicators to learn in this: Much like dating, communicating with the audience must involve courtship. You have to ask them questions without revealing too much. You have to open up knowledge gaps that you begin to fill over a period of time. As their interest piques, you can rest assured that they will seek out more information in order to close those gaps. That is how you make a message stick, and it also happens to be how you get a second date.
Burditt, J. (Writer), Fey, T. (Writer) & Scardino, D. (Director). (2009). St. Valentine’s Day. [Television series episode]. In Fey, T. (Producer), 30 Rock. New York: National Broadcasting Company.
Crescenzo, S. (2011, November). What can we learn from the ‘real world’? Communication World, 28(6), 15-16.
Futerra Sustainability Communications. (2005). Communicating sustainability: How to produce effective public campaigns. Retrieved from http://www.futerra.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Communicating_Sustainability.pdf
Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and other die. New York: Random House.
Schraw, G. & Lehman, S. (2001). Situational interest: A review of the literature and directions for future research. Educational Psychology Review, 13, 23-52. Retrieved from http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Schraw-Situational-interest-A-review-of-the-literature-and-directions-for-future-research.pdf
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 speaking.