Friday, May 7, 2010

The Surprising Power of Surprise

It's no surprise that including the unexpected in your presentation is an excellent way to keep your audience engaged.

What may be more surprising however, is that surprises actually help your listeners retain information.

Check out this University of Cambridge study:

Because they are hard to forget, surprises can help us learn.

Now scientists have identified a part of the brain that may be involved in learning from surprises. A team led by Dr. Paul C. Fletcher at the University of Cambridge monitored the brain activity in a group of volunteers who were participating in a simulation exercise.

The participants pretended to work at drug companies and were asked to predict whether a particular fictitious drug would trigger a particular fictitious syndrome.

In the early phase of the study, when the participants were not familiar with the effects of the various drugs, imaging tests detected high levels of activity in this part of the brain.

As the volunteers became familiar with the effects of the drugs, so that they were no longer surprised by the results, activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex declined, but later in the study, this region became more active when the participants were surprised by unexpected responses.

- Published in Nature Neuroscience, 2001

From the Green Room: Don't give away your message. Your audience will be much more likely to remember it if it takes them by surprise.


Anonymous said...

The study results are fascinating and really not that surprising. But how in the world do you spring your message as a surprise when presumably your entire speech is organized around it?

Sarah Gershman said...

Great question. I should add that there should be some aspect of your message that is unexpected. You are right that it is difficult - and often not helpful - to gear your entire message around the element of surprise. Thanks for reading.

Andy said...

First of all Sarah, it should come as no surprise that I am in full agreement with your post. And as for the first astute comment to it, such is what I call the curse of "the Surprise Conundrum"; as concepts go, the basic nature of surprise makes it the most bullying, always demanding something new. Even when your speech is about surprise, you have to go against the grain of the expectations of it to deliver on the premise. Such is the challenge for me every time being at the annual Canadian Marketing Association conference in two weeks. Thanks for taking a look at Pow!, and for publishing some insight I wish I had when I was writing the book!