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Getting what you expect is boring.

Otherwise known as the "Oh Shit!/Oh Cool!" technique.

Earlier I blogged about how the brain is tuned for novelty, but tunes out that which is common or expected.

Some of the areas where this matters include training, filmmaking, advertising, and I suppose dating. Director/writer David Mamet says that the prime objective of a director is to present a story that is "both surprising and inevitable at the same time." Kind of the "OH!!" followed by "Oh... of course..." feeling.

AI and learning guru Roger Schank puts it this way in his e-Learning book,

"A good course must enable failures that surprise the student. Failure is the key to learning. We have to work hard to recover when things don't work out the way we expected...For this natural learning process to work in a course, the course must surprise its students. But, more than that, it must put students in a situation where they are entertaining predictions in the first place."

And from an article titled Information is Surprises:

"Information is surprises. We all expect the world to work out in certain ways, but when it does, we're bored. What makes something worth knowing is organized around the concept of expectation failure."

At Sun, we used to have a lot of battles over the evaluation form that customers filled out at the end of a training course. Instructors hated the fact that customers ranked things based on "Meets Expectations" (including the two ends of the expectations scale, "below expectations" and "exceeds expectations"). The instructors wanted it to be based on something less subjective, or at least customer "satisfaction", believing that a measurement of the quality of their work should not be tied to the customer's expectations.

But the business folks like Tom Peters and Seth Godin tell us that when it comes to things like word of mouth, expectation is EVERYTHING. I don't have links handy, but there are plenty of studies that show when someone's expectations are met, they won't talk about it... even if they believe that what they got was awesome! Even if expectations were high, everything is as it should be when they're met.

People talk about things that are surprising, or that really suck.

You talk about the waiter who went way above the call of duty. You talk about that movie that Ebert gave four stars but that you thought was one long and painful cliche.

So wake up the brain and do something surprising or at least unexpected for a given context. If you're a teacher, trainer, or authoring learning materials, for frick's sake don't have all your exercises, lessons, and stories simply confirm what the learner expects!. If the learner spends a half-hour doing an exercise that does exactly what you said it would, that's valid practice, but not memorable.

Sometimes they need the practice and reinforcement, of course, so it doesn't mean you won't include the "confirmation" activities. But when you want them to really learn and remember something new, look HARD for opportunities where things don't work as expected. Places where something behaves counterintuitively, or radically different from something that appears (at least on the surface) similar are golden.

I've already talked about ways we try to use this in the books:

* Garden paths (things that look like sound approaches, but then blow up at the end).
* Counterintuitive examples.
* Using show-don't-tell on common mistakes.
* Examples that have a common framework, but often with a weird twist.
* Unusual visuals and metaphors.

I worked in the mid 90's for one of the coolest new media companies, AND Interactive (later sold to TCI and then brought down in a spectacular flame-out) co-founded by Hollywood creative Allen Debevoise. My projects were managed by another Hollywood producer, John Valenti (yes, Jack's son), and the thing I remember most about them both (and John especially) is that the WORST thing you could do is be "on the nose."

The classic example for me was when I was developing an interactive CD-ROM of Oracle's annual report. It had lots of splashy graphics and video, etc. but I committed pretty much THE worst possible offense when I chose, for the financial section splash screen, a graphic of a cash register. But then, why stop with just ONE cliche...I went ahead and added a really cool sound effect of a cash register ch-ching!

That John ever let me enter the building again is a mystery, and the warning to never EVER be "on the nose" ever again, still haunts me. And I've noticed that the phrase "on the nose" is now a popular way to criticize screenplay dialog that not only violates "show don't tell", but eliminates all possibility of subtext. (I think "thou shall not be on the nose" is one of McKee's ten commandments of story)

So just in case you needed one more reason to be surprising, unexpected, or simply weird--you can say it's just being brain-friendly. Yet another way to get past the brain's crap filter.

And if you're one of our authors, you can expect us to be looking for ways you've encouraged the "Oh Shit!" (yikes, can't believe it did that) experience, or the "Oh Cool!" (wow, that's amazing... I didn't know you could do that) feeling. : )

Posted by Kathy on December 30, 2004 | Permalink


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Otherwise known as the "Oh Shit!/Oh Cool!" technique. Earlier I blogged about how the brain is tuned for novelty, but tunes out that which is common or expected. Some of the areas where this matters include training, filmmaking, advertising, a... [Read More]

Tracked on Dec 30, 2004 8:12:17 PM


"Getting what you expect is boring" - I can't personally say if it's boring or not, but there has been numerous times when I read through books, and the same information is found - in several books. Then there are the basic facts that I tend to stick in my head as 'THE fact' - the correct fact.

Then comes the great moment - stumbling upon a piece of information that proves the previous facts wrong and enlightens me on a new (corrected) fact. The "Aha! So that's why!" feeling I get has been rewardig :). Sticks in my mind all too well too, since there's a mini-reminder with it that associates with the previously wrong information.

Posted by: Kevin Teoh | Feb 9, 2005 10:11:29 AM

your blog has helped me to understand one thing "the ways i can iprove my copy writing-getting insight for different things."

Posted by: SMITA PANDEY | Jul 27, 2005 8:02:10 AM

I'm a priest looking for help on a book I'm writing. Your thoughts are intriguing and something I will have to play with to see how it works in preaching.

Posted by: Phil+ | Nov 23, 2006 7:20:35 PM

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