Surprise is the Spice of Language

I had some fun highlighting an absurdity in my previous post:  the idea that longevity would be classified as a negative. Obviously, for people with a functioning survival instinct — i.e., most us — it’s a wish not a risk.

But there was a good marketing-related reminder in the story.

As mentioned, I was skimming a pamphlet about retirement planning that was full of routine information. I was just about to put it down but at the last second the term “longevity risk” and its inherent ridiculousness grasped my attention.

“Huh? What risk?”

Instead of putting it down I kept reading and, what’s more, I haven’t forgotten the underlying point of what I subsequently read.

The reminder in this is simple but powerful.

The human brain is usually a step ahead, filling in what it expects to hear or read. And as everyone knows, predictable is boring.

We don’t pay much attention to the predictable — not in ads, not in copy, and not in spoken words.

I’m struck by the impact an unusual turn of phrase can have during a meeting. It’s amazing how even just a little unexpected and/or humorous wording can grab an otherwise drifting audience. And if people laugh, all the better — others who were secretly peeking at their mobile phones look up.

There’s an interesting passage about this topic in the book Persuasive Online Copywriting called “Surprising Boca.”  It includes this explanation:

“In 1861 Paul Broca identified the section of the brain involved in speech production…The brain does its job by learning the rules about how we talk and then, based on those rules, learns to skip over the parts of what we hear that we expect to encounter.”

An element of surprise doesn’t have to be intentional to work; for example, the almost-discarded retirement-planning pamphlet.

Or, some of my best staff-meeting humor:  often unintentional, but always effective.