Via Giacomo Saudino, 36

10015 Ivrea, Italy


(+39) 334 855 0474.   |

Privacy Policy

Abandon Common Sense

by | Dec 15, 2015 | B2B Copywriting, Effective Messaging | 0 comments

In B2B marketing, things are pretty straightforward. We don’t have to coax or cajole or look cute and clever, like the folks over in B2C. We’re selling to prospects who need and want to buy what we’re offering. B2B buyers aren’t really interested in cute and clever.

So B2B marketing can feel like it’s just a matter of common sense.

But in a highly competitive market – where everybody is appealing to the prospect’s common sense – how do we make our message stand out? How can we best grab our prospect’s attention in a way that will make our message really stick in his or her mind?

Is there an emotion we can tap into that will help our prospects remember our message? Fear, perhaps? Pain? Desire?

Well, according to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick, there is a best emotion for making our messages “sticky.” [1] But it’s none of those I just mentioned. Instead, it’s one that can actually be combined with any of those emotions.

Can you guess what it is? (The headline of this article might give you a hint.)


(Scroll down.)


UnexpectedThat’s right. The emotion that best gets our attention in a way we’ll remember is surprise. And if you think about it, many of the most effective marketing messages we encounter have some element to unexpectedness to them.

Consider Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl ad that unveiled the Macintosh. Many people thought it was a movie trailer, until it delivered its tagline. Or the TV commercial for Wendy’s hamburgers where the little old lady with the foghorn voice cries, “Where’s the beef?” Each contained something that was surprising or unexpected, which made it’s message sticky.

In their book, the Heaths list unexpectedness as the second of six common traits of sticky messages. Last month, we discussed the first trait, simplicity. This month, I’d like to look at surprise, one of two aspects of unexpectedness that can help make messages stickier. (We’ll examine the second aspect in an upcoming installment.)

Why Surprise Makes Messages Stick

Now, to understand why surprise helps make messages stickier, we must understand what causes us to be surprised.

Human beings adapt quickly to consistent patterns. Once a pattern becomes familiar, we tend to ignore it. We quickly tune out the hum of an air conditioner, the ticking of a grandfather clock and other continuous background sounds, for example.

On the other hand, we notice when patterns are broken. We immediately sense the change when the air conditioner switches off or the clock chimes the hour. Our brains are designed to be sensitive to change. Product designers use this all the time: Warning lights flash, car alarms change patterns, etc.

As we discussed last time, our brains memorize and catalog patterns – or schemas as they’re called by psychologists – which act like prediction engines or “guessing machines” that help us predict what’s going to happen. When they fail – when we encounter something that doesn’t match what’s in our schema catalog – we feel surprised.

Our schema catalogs and the feelings we have when we’re surprised are part of our evolutionary “fight or flight” mechanism. In fact, our bodies are geared to focus our attention on any event that surprises us.

Think about when you cut yourself or suffer another sudden injury, for example. The initial stab of pain is usually far more severe than the pain that lingers immediately afterward. That’s our body’s way of calling our attention to the injury, so that we’ll make sure to assess it and decide what to do about it.

Now, consider your body’s response when you’re startled by a sudden, unexpected event. Say you’re walking down the street, and you hear a sudden squeal of brakes and a loud “bang” behind you. What does your body do? Well, chances are, your facial expression and body language instantly change. Your eyebrows shoot upward and your jaw drops (like the guy we saw earlier), your muscles freeze, all involuntarily.

That raising of the eyebrows is an expression of surprise that’s consistent across cultures. Termed “the surprise brow” by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen in their book Unmasking the Face, this facial movement widens our eyes, expanding our field of vision. [2]  When our jaws drop and our muscles freeze, we can’t speak or move. During that split-second of surprise, our body is automatically configured to absorb as much sensory information as possible.

Our brain wants as much information as it can get, so it can understand why our guessing machine failed. It wants to update our schema so we won’t be surprised again. The bigger the surprise, the more it wants the answer. The more it wants the answer, the more likely we are to remember the answer… i.e., the better the chances the message will stick.

Grabbing Attention and Making it Stick

If we want our prospects to remember our message, however, surprise is not enough. We must also provide insight.

We can’t be gimmicky. Our surprise has to be relevant to our message. Otherwise, we risk our audience remembering the surprise, but forgetting the message. The history of television advertising is full of examples where viewers remembered the surprising ad – like the infamous Super Bowl ad in which a marching band was attacked by a pack of wolves – but couldn’t remember the company’s message.

To break our prospects’ schemas our attention-getting message can’t be predictable. Our audience can’t see it coming. Otherwise, it won’t be a surprise. At the same time, it must be what the Chip and Dan Heath call “post-dictable.” [1] That is, the punch line must make perfect sense to our audience after they think about it.

To illustrate this point, the Heaths cite an Ad Council television promotion for the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. [1] At first, it appears to be an advertisement for a new minivan. It matches our schema for what a minivan commercial should look like. Our point of view is from within the minivan as it carries a family through their neighborhood. But as the minivan proceeds into an intersection, we hear a screech of tires and see an oncoming car plow into us from the side. Then the screen goes to black and we see the following message. “Didn’t see that coming? No one ever does. Buckle up.”

The crash breaks our schema, so we feel surprise and want to know what just happened. We’re focused on what’s coming next, because we want an explanation. That’s when the core message arrives. It’s perfectly timed, completely relevant to the context of driving in our own neighborhood, and it satisfies our need to understand why our guessing machine just failed.

In other words, for our messages to stick, we can’t just break our prospects’ guessing machines. We also have to fix them – upgrade them if you will. And the best way to do that, say the Heaths, is to target an aspect of your audience’s guessing machine that relates to your core message.

A Process for Stickier Messaging

With that in mind, the Heaths suggest the following process for making our messages stickier. [1]

  1. Identify the central message you need to communicate. (Find the core.)
  2. Figure out what is counterintuitive about that message. (Find its unexpected implications.)
  3. Use that counterintuitive dimension to break your prospect’s guessing machine.
  4. Once his guessing machine has failed, help your prospect repair and refine it.

Moral of the Story: Common Sense isn’t Sticky

The point the Heaths make is this. When our messages sound like “common sense,” they tend to float in one or our prospect’s ears and out the other. It’s as though our brains say, “OK, I got it, but that’s just common sense. Why should I file that away for later?” [1]

But what sounds like common sense often isn’t. Our job as marketers is to uncover the parts of our message that are “uncommon sense” and use them to break and revise our prospects’ schemas, so they’ll remember what we’ve told them.

Take-away Points

  1. Surprise makes our messages stickier, because it makes our prospects’ brains want to discover why they were surprised.
  2. The surprise we use can’t be gimmicky. It must tie back to our core message.
  3. To break our prospects’ guessing machines, our message can’t be predictable.
  4. To repair our prospects’ guessing machines, our message must be “post-dictable.” It must make sense after our prospects have had a moment to think about it.
  5. To make our messages register with our prospects, we can’t let them sound like common sense. They’ve got to sound like uncommon sense.


[1] Heath, Chip & Dan, Made to Stick, Random House, 2007.

[2] Ekman, Paul & Friesen,Wallace V., Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions From Facial Expressions, Malor Books, 2003.

Contact CopyEngineer



Get this FREE white paper:
When you subscribe to my
FREE monthly e-zine,
Technical Response.
The Professional Writers Alliance
Free Report
Not ready to talk about a new copywriting project just yet? Contact me anyway to get your FREE copy of my latest special report:

10 Common Mistakes That Kill White Paper ROI
How to Avoid Them and Generate More Leads

And don’t forget to sign up for my FREE e-zine, Technical Response. Not only will you receive tips for better content marketing and lead generation. You’ll also receive a copy of my white paper, How to Plan a White Paper: A Proven 7-Step Process for Minimizing Headaches and Maximizing ROI, absolutely FREE. Subscribe now!