How To Attract Attention To Your Ideas: Stickiness Part II

The first step in communicating your idea is attracting attention to it. Someone has to notice your message before anything else. Your idea also needs to hold attention. It needs to maintain the interest of your audience if you want your message to stick with them.

Woman dressed as Sherlock Holmes staring through a magnifying glass

Last week we talked about how to generate an idea so it has the potential to become a sticky one. We talked about simplicity being the key to finding the core of your message and how you could still convey complex information in a simple way. Today we’ll look at what you can do to get an audience to notice your idea and how you can hold their attention.

First a quick review of the 6 Key Variables of Sticky Ideas (SUCCESs) as put forth by the Heath Brothers.

  • Simplicity – find the core
  • Unexpected – different gets attention
  • Concreteness – help people understand and remember
  • Credibility – help people believe
  • Emotion – make people care
  • Story – get people to act

We’ve covered simplicity and today we’ll look at unexpected. And again if you’ve never read Made to Stick, I highly recommend grabbing a copy.

Wide-eyed face showing surprise


The first steps in communicating a message are to

  1. get attention
  2. hold attention

We get attention through surprise and we hold it through interest.

It should be relatively easy to understand why surprise attracts attention. When something is familiar there’s little reason to pay attention to it. You know it. You know what it’s about. It’s unlikely to communicate something new to you so you can easily divert your attention elsewhere.

When something is unexpected, when it contains an element of surprise, it draws our attention because there is something new and unknown in it that requires mental processing.

When something new enters our focus we need to quickly determine if it’s a danger to us. There’s a self preservation mechanism at work when encountering the unexpected that demands our immediate attention.

The best way to add an element of surprise is to break a pattern. The pattern is the familiar. It’s what’s expected. Breaking a pattern makes makes us take notice.

However, you don’t want to be different for the sake of being different. You want to avoid gimmickry just to capture attention.

If someone arrives at your website and is met with loud music or a browser that resizes itself several times before finally settling down, you’ve certainly captured that person’s attention. It’s unlikely they’re going to be happy and stick around though.

There are good ways and bad ways to capture attention through surprise (PDF).

Ideally the unexpected aspect you deliver with your idea reinforces the the core of the idea. Figure out what part of your core message is counterintuitive and use that to attract attention. Figure out what the surprise is in your message.

Nordstrom's Department Store

Nordstrom’s Unexpected Customer Service

The department store Nordstrom has a core message of exceptional customer service. We all have a schema for what customer service is.

Nordstrom breaks this schema with stories about some of their employees doing unexpected things such as wrapping gifts purchased at a competitor’s store, ironing a shirt for a customer who needed it for a meeting that afternoon, and even taking a refund for tire chains when the store doesn’t sell tire chains.

Each is clearly unexpected. Who offers a refund for a product they don’t sell? Each grabs attention because it breaks the pattern of what customer service is. Each also fits well with the store’s core message of exceptional customer service.

Nordstrom could have attracted attention by having its employees work naked, which more than likely would grab even more attention, but would hardly get the idea of exceptional customer service across or help them increase sales.

Morlos street stylish store Mexico, painted pink and decorated with flowers

Designing the Unexpected

In designing a web site unexpected might be to create an original or unique design. Something that’s different from most other sites in the industry. Remember though we’re not looking for unique for the sake of being unique. That moves into gimmickry. The loud, browser-resizing website would certainly be unique, but it’s unlikely to be beneficial to your business.

A bank with a core message of personal attention might do well to veer from the usual corporate blue color scheme and perhaps use a color palette or soft pastels of earth tones. Either would break the expected pattern, while still being in harmony with the core idea.

Visually when we think capturing attention we think of the ideas of dominance and contrast and the visual grammar of dots.

Sherlock Holmes silouhette on wall of Baker St tube station

Using Mystery to Maintain Interest

The first step was to get attention. The second is to hold attention and you do that by maintaining interest.

Richard Cialdini suggests the secret to maintaing interest lies in mystery. Mysteries are journeys with unpredictable endings. They hold interest by continuing to offer the unexpected. They raise questions that beg to be answered along the way and appeal to our sense of curiosity.

Curiosity is the intellectual need to answer questions and close open patterns. It’s the need to put together a broken schema.

We become curious when there’s a gap in our knowledge. We want to close the gap. Mysteries create a series of knowledge gaps for us to close, with each closed gap opening another. An important idea here is that before we close a gap we need to open it.

Something unexpected breaks a pattern. It breaks a schema. Our curiosity wants to fix the pattern and schema. Mysteries continue to break schemas and put them back together in a slightly different form.

This continual breaking and fixing patterns; this continual open and closing knowledge gaps is irresistible to our sense of curiosity. We find it interesting and it holds our attention.

Advertisement for Sherlock Holmes imagining Hugh Laurie in the starring role

Building Mystery In Your Website

On a website we often want to state the facts. We want to tell everything we can about our products and services. This doesn’t open gaps though. It keeps them closed. Better would be to present some piece of knowledge unknown to our audience that raises questions begging to be answered.

The facts should ultimately be there to close gaps that were opened elsewhere.

How often have you visited the home page of a site, particularly an ecommerce site, that crams as much as possible on its home page? Telling all immediately opens no gaps. Better would be to hold back some of the information and make your visitors follow a path to the information that will close the gap.

Provide a teaser early in the conversion path and slowly fill in the missing information as the visitor approaches your sign up page or add to cart button. Early in the path you should open a gap to make your audience curious. Make them want to fill in that gap.

Two iPads

Gaps in knowledge require some pre-existing knowledge of course so at times it will be necessary to present some backstory to create that initial knowledge. I found the teaser below on Apple’s main page for the iPad.

Imagine being able to page through websites, write an email, flick through photos, or watch a movie. All on a big, beautiful Multi-Touch screen. With just the touch of a finger. Learn more…

The iPad is a new device. There was no pre-existing knowledge for it. There is pre-existing knowledge for websites, email, photos, and movies. There’s the backstory. We know what those things are and we possibly even know what multi-touch is as well. The iPad itself is the gap that needs to be closed.

Also note how the above teaser closes. “With just the touch of a finger.” There’s a period at the end so at first glance it appears to be a complete sentence, but it isn’t.

With a touch of a finger, what? Something else needs to be said to complete the thought. The incomplete sentence opens a gap that our curiosity needs to close. We click the link to learn more, to close the gap, and are pulled further along the path.

Instead of thinking about what you want to convey to your audience, think about what questions you want your audience to ask. Then present information that gets them to ask those questions along with a path to find the answers. Present enough information to raise the question and then provide a scent, a trail to discover the answer.

Coffee Fantastico HMK Mystery Stream


If you want to make your simple idea stick you first need to get people to notice it. You need to attract attention to your idea and the way to do that is to emphasize something unexpected in your idea.

You want to break existing patterns, but in a way that reinforces the core of your idea. You want to find what’s counterintuitive in your idea and use that to get people to notice.

The unexpected opens knowledge gaps. Our curiosity wants to close these gaps so we continue to pay attention in order to fill the gap. Mysteries continue to open and close gaps and continue to pull us along.

Try to emphasize that part of your design that might surprise your viewers and offer only enough information to appeal to your audience’s curiosity to know more. Instead of providing all the information at once, provide it a little at a time along a conversion path.

Raise questions and provide paths to the answers.

Next week we’ll continue by looking at how to make sure people understand your idea once you’ve got their attention. We’ll talk about using concrete details to describe your idea to help it be understood.

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