Surprise Them

Making Speaking Magical: part 5

If you surprise them in the moment, you make the moment stick.

We never forget the moments that surprised us most. These were out of the ordinary so our brains took a snapshot to remember it. The moment captured in a single frame. It might just be one specific picture you have, but that picture helps you retrieve the rest of the moment at will.

For instance, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the words, "they think it’s cancer." 

You likely remember watching a BBC report of some kind about Princess Diana - I was 13 and I have it locked in. Or how about when you heard about the World Trade centre on 9-11. Or when your boyfriend proposed to you in the park, or when you won that contest, or what happened after Taylor Swift won the VMA for Best Female Video of the year...

Surprising them is all about creating a extra-ordinary moment together

Your brain takes a picture of these surprising moments, then decides what to do with those pictures depending how important you think it is. This is sometimes called, ‘flashbulb memory’, as the moment is captured as quickly a camera flash going off. One photo, that’s it. If we like it enough - that is, if we talk about the moment with others more than a few times - our brain frames that photo and hangs it on the wall of our minds. Whenever you think about that moment now you have a story to tell about the context, the emotions, and the lessons you learned. All because you were surprised by what happened. 

Now, what if it was possible to harness that power as a communicator? How can you intentionally capture your audience’s attention for a single moment causing a significant memory to stick?

One word: Novelty

“Novelty is the single most effective way to capture a person’s attention.”  Carmine Gallo, Talk Like Ted

Most of your audience is assuming they have seen whatever you have to offer.

"This is just another sermon, another sales pitch, another blah blah blah…" and suddenly, WHAMMO! You do something extra-ordinary, you step outside of whatever box you were in and you do it quick enough that nobody could predict it. Your audience is rattled out of their zombie-state, their senses are heightened, their emotions activated, and their memories are ready to snap a shot. 

I wonder what snapshot moments you have, not just the moments like I mentioned above, but moments that were prepared by a communicator

As a communicator, what are you doing to break out from predictability and surprise your audience? 

Here are 3 tricks you can begin to practice to surprise them and capture the attention of your audience in an instant:


Wake Them Up

Do something in an instant that is a radical change from what was just happening. In the example of the Belt Story (found in part 2 of this series), there is a point at which I would have used the belt I was holding and snapped it on a table. When I’ve done this live, the sound alone causes a physical reaction from the audience. It wakes them up from wherever their mind was wandering off to, bringing them back to this moment together. If you do something like this - a quick, shocking surprise -  it’s important to clarify the point you were trying to make immediately afterward so their memories associate the moment with the message

The stress hormones - epinephrine and cortisol - when activated, enhance memory, and help filter which moments to save and which to let go of.

If you can appropriately and responsibly stress the audience out, they are more likely to remember the moment. 

This could be a loud noise (like the belt), or it could be turning the lights out, or being interrupted by music, or it could even be a long silence - though, be aware, that could also put the audience to sleep if not used well :)

Bring in a guest

On Taylor Swift's last tour (for those counting, this is the second T-Swizzle reference in this post) she brought a different guest on stage with her at each show. One night is was Keith Urban, another night Idina Menzel sang alongside her, Dwayne Wade, Steven Tyler, Mick Jagger, Justin Timberlake, Avril Lavigne, and so many more were welcomed on stage causing the audience to go wild!  From this, we are led to assume Taylor is friends with all these beautiful people, but more importantly this caused anticipation for the crowd with a completely unique aspect in each show focused on the element of surprise, "I wonder who the guest will be tonight?!" 

Do you have any local celebrities? Do you know any former athletes? What about a teacher, your barista, or your mom? Instead of just telling a story about these people, say, “to help with this point, I’d like to welcome my friend to join me here and share with you.”

It doesn't have to blow them away, simply surprising them is enough to make it stick.

This is why guest posts work on blogs, we expect you to communicate to us then you give the mic/blog to someone else. We are surprised, and look forward to what this other voice has to say. 

Keep them Guessing

Bring the audience along for what seems like a normal story/message they can predict (learn how to captivate them for this to work). Then, twist the message at the end to something they didn’t see coming. 

While speaking about compassion I once told the story of the Good Samaritan. In the Bible, the story has two people walk by and ignore a man who was robbed and left for dead on the road. Then the most unlikely of people stops and helps the man, a Samaritan.

When I told it, I went through the story just as the audience would be familiar with, but when the third person sees him, he doesn’t stop, he turns away and keeps walking - the man lays alone in the ditch and dies before sunrise. When I tell this ending, it causes an audible and physical reaction; people get uncomfortable with a story being changed and with this specific outcome of the story - which is perfect! I want them to feel compassion so they can identify it in their daily lives.

You can keep them guessing by twisting a story from something familiar, or changing a painting at the very end, or even coming down into the crowd. If you know what you're doing, you can do anything you want.  


To learn about surprising your audience, there is no better place to start than studying professional Magicians. They are masterful at this, their shows are full of big reveals, shocking moments, and surprising movements. If you're sitting up in the balcony or watching on TV you feel like you are participating in what the Magician is up to. Simply magical. 

If you want to make your communication magical and transform your audience, then go in with an idea of how you can intentionally surprise them this time. The surprising moment will be captured in their memory and stick for years to come.