In Surprising the Brain, I wrote about a copywriting technique that replaces an expected word with an unexpected one to grab the listener’s or reader’s attention:
Advertising copywriters have for years used a similar technique to jar the reader out of complacency – once in a while, they substitute an unexpected word in a familiar phrase. For example, instead of “a stitch in time saves nine,” the writer might use the unexpected phrase, “a stitch in time saves money.” The unexpected word at the end of what was thought to be a familiar phrase gets the reader’s attention. I suspect the mechanism by which the brain makes this comparison is different than what the Wellcome researchers found for sequences of events, but the underlying principle isn’t all that different. The brain is constantly predicting and comparing, and providing it with something other than it predicted will cause a reaction.
Now, there’s research that sheds light on one aspect of why this technique works – our brains do, in fact, predict what’s coming next, in some cases functioning like a smart word processor that suggests words you might want as you begin to type:
While I’m talking, you’re not just passively listening. Your brain is also busy at work, guessing the next word that I will sa…vor before I actually speak it. You thought I was gonna say “say”, didn’t you? Our brains actually consider many possible words – and their meanings – before we’ve heard the final sound of the word in quest… of being understood. [From a Scientific American podcast - Listener Anticipates Speaker's Word Choice by Steve Mirsky.]
A more detailed description of the work can be found in a University of Rochester press release, Scientists Watch As Listener’s Brain Predicts Speaker’s Words (Science Daily).
We may understand a bit more about how our brain’s word prediction mechanism works, but the message is still the same. If you want wake up your readers or listeners, substitute an unexpected word for the one their brains have already filled in. In a spoken presentation, a word with a similar beginning might be particularly effective, as the expectation will be reinforced by the brain’s word-winnowing method.
Make a commitment to testing this technique, because we all know that actions speak louder than… doing nothing!