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Dear CXO, How Can You Get People To Sit Up And Take Notice?

Below is a list of four words. Read each one and take a second to determine whether it's a real English word

Photo Credit : Shutterstock


Let's start this piece with some interesting activity! Are you familiar with Roman numerals and their depiction? Great, go on and remember the Roman number 4, that's right, it is depicted as IV, so far so good! Moving on to the second question-Try to remember how the number 4 is depicted in an all Roman Numeral clock/watch? It must be IV, right! How can it possibly be anything else? Now, please go ahead and google the same if you don't have access to a watch or clock right now. Chances are you are likely to be gobsmacked, the number 4 in 90 per cent of the Roman clocks /watches around the world is depicted as IIII and not as IV!

There are various theories, reasons and urban legends about the same, but, that's for another day. I sometimes begin my speaking gigs with this question, make an unsuspecting volunteer to commit to the answer and then show him this interesting difference in his own watch. This has always worked in wowing the crowd straight off the bat. This is my favourite technique as a Story teller, when I use "an expectancy violation".

Below is a list of four words. Read each one and take a second to determine whether it's a real English word


As per Bruce Whittlesea and Lisa Williams, the researchers who developed this task "PHRAUG" and "TAYBL" often cause raised eyebrows and an "oh" reaction. "HENSION" and "BARDLE" often cause a frown".

PHRAUG AND TAYBL cause the surprise brow because they look unfamiliar but sound familiar. The "oh" reaction comes when we realise that PHRAUG is just a funny way to spell FROG. HENSION and BARDLE are non-existent words and they frustrate us. The idea is to use surprise as an excellent story telling technique, but it doesn't end there. HENSION and BARDLE surprising, but they reveal no insight. To be surprising, an event can't be predictable. But to be satisfying, surprise must be post dictable. PHRAUG is post dictable, HENSION isn't.

That explains a lot of my favourite authors in my formative years! Agatha Christie, the Queen Bee of Mystery who created iconic detectives like Hercule Poirot and Marple! One the controversial ideas on how Agatha used to create her storyline - She would pepper the plot around a series of characters, now for the twist-she would work backwards and make the least suspected character the murderer whilst leaving a trail of clues and red herrings or take Manoj Night Shyamalan's "Sixth Sense" when the movie is over, you find yourself racking your brains and going through all the earlier parts and your frown turns into a surprise!

Meaningful Post dictable surprise leads to insight and shines the spotlight on the core message of the idea, gimmicky surprise doesn't lead anywhere. Breaking someone's guessing machines and then fixing it back up is a great way to ensure the idea is sticky.

There was a bright MBA grad attending his first class on Business Communication Skills. Two minutes into the class, a bunch of tribals charge into the room, shouting loudly. They grab a student and throw her out of the window, break furniture and stab the professor who falls down and they leave as quickly as they came in. After, a few minutes, the professor gets back up and says calmly that the entire incident was staged and asked them to quickly write what they had seen. The lesson was on using extreme and experiential theatre to drive home a point. That MBA grad was Vineet nayyar who went on to become the CEO of HCL and used the same technique during a crucial juncture in his organisation. As he describes in his book "Employees first, customers second". Kick-starting a series of town halls which reinforced reverse accountability aptly titled "Directions"-the idea behind these sessions was to move beyond the dehydrated language of management and "get real". So, to set the tone for these sessions, Vineet started doing by doing something he had never done on stage …dancing . He says that set the tone to raise the energy with the entire group and they could get down to Business in a refreshed manner.

The idea is not to make a Steve Balmer (Ex CEO -Microsoft) kind of an entrance or dance like Vineet, but clearly surprising the audience by wading in and connecting to the core of the message makes a firecracker of an Impact.

The Late Nora Ephron -Screenplay writer for movies like "When Harry met Sally" and "Sleepless in Seattle" in her book "Everything is Copy" writes about a moment of Epiphany when she was in a high journalism class taught by Charles Simms. He handed the class an assignment - they were to write a story based on the following information:

"Kenneth L Peters, the principal of Beverly hills high school announced today that the entire high school facility will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be Anthropologist Margaret Mead, College president Robert Maynard Hutchence and California governor, Edmond Pat brown. All the students immediately started reordering the story and produced leads and the teacher looked at all the leads and finally revealed the apt lead "There will be no school next Thursday". It was a breath-taking moment as Ephron recalls "In that moment, I realised journalism wasn't about regurgitating facts, but was about figuring out the point. It wasn't enough to know the who, what, when, and where, you had to understand what it meant and why it mattered".

The best way to establish the "point" is by making the audience commit to what they had assumed was a truism, break it and put it back together. The expectancy violations technique does that just brilliantly.

This is also why Bill gates released mosquitoes into the audience before a talk!! Bill does not need any elaborate PR, but this entry or theatricity got him some of the best coverage till day.

About the mosquitoes, Bill delivered a TED presentation on the toll malaria was taking around the world. He went on to say Sharks are considered deadly as they kill 10 humans a year, but sharks pale in comparison to mosquitoes where 7,25,000 lives were lost due to Malaria. Whilst this in itself was an expectancy violation -I mean, who would expect great white attacks to be far less threatening than the common mosquitoe! He continued saying "of course Malaria was spread by Mosquitoes, I brought a few so you could personally experience it, no reason why only poor people should experience it"

Needless to say, this was a TED talk like none other!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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opinion cxo bill gates steve balmer

Jay Kumar Hariharan

The author is an Executive Coach, Speaker and Deep Sea Diver. He is a graduate from International Coach Academy, Sydney. He provides coaching interventions to create transformational Leadership practices. For more read about the author visit

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