Well, there’s a surprise!

It’s a typically grey, drippy autumn day – thank heavens.

Maybe you weren’t expecting those last two words.  A gripe would be more normal, a depressed reflection on the shortening days growing chillier and more dreich as we head into winter.

But no.  I welcomed the grey drippiness.  I surprised you.

One of my copywriting mentors, Peter Thomson (www.peterthomson.com), talks about “surprising Broca” to get readers to sit up and pay attention.  Broca’s area is part of the left frontal cortex of the brain, named after the Frenchman who studied it, Paul Broca.  Broca’s area, in conjunction with Wernicke’s area, deals with speech production and language comprehension, among other things.

Broca's area

In particular, it’s the bit of your brain that finishes sentences before the speaker has got there.  We all do it.  If someone says “Oh I do like to be beside…” we know the rest should be “…the seaside”; “season of mists and…” inevitably brings up “…mellow fruitfulness” for most people, even if they can’t quote a single other line from Keats.

That’s what Broca’s area does.  It fills in the blanks and allows us to switch off, because we already know what’s coming.  It’s one reason every writing manual you’ll ever read advises you to avoid clichés.

Surprising Broca turns the brain’s reflex on its head.  Giving the reader a bit of a shock, something unexpected, makes him or her focus again on what you’re really saying.  So how do you use the technique?

Let’s take as an example “Where there’s a will…”; read or hear that and we’re already thinking “…there’s a way”.  One Will-writer I know turned it on its head: “Where there’s a Will there’s a family” was his motto.  Neat, huh?  It grabs your attention straight away.

“Season of mists and general drippiness” may not evoke quite what Keats meant, but it’s a better representation of large chunks of autumn in most of Britain and, again, drags your attention back to the present if you were expecting the original version.

You can surprise Broca with puns, too.  I remember my great uncle, when I was small, singing “It’s a long way to tickle Mary, it’s a long way to go”; it tickled my sense of humour.  The funeral director who states “I’m the last person to let you down” and the dentist whose strapline is “The tooth, the whole tooth and nothing but the tooth” are doing the same thing.

When you surprise Broca effectively you don’t just wake people up.  You create stickability.  People remember surprising things much better than normal ones, precisely because they stand out from the ruck: it’s 50-odd years since I last heard my great uncle singing “tickle Mary” instead of “Tipperary”.

Many people groan when they hear a pun but, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, they won’t miss it.  A well-placed, well-thought-out pun or unexpected twist of phrase turns a piece of workaday prose into something individual.  It cheers your readers up, too – one reason they remember it (we remember emotionally-charged experiences better than dull ones).

So go ahead – surprise me.  It’ll do us both good.

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