“My visit to the cemetery last Friday gave new meaning to ‘Black Friday’ for me.”
Actually it didn’t. But if it had, that line would have provided a strong opening to this post on the second of Made to Stick’s six principles of memorable, persuasive communication: Unexpected.
You expect me to post about writing and admissions, not about cemetery visits with intrinsic hints at the macabre. As the authors of Made to Stick argue, surprise seizes attention.
Once you have your readers’ attention, they are more likely to read out of interest, pay attention to your message, and remember what you write.
Corollary: The expected, the routine, and the ordinary bore. Essays with these traits are likely to be skimmed, yawned over, and forgotten. The ding pile acts like a magnet to pedestrian writing.
Given that you aren’t Shakespeare, how can you apply this principle to application essays and personal statements?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Start in the middle of the action. Don’t turn people off with a long introduction that people don’t have the patience to read and you don’t have the word count to write.
- Start with a question to trigger curiosity and maybe build a little suspense.
- Avoid common openings “I want to do X because…” “I was born in…” “My parents come from…” Other common openings: rephrase the question (worked well in sixth grade) or borrow heavily from the school’s web site.
One caveat: Stay away from gimmickry. Surprise, suspense, wonder … they will help you engage your reader provided that the unexpected is “postdictable.” By relating to your core message in an unexpected way, but still supporting it, your personal statement or application essay surprise will grab attention and build credibility while conveying your core message.
Now if I could just connect my Black Friday visit to the cemetery to use of the unexpected in writing for acceptance…