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The Secret to Engaging and Memorable Training? Deliver The Unexpected

NOTE: This is an updated version of my post originally published on

In my previous post, I introduced the 6 core principles from the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, and discussed classroom and training applications of the first principle, Simple.

But by far, my favorite principle is today's: Unexpected.

I love unexpected so much that I made it a core component of The EMU Experience methodology.

Personally, it's the principle that has captivated me in a few unforgettable situations:

  • The Roger Schank e-learning video demo from 2000

  • As a young teen, listening to a recording of the original 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast and learning about the real-life panic it caused (for a quick synopsis of the broadcast read here).

  • The ending of the movie The Usual Suspects

  • The final episode of the Newhart TV show

The Importance of Asking "What if...?

When I'm creating new training or video content, unexpected is best prompted by the question: "What if...?"

To be truly creative in your approach to doing training in new ways, you have to be open to that question.

It's a process of thinking through what is typically done (and by association, what is "expected" by your learners) and then asking, "What if...?"

Instead of doing it this way, what if I did it this way?

If my students are expecting _____, how can I do ____ differently?

And what does differently actually look like?

Probably most important, it’s giving yourself permission to even think that way!

Ok, enough preaching.

Let's jump back in the book and look at three ways the authors demonstrate how to focus on the Unexpected:

  • Break A Pattern

  • Violate Expectations

  • Highlight A Knowledge Gap

Break A Pattern

Up until about a few years ago, every time you flew on a plane, you got the same gloriously boring safety presentation. Granted, Southwest Airlines would always make it entertaining, but they were the notable exception with this mandatory content that all airlines had to present.

As video became the medium of choice for the standard safety presentation, airlines like Virgin Atlantic, Delta and others have been pushing the envelope on how they deliver these safety presentations. And by doing that, they've created some fantastically entertaining videos. How many of you now watch those videos when you're on a plane?

As a parallel, in the classroom, there is often a common pattern in how we craft the opening of our courses.

  • "Hi, my name is Dave. We've only got 6 hours and we've got a lot of material to cover. So let's get started."

  • "Before we get started, please introduce yourself, tell us how you found out about this course, what you want to learn today, 1-2 key challenges that you believe this course will help you address back on the job, and your job role and how long you've been with the company."

  • "Good morning. Before we get started, let’s see who’s here…Bueller?"

Wow, what a thrilling start to your course! Your students didn't see ANY of those intros coming! Instead, try opening with something unexpected.

I talked before about how I use an activity called 99 Seconds in the first 30 minutes of my Facilitation Basics Workshop. It's a fun, often-talked-about activity that lets my participants know this workshop is going to be different from anything else they've ever taken.

That’s how you break a pattern. In fact, that’s also how you..

Violate Expectations

Let's take a moment to play with the concept of schemas that we examined in the previous post. When I mention Customer Service, what do you think about? In the book, Chip and Dan Heath talk about Nordstrom and their phenomenal customer service. What makes it phenomenal? They do the unexpected - in other words, they violate (the existing) expectations about customer service.

Your students come into your course/classroom with expectations about what they will encounter.

  • The seating arrangement will be like it's always been - classroom style, with rows of tables and chairs.

  • You will have plenty of content-heavy slides to present, so it will mostly be you talking.

  • Which means they won't have to really pay attention or be involved.

  • The students who least want to be in your course - but were told by their managers to attend - will sit in the back, far from your reach.

How do you/can you violate such expectations?

  • Change up the seating arrangement. Instead of classroom style, set up smaller tables with 3-5 chairs. If you want to get crazy, start with a completely empty classroom.

  • Simplify your slides by minimizing content and using more visuals. Learn how to do this from one of the best, Nancy Duarte, in her book slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations.

  • Oh, but as you will learn in my Facilitation Basics online course (and my forthcoming Elevate Your Classroom Engagement online course), you can and should get them involved - early and often (e.g., 99 Seconds, Speed dating, Graffiti Mind maps, BINGO).

  • The classroom seating arrangement can support or hinder the execution of these activities. Also, when you change how your classroom is arranged, you have greater ability to move around the room. Use that to your advantage.

Highlight a Knowledge Gap

Have you ever stated something similar to the following in your course opening?

Having been in this business/industry (having been doing this) for the last 29 years, I've learned what it takes to create a unique, compelling and fun classroom environment.

There are specific things that you are consistently struggling with. And those things are holding you back from being a better instructor/trainer/educator and from creating a environment in which your students actually want to learn and do learn more.

By the end of today's course, you will be equipped to be a more engaging instructor/trainer/educator. You will have specific steps that will make you more successful. Whose ready to get started?

Taking this approach in your opening is a powerful way to answer their #1 question: What's In It For Me? (which can also be interpreted as Why did I sign up for this course?). Answer that question well and you will succeed in both capturing and holding their attention.

Something in Your Kitchen is Killing You...

Sometime in the months of November, February, May and July, you are likely to see the following promo from your local TV newscast during Nielsen Sweeps.

"Something In Your Kitchen Is Killing You. We'll Tell You What It Is On Action News Now At 11:00."

Although this is a clear attempt at boosting TV ratings during the time they are most accurately tracked by Nielsen, there is something really cool going on here, so hang with me.

Here's how it might play out:

  • It's 7:00 am and you're eating breakfast while catching up on the news. The "Something in your kitchen..." teaser above comes on in the form of a promo, and you dismiss it as soon as it's over. Or so you thought. The seed has been planted.

  • You drive to work to get your day going, but your brain is working, subconsciously, on resolving the question left unanswered by the news promo. You begin creating a mental checklist of what in your kitchen could be killing you.

  • Fast forward to the evening. You are now home from work, you have dinner with the family and everyone goes to bed.

  • It's almost 11:00 pm, so you decide to stay up "for a little while." You turn on the news and you see the promo again, this time with the promise of "Coming up..." Yeah, it comes up - at 11:25 pm - because it's going to be the very last story of the newscast.

And what is that thing in your kitchen that is killing you? [Wait for it....] Your dirty sponge!

You are now simultaneously relieved to have the answer and really annoyed as to what the answer actually is. "Dirty sponge" wasn't on your mental checklist.

Finally, you head to bed, glad that this exercise in mental torture is over...until tomorrow's Five foods you shouldn't be eating promo.

We've all been there, right? But exactly what did the newscast accomplish?

  • Believe it or not, they successfully managed to capture and hold your attention all day long.

  • You thought about this issue off-and-on all day long.

  • You kept adding items to your mental checklist all day long.

  • You stayed up late to learn the answer and close the loop.

Imagine creating such a promo for your training course? One that captured and held the attention of the students who registered for your course. A promo so powerful that your students simply could not wait for your course to begin. Imagine that!

What's one thing you can do this week to be more Unexpected in your classroom?


As Chief EMU Wrangler at The EMU Experience, LLC, Ken helps learning professionals deliver engaging, memorable and unexpected learning experiences. By teaching practical techniques to purposefully increase student engagement, along with methods that incorporate creativity into the design and delivery process, Ken can help you create a learning experience that is engaging, memorable and unexpected.

Got questions? Email Ken –

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