The Missing Emotion

What’s new and exciting about the message you just wrote?

Could you have sent it a month ago or a month from now? Does it make clear what’s next? If the recipient of your message tried to, could they pretty much predict the content?

And perhaps the most important question of all: What’s surprising in what you have to share.

Fear. Joy. Hope. Despair. Of all the emotions we invoke in conversations with our audiences, perhaps the most overlooked is the element of surprise. Ask yourself this:

When was the last time you really surprised your audiences?

If we want to capture peoples’ attention and make an emotional connection, we should try our best to surprise and even delight our audiences. Perhaps it seems odd to be talking about these fun, positive emotions in a year so fraught with drama.  But that’s exactly the point. 

Across so many causes this year – democracy and the elections, reproductive rights, climate change, gun violence, debilitating wars, and more – fear will and must be a key element in our messaging. But, we can’t engage and persuade our audiences on a steady diet of crisis and alarm.

Why does surprise matter so much? As author Nancy Harhut reminds us, “The human brain is hardwired to predict what will happen next. But when your customer does not see what they expect to, that person will be surprised. Surprise can be beneficial to marketers in two ways. When people are surprised, it focuses their attention and it intensifies their emotions.”

Surprise: A Relationship-Shaping Emotion

Surprise doesn’t just impact the immediate conversation. It can elevate the whole relationship between your cause and its supporters. Once again, let’s borrow insights from the commercial world. Here’s a customer experience scale put forward by Melina Palmer, host of The Brainy Business podcast.


As Palmer notes “Many people assume there is a linear relationship between dissatisfaction, satisfaction and delight, but it doesn’t work that way. You can’t do more of what is satisfactory to get someone delighted, because “super satisfied” is still just satisfied.”

What’s the key element in making the jump from satisfied to delighted? Barry Berman, an academic who has closely studied the issue, offers this. “Whereas customers are typically satisfied through the meeting or exceeding of expectations, delight requires a mixture of joy and surprise.”

Palmer cites a Mercedes Benz study showing the likelihood of getting repeat business by level of customer satisfaction:

Dissatisfied – 10% 

Satisfied — 29%

Delighted — 86%

So, if surprise is so powerful, how do we incorporate it into our nonprofit messaging? In The Brands & Brains Newsletter, Matt Johnson PhD offers a useful formula for using surprise to elevate your audience’s experiences.

A Good Experience + Surprise = A Great Experience

For example, receiving a timely, warmly-worded thank you letter is a good experience. That letter sharing news of an unexpected breakthrough on the issue at hand is a great experience.

Taking the conversation in an unexpected direction, adopting a unique angle of vision on a problem, introducing new and unanticipated facts, displaying data in a new and unique fashion. These are all ways you can seek to surprise your audience and set your message apart.  

But in the nonprofit world, perhaps the most compelling way to surprise people is with your substantive work. Two quick examples:

On November 9,  2016 progressive donors were shell-shocked by Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton. Many groups struggled to find their footing in an unexpected and alarming new reality. But just hours after Trump’s victory was declared, the ACLU responded with four simple words: See You in Court. They warned they would take immediate action if Trump violated peoples’ rights. Then, days after he took office, they followed up by winning a legal victory challenging his Muslim ban.

By acting confidently – and quickly – the ACLU surprised and reassured donors at a critical moment reinforcing the group’s identity as a sure-footed, never-back-down group they could count on.  

Another example: Less than a week after a huge tsunami hit in Southeast Asia, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) surprised its donors by announcing that, after a massive donor response, it had the funds needed to respond to the situation and would no longer be accepting gifts targeted to the crisis. 

Despite the announcement, MSF still received tens of millions of dollars beyond the funds required for its tsunami response. So they contacted their donors asking permission to unrestrict their donations so they could be used for other emergencies and forgotten crises. Of all the people contacted, only 1% asked for their donations to be refunded as opposed to redirected.

MSF’s unprecedented action and transparency helped reinforce peoples’ understanding of the organization as a straightforward, principled and authentic actor.

Repetition is a key part of our messaging strategies.  We have to drive home critical elements of our core organizational narrative over time. But we can’t do it by saying the same thing the same way over and over. Search out new language, new stories and new angles of vision that get that core narrative across.

It’s great to report back on work your audiences helped move forward and progress they helped achieve. But, if you stop there, you have a cultivation message, not a response-generating one. Make sure you’re conveying future-facing details about “can’t wait” work that lies right ahead.

Most of us understand the need to provide “what’s next” information to our audiences. There’s a good reason we don’t do it as often as we should. We just don’t have the goods. Inside most organizations, the pipeline from program staff to communicators is way better at relaying what has been done than what is coming up. It’s not easy but finding ways to access future-facing plans, events and developments early enough to convey them to your audiences is vitally important.

One approach I’ve found helpful is engaging program staff in a “case and calendar” conversation. Review the core ideas you hope to convey over time and then calendar out upcoming moments, projects and events that bring that case to life.

From time to time, it’s a useful exercise to review the messages you’re sending and just catalog the emotions being invoked by each element in your communications. For one thing, you might identify places where emotion is lacking altogether. But you can also inventory whether you’re treading too heavily in one emotional direction or another.  And you can see if surprise and delight are showing up where they should be.

Remember Matt Johnson’s formula: A good experience + surprise = a great experience. Then, incorporate the search for elements of surprise as a key part of how you develop creative projects. Better yet, brainstorm and come up with a series of surprise interventions that fit the character and culture of your organization – ideas you can draw on over time.

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