I have a challenge for you. Don’t think about a pizza. Avoid all thoughts of delicious pizza. You especially should not think about a deep-dish pizza.
I’m sorry, you lost. You definitely thought about pizza. And chances are, unless you’ve never seen a deep-dish pizza, your mind went there as well.
This is an example of what researchers call ironic process theory, in which the deliberate attempt to suppress an unwanted thought makes it more likely to surface. One fascinating experiment with this theory showed how trying to suppress thoughts affects behavior. Three groups of participants received different instructions before they were asked to compare two brands of chocolate. The first group was asked not to think of eating chocolate. The second was asked specifically to think about eating chocolate. The third group wasn’t given any specific instructions. Interestingly, each group rated the chocolates similarly, but people who were told to suppress their thoughts about chocolate actually ate more chocolate.
You’ve seen this in your life. You stand on the golf course and repeat in your head, “Don’t slice it, don’t slice it, don’t slice it.” What happens? You slice it. At breakfast, your significant other puts that 80s pop song in your head, and you think, “Dammit, stop thinking about Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” What happens? By lunch, you’re singing “Welcome to your life… there’s no turning back.”
But the attempt to suppress thoughts works well as a technique for creating great content. And, no I don’t mean peppering your copy with the words “Don’t think about my brand.”
One of the more difficult things to do in storytelling for business is to introduce the hero’s flaws to create dramatic tension.
For example, I’m helping a large software company structure their customer stories to make them more meaningful than just “problem meets solution.” One of our goals is to illustrate the emotional and psychological transformations customers go through that allow them to grow or advance. The key is to do that without making the customer seem weak.
We discovered that depicting our hero (in this case the customer) actively trying to avoid thinking about a certain topic helped. For example, in a customer story where Jane is our hero we might write:
“Jane knew the CIO was correct. Staying with on-premises software and hardware would be challenging for so many reasons. But when she thought about it more, the wrongness was even more evident. It wasn’t the cost that kept her up at night. That was a challenge that could be solved. No, it the thought of the anger and frustration of customers trying to visit their websites but finding they were down. That’s something she’d have to deal with personally. She pushed that thought away and quickly opened up her laptop. It was time to get to work.”
In storytelling, showing a character trying to avoid thinking about something lets you demonstrate the pain point (while avoiding blaming them for the problem) and sets the suppressed thought in readers’ minds.
Soon, they begin to see it everywhere.
Psychologists will tell you that the way to overcome the effects of trying to suppress thoughts is to let go of them. If you don’t want to think about deep dish pizza, just acknowledge the thought when it appears and then think about something else. It’s not the thinking about pizza that leads you to eat more pizza. It’s trying to suppress the thought of pizza that leads to more pizza.
Perhaps you can incorporate the power of telling someone not to think of something into the next story you create. Just don’t think about how hard it is to create great content. No, really, I’m serious, don’t. Just think about great content. That’s the better thought.
It’s your story. Tell it well.