Years ago, in a Graduate Public Speaking course being the somewhat rebel I was, I started off my assigned presentation quoting a popular tag line from a then current television anti-diarrhea commercial. Now that I have your attention, I continued to the confused faces, I’d really like to tell you about, and I went on to present my speech.
The professor was not amused and I’m afraid that it showed quite clearly in my grade.
People don’t tend to like being shocked. We associate being shocked with something that is bad and why wouldn’t we? We’ve seen it used in shock therapy to jolt brains into resetting themselves, in shock collars to stop dogs’ behavior, in the continued disastrous earth movement shock waves after an earthquake, and even in jokes rings that forever make us suspicious of shaking hands with that person again.
People don’t like being shocked but, and here’s the important thing, people like to talk about something that is shocking.
Did you see the Super bowl advertisement where sweet, demure Betty White got tackled into the mud? Shocking.
Have you been following the Tiger Woods escapades? I’m shocked beyond words on that one.
Shock in itself is a powerful tool that absolutely demands attention. We wake up. We look. We talk about it.
And while we may believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity, bad shock can do some hefty damage to a reputation. Just try being photographed in public without wearing underwear and see how your reputation can suffer in a flash. Shock in bad taste can be equally as damaging. (Red paint on a fur coat anyone?)
Shock delivered with humor is one of the best attention grabbing techniques out there. Delivering a well timed punch line “same as in town Father” does the purpose of waking us up and making us think in a different direction. It’s a gentle prodding shock. It tickles us into awareness instead of jolting us. An unexpected humorous twist sensibly shocks us.
Ah but here’s the rub with that one. Some people are funny, some aren’t. Some writers are funny, most aren’t. If you’re not good at humor, for the love of Pete, leave it out of your writing.
So how do you know if you’ve hit the razor thin line between shock and effectiveness? Some guidelines for using shock techniques:
- Shock does not equal abuse – the purpose is not to outrage your audience, instead you want to wake them up, take note of where they are, and do something. Offensive wording or action (seen a SAW movie lately?) is not shock, it’s simply offensive.
- Shock can’t mislead – some of the angriest comments on the news websites are when shocking headlines mislead the reader. Sure the headline got the reader to read the article but it left him feeling cheated and feeling as if his time was wasted.
- Test the shock – what may sound edgy to you, might sound appalling to others. I tend to think that Dead Baby jokes are hilarious – my mother does not. I have enough sense to not use them in my writing.
- Use shock sparingly – like any technique, if overused, it then becomes the standard. Listen to an hour’s worth of any of these shock-jocks on the radio and you have the routine down. They become repetitive and boring making you switch to another station. They lose their audience.
- You don’t need to lead with shock – although they sound like odd bedmates, some of the best shock is subtle and buried only to rise when least expected
- On the other hand, sometimes a good initial shock can grab someone’s attention –when you are competing in a pack, sometimes you need to get noticed first, the graphic description of a crime scene (a technique used in all of those crime shows) - you've got my attention.
Shock as effective as it can be can also be disastrous. It’s definitely an advanced writing skill that you either have a sense for or don’t. It’s much like a comedienne with the timing of his humor. Although everyone likes to think they are a comedienne, in reality, there are only a few really gifted ones. Someone who can handle shock in writing is a skilled writer indeed.
Shock and awe, it’s not just a military tactic, when used in writing and presentations, it’s also a tremendously effective way to get one’s attention. In the right hands, one can use shock to grab the audience, revitalize them goading them into action. In the wrong hands, as exemplified in my younger days, if done poorly it simply becomes an embarrassment that may be dulled throughout the years but never really seems to go away.
So how do you handle using shock? Something you effectively use or something you wouldn’t touch with that proverbial ten foot pole?
About the author: Wendy Thomas is a journalist, columnist and writer. She has taught undergraduate and graduate classes in Technical Writing and Instructional Design.