Bill Gates, in his 2009 TED Talk, speaks about the affliction of malaria of 200 million people especially in poorer countries, and the need for education and eradication — and then does the unexpected.
Stating that malaria is spread by mosquitoes, he then releases a jar of these flying insects to roam into the air-conditioned auditorium with a sheepish smile. He says:
There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience. [5:14]
Members of the audience laughed and clapped.
Gates then reassured the audience that those mosquitoes had not been infected before continuing with his talk.
Carmine Gallo wrote about this in his book, The Storyteller’s Secret, and explains that if Gates were to develop his Powerpoint slides with charts, tables, data, and figures to explain the causes and impact of malaria, that would have met our expectations. Instead, Gates broke those expectations and made his ‘performance’ unforgettable; he ‘stung’ them with an experience. Gallo then references Professor Judee K Burgoon’s Expectancy Violations Theory, a communication theory developed in the 1970s which I will not expound on fully at this stage (because I think Gallo might have misinterpreted the applications of this theory).
Nonetheless, Gallo is right about creating opportunities to subvert expectations — because it creates stickiness and memorability. He describes Gates’ act: “He violated expectations, and in doing so, exceeded the expectations of his audience” (Gallo, 2016, p. 70)
Unexpectedness, for me, can work across three spheres: the Event, the Experience, and the Emotions.
Rethink Gates’ release of the mosquitoes.
It was unexpected because this was a TED talk, a one-way lecture. This is a formal Event. Yet he subverted the structural expectations of the event and made the audiences partake of a ‘be-bitten-and-suffer’ experience. Leaders (on stage) are supposed to ensure the physical safety of audience members. If a fire broke out, leaders (who are holding on to the microphone) should be making announcements for a safe exit. Yet, the gate was opened (no pun intended) to provoke audiences and create physical unease — with the need to look out for mozzies and avoid being bitten. This was not so appropriate, but it worked to shock and amuse them. They laughed with nervousness.
This touches on the second sphere of unexpectedness: Experience.
Better than raising hands in agreement with the speaker on stage (which is a common way to form agreement and consensus), Gates elicited a different unconscious kinesthetic response during the event, potentially with the swapping of hands to shoo mosquitoes away, or smacking them on their exposed arms. They were co-opted into an experience of poor people dying from malaria and other life-threatening diseases. He said it very succinctly and rather unabashedly that there’s no reason poor people should be entitled to such experiences alone; it should be shared with their wealthier counterparts too.
To a large extent, it worked on the principle of fairness and equitable distribution. It was an expected outcome, but an unexpected strategy in invoking that experience.
Next, the third sphere of expectation that should be subverted is Emotion. It is based on the theoretical concept that people lose themselves in a story through imagination or empathy (see Green and Brock, 2002).
Audience members must be thinking, “I am going to get bitten! What are you thinking, Bill? I don’t want to get malaria! Get out of here.”
This is the state of anxiety and panic, a heightened emotion — a state of intensified arousal that keeps us suspended in a cliffhanger story: is the hero going to die or not?
In this case, Bill Gates has inverted that narrative transportation question from the protagonists in poorer countries to us: “Am I going to die or not?”
We have been transported emotionally and imaginatively to become the unexpected protagonists of our own story to fight a common life-and-death disease.
This brilliant engagement works on our emotions. It gets us fired up. Because of that, we ‘get’ the ‘experience’, so we immediately have a sense of empathy strong enough for us to take action to help eradicate this problem, common to all.
It is a ‘one-for-all, and all-for-one’ expectation that engages us in this TED Talk:
If poorer nations are suffering with malaria (and Gates made a contrasting example that richer countries spent more money on hair products to prevent balding), then we should also share the same suffering. It is the expectation that fairness should be equally applied to all human beings. Because it was done with tact and humour, Gates’ tactic did not come across as an act of shaming richer nations.
That is a tightrope speakers need to walk on — knowing what social norms can be subverted, and what needs to be complied with. To walk forward.
Where the end becomes the beginning.