I’ve got a surprise for you!
Wanna know what it is?
Well, then it wouldn’t be a surprise, would it?
OK, I’ll tell you anyway…
You have the surprising ability to surprise yourself.
Not what you were expecting? Well, therein lies the surprise.
Mastering the element of surprise is key to a great story.
Great stories provide surprises in the form of plot twists throughout, keeping audiences on the edge of their seats until the end.
“Wow, I didn’t see that coming!” they say. “What a great story!”
Your developing story is full of surprises… aren’t you excited to discover how it turns out?
But wait, you say, I don’t like surprises! Like that one time in 7th grade when your friends jumped out at you from the bushes in Halloween masks and you were so surprised you peed your pants just a little bit.
(Not that that’s ever happened to me, of course… purely hypothetical situation I would never recall 30 years later…)
Maybe you’re a bit of a control freak. You want to know how everything is going to turn out (perfect and precisely according to plan!)
But you know what I call a story in which everything turns out perfectly and precisely according to plan?
Boring! That’s what I call it!
We have so few opportunities to truly surprise people – ourselves included.
At the very least, surprise moments become a story worthy of re-telling.
Take last week at a major conference when I shared a lunch table with a health and wellness speaker. Not just any speaker, but my friend Caryn Sullivan of Pretty Wellness.
I was not surprised Caryn was going to eat a healthy lunch – after all, that’s her line of work helping the super busy with self-care.
I did not expect, however, that she would pull out of her purse a FULLY-COOKED VEGAN SAUSAGE to add to her garden salad.
Yes, she did that.
The table chatter stopped. Caryn explained the story of how the fully cooked vegan sausage came to be in her purse and how she typically preps for a busy day with other healthy eating hacks. And it led to an upbeat and laughing conversation about our busy lives and how we can better take care of ourselves and what size purse one needs to hold a fully cooked vegan sausage.
There were many, many details shared that day among dozens of conference attendees. I can say with certainty that while we may forget many people we met that day, we will all remember Caryn, the woman who snuck a vegan sausage into the conference lunch in her purse.
Surprises can help us see people in a different light.
Last year I had an in-depth conversation with an extremely mild-mannered, polite, and professional friend about our potential futures during which she revealed her desire to take her career in an entirely new direction.
I don’t know what I expected she’d say. But I did not expect her to confidently announce her plans to someday open a medical marijuana dispensary.
I was so surprised, I could only respond with “I did not expect you to say that!”
Her surprising statement made me see her in an entirely new and three-dimensional way. And I have no doubt, however unexpected this twist in her story, she’ll be successful in this new field.
In what ways are you offering surprising details about yourself?
Some years back I had a conversation with a difficult co-worker, one who always placed blame on others rather than accepting it herself. We had a heart-to-heart and I fully expected another “pass the buck” response. Instead, she sat thoughtfully for a moment and then replied “Thank you for your honesty in pointing that out to me. I can and will do better.”
That surprise was a turning point in our working relationship. It also allowed me to look at my own confirmation bias – how often I presume people will act in familiar ways and how I need to be open to changing my mindset that others are capable of changing theirs.
By positively illustrating unexpected characteristics we can open surprising opportunities in our lives.
Sometimes surprises take you entirely by surprise.
Some surprises catch us totally off-guard. Like when you are in the ladies’ room, a good 45 minutes before you are due to deliver a keynote, and the conference organizer rushes in and informs you, worriedly, that they are “a bit ahead of schedule” and would you mind going on a little sooner… like, now?
Yes, that happened. And yes I finished and flushed and got focused on getting on stage. (And yes, of course, I washed my hands first… did I really need to confirm that?)
You can prepare yourself to anticipate surprises before they catch you by surprise.
But what about when surprises aren’t a good thing at all? You didn’t expect the job to dissolve, the relationship to end, or the diagnosis to be made.
Trust in your ability to surprise yourself with how you can rise to the occasion to meet your storyline wherever it goes.
You get to write this story daily and while you might not always control the plot twists, you always have the ability to respond in new and surprising ways.
You can surprise yourself by considering the value of surprises.
We tend to remember surprises more than routine moments. Changing our routine in surprisingly simple ways can challenge preconceived or limiting notions.
So when did you last surprise yourself? When do you try something out of your routine, out of the ordinary, to see what you are fully capable of?
If you normally sit quietly in the back of the room, take a seat at the table, and speak up even when you are afraid.
If you frequently work yourself to exhaustion, surprise yourself with the space you can develop by establishing boundaries.
If your typical M.O. is to fret about the future, breathe with confidence that you can handle whatever comes your way.
It should come as no surprise that you have the complete capability to master the element of surprise.
It’s your story, which surprises await?
Valerie Gordon is a career and communications strategist who uses the principles of storytelling to help clients ascend the leadership ladder. A former award-winning television producer and the founder of The Storytelling Strategist, she knows what makes a story meaningful and memorable and speaks at conferences about storytelling for impact and influence.