How A Star was Born in a Moment of Surprise

In just six minutes an unknown, unemployed Scottish singer burst onto the international music scene as a contestant on the TV show Britain’s Got Talent. It was a real-life version of the “Ugly Duckling” fairy tale. It is also a fine example of the power of the surprise that lies at the pivot point of our perceptions.

Before the show, Susan Boyle had only sung in churches and local singing competitions, but afterwards the video of her audition on TV went viral, with 186 million views.  Her studio album of the song she performed, I Dreamed a Dream, became the best-selling debut album of all time in the UK, and the second best-selling album in the US in 2009.

Here’s the video, which captures the exact moment of the birth of a musical supernova:

Susan Boyle Sings “I dreamed a dream”.

To understand why this video was so successful, let’s look at some data that Ameritest collected shortly after the audition.

We showed the video to a sample of 200 consumers that had not yet seen the video, nor heard of Susan Boyle.  Nine out of ten people in the research audience rated the video as entertaining and unique—and inspiring.

The reason the video is so engaging isn’t just because of Susan’s joyful performance, but also because of how our expectations are framed by the opening interview. Here are a couple of telling comments by members of the test audience:

“At first, I thought Susan would make a fool out of herself—starting with the cheekiness. But she proved us all wrong with her beautiful voice—An awesome performance.”


“At first, I thought it was a joke, and this woman shouldn’t have been up there. Plus, she’s not attractive. But when she started to sing, she was beautiful.”

In other words, the brief interview during the opening minute of the video lowers audience expectations for Susan’s performance—and even makes some of us cringe in anticipation that she would embarrass herself.  

Audience reactions mirror those of the judges. Simon Cowell in particular, with an eye-roll, becomes the focal point of negativity—which we can see in this graph of positive and negative audience emotions flowing through the video:

The dramatic structure of this video is one of four different story archetypes commonly used in advertising. This one we call an emotional pivot. With this structure, as you can see in the graph, the mental state of the audience flips instantaneously from a strong negative to strong positive, like a phase transition from ice to water at 32 degrees F.

From a design standpoint, the goal is to create as much emotional contrast between the before and after parts of the scene. And as long as it is shown at the boundary between the two emotion states, the brand will get psychological credit in associative memory for “causing” the negative to turn into the positive. That’s the reason, for example, that problem-solution advertising works.  

Many marketers these days, in our age of toxic social media, are wary of associating their brands with negative emotions.  But negative emotions, inside a story, play a vital role in telling a good story. The bigger the obstacles that the hero has to overcome, the better the story.

Negative emotions, it turns out, are also key to the success of this video. We know this because we tested a second version of the video where we cut the opening interview, and just showed Susan’s singing performance by itself. These re-test results, while still strong, were weaker than for the version that included the opening negatives.

It turns out that the negative emotions were the perfect set up of the moment of surprise when Susan began to sing.  And in that moment, the audience turned, from skeptics to fans.

In that moment of surprise, Susan Boyle released her hidden, inner self and let her beauty shine through.  It’s an inspirational message for all of us who shyly hide our talents from the world. It’s the same message conveyed by my favorite quote from Nelson Mandela’s, from his 1994 inaugural speech as President of South Africa:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.  Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.  It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.  We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?  Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.  There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.  We were born to manifest the glory of God within us.  It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

—Nelson Mandela

And that’s how a shining star was born.  

1 thought on “How A Star was Born in a Moment of Surprise

  1. Pingback: What Are Your Odds of Success? | See Why

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