I’ll admit, I don’t know much about baseball, but I am aware of one thing: a good changeup is a remarkably effective tool for a pitcher. To the average batter, a changeup pitch will look like a fastball when it leaves the pitcher’s hand, only to realize far too late that it’s actually traveling much more slowly. After a series of fastballs a batter learns when to swing, but a changeup throws off their timing and gets the strike.
In a sport where a strong arm has become a commodity, a changeup helps pitchers break the pattern of fastballs to get the ball past the plate.
In our daily lives we pitch emails like fastballs, and busy people with overloaded inboxes have timed their swing to make it easy to swat emails away. There is a tool to throw off their timing and get your pitch across home plate. It’s the business developer’s version of a changeup pitch that I call the Pattern Interrupt.
The pattern interrupt, as the name might suggest, is when you introduce a change to an otherwise repeated pattern.
Why would we want to interrupt a pattern? Because when something becomes part of a pattern, it becomes easy to overlook. When your email is just one of a hundred emails someone receives in a day, then the well-crafted content inside may be overlooked. Interrupting the pattern helps you and your message to stand out.
The Psychology of Patterns
Our brains are wired to classify the things we see into patterns, a phenomenon that psychologists call feature analysis.
Feature analysis is a hugely useful skill that helps us get us through our daily lives. Take learning to read as an example: when we learn to read, we’re learning how to recognize letters by its features.
When we see the letter “R”, we recognize the features that comprise it – a loop, a vertical line, and a slash – and that lets us immediately decide that it is the letter “R.” Over time, we become so good at recognizing these patterns that we start to gloss over the features and see entire words at a glance. Eventually we become so good at recognizing the features that make up the letters and words that we don’t even realize we’re looking at individual loops and lines. We see the pattern so clearly that we learn to ignore it.
The same thing happens when we reach out to busy people via email.
In the early days of the Internet, when email was new and novel, it wasn’t hard for your message to get read. Every email was unique and novel and compelling. But nowadays, most people are so accustomed to a constant barrage of communication that it’s incredibly difficult for any given message to stand out. Every email becomes a set of features that dissolve into a pattern — your message becomes a loop, a line, or a slash that easily blends into the background and gets ignored.
Getting Through with Pattern Interrupts
We can overcome that by using a pattern interrupt to change the way we communicate our message. Pattern interrupts come in several forms:
1. Alternate Mode of Communication
Patient persistence is a thoughtful approach that can be applied to keep you top of mind for a prospective contact. But when your finely-crafted, value-delivering message gets lost in one mode of communication, try another mode.
Not getting a response from someone by email? Pick up the phone. Tweet at them. Write a comment on their blog. Fill out the “Contact Us” form on their company’s website. Get a secondary intro. Send them a handwritten letter. Show up at a conference where they’re attending and introduce yourself in person.
Most of us rely on a single form of communication as our primary means of connecting with others. That establishes a pattern that is difficult to break through on that channel. Interrupt that pattern by reaching out via an alternate mode of communication, and you might just get their attention.
2. From Ask to Give
When we reach out to someone, we often come calling with an “ask”: we’re requesting their time, their information, or their resources. It becomes easy for people to quickly recognize the features that comprise of an ask, which forms a pattern of requests to dismiss or ignore.
A way to interrupt that pattern is to come bearing gifts — reach out not with an “ask” but a “give”. Proactively offering something of value to someone, without any stated expectation of receiving something in return, interrupts the pattern of asks.
What can you offer? Feedback on their product. An invitation to an event. A speaking engagement opportunity. An introduction someone else that may be useful. A link to an article they might like. Even a compliment on their blog (ahem).
When being a “taker” categorizes you into a pattern, being a giver is an easy way to break the mold.
3. Surprise and Delight
The tactic of “surprise and delight” is a mainstay of brands and agencies looking to generate customer loyalty and marketing buzz. Giving customers unexpected gifts and memorable experiences is an effective way for marketers to break through the traditional patterns of advertising that are so easy for jaded consumers to ignore.
But you don’t need a multi-million dollar advertising budget to surprise and delight the people whose attention you’re seeking. Just ask my friend Cara Braude.
After a successful career running partnerships for companies like Starwood Hotels, UrbanDaddy, and Tasting Table, Cara was intrigued by a job posting that she found on the International Marketing team at one of her favorite brands, J. Crew.
As a Canadian expat, Cara knew that her credentials and local market knowledge would be a valuable asset in positioning her for the job. But Cara was not content to have her experience blend into a pattern of resumes and risk being overlooked by the H.R. department.
Instead, Cara interrupted the usual patterns of the hiring process by sending a “Box of Goodies” to J. Crew’s head of International Marketing. The package, which contained a selection of Canadian snacks in a crisply packaged box, clearly conveyed the message that she was a uniquely qualified candidate with a creative bend. The message was meaningful and valuable, but it was the same message as she could have conveyed on a resume submitted through an online job application . But by using a creative means to surprise and delight her intended audience, she found a powerful way to break through the noise of the traditional hiring process, avoid being pinned to a pattern, and find her way in front of her target.
The Pattern Interrupt, like Patient Persistence and the Secondary Intro, is a valuable tool to standing out and being heard. Just don’t forget the most important rule of getting in the door: once you’re invited inside, it’s time to deliver the value.
Know another way to interrupt a pattern? Got a tip for Getting in the Door? Leave a comment and let us know!