How to Use Incongruity to Keep Your Customers Interested

Incongruity-Resolution Theory

HELLO! Boy howdy, your face is fantastic.

Today we’re gonna be talking more about how that big ol’ brain of yours processes humor.

(This is Part 2 in an extremely slow-going but worth-the-wait series entitled Why Your Brand’s Gotta Be Funny. Read Part 1 here.)

Specifically: today we’ll look at how the brain processes “incongruity,” and what a teensy moment of disconnect has to do with making you snort-laugh.

This is my all-time favorite “Wait, what??” GIF. You will see it in all of my slide decks.

First: What’s incongruity?

Incongruity is a mismatch between what we see or understand to be true and what we (consciously or unconsciously) expected.

We realize that something doesn’t match up. We struggle to understand why. And then we experience a sudden, shocking shift in perspective as our brains adjust to the new reality.

That’s the moment where funny happens — where we “solve the problem” and “get the joke”.

There are a few different incongruity theories and approaches (the rabbit hole goes pretty deep) and at least a dozen full books! To get into all of the various theories here would require me to be a heartless supercomputer, which *beep boop* I am definitely not.

For now, let’s focus on incongruity-resolution.

These theories suggest that humor arises as a result of that problem-solving process. So how does the problem-solving process actually work?

I love this Incongruity-Resolution Model by Jerry Suls (1972), adapted by Rod A. Martin:

Jerry Suls Incongruity-Resolution Model, adapted by Martin

As you can see, our brains predict the outcome of a story or setup.

If we’re right, we’re not surprised, and we don’t laugh.

If our predictions are wrong, we’re surprised. We examine the story or setup for a “rule” that would allow the incongruity to make sense.

If we don’t find that rule, we’re confused. But when we do find the rule, we “get” the joke and laugh!

This double-entendre one-liner is a great example of having to think for a second to find the “rule” or interpretation that makes the joke funny:

“Remains to be seen if glass coffins become popular.”

(where I found this)


Imagine taking a sip of a delicious, creamy red smoothie.

Your mouth and brain are expecting strawberry. So it’s pretty jarring when your tongue registers “OH SHIT, THIS IS KETCHUP.”

Womp womp.

Now, that experience might not be ha-ha funny (at least not to you, or not at the time) but it’s a perfect illustration of how it feels to expect one thing and get something different.

Tons of standup comedy is built on laying expectations, and then flipping or changing the joke’s resolution to something the audience doesn’t expect.

For example, consider this joke from Emo Phillips:

“I learned about sex the hard way — from books!”

One of my favorite, most meta examples of incongruity-resolution is from the brilliant Dan Gilbert. While explaining the brain’s tendency to always be “nexting” (predicting the future), Gilbert tosses out this perfect sentence:

“As long as your brain’s guess about the next word turns out to be right, you cruise along happily, left to right, left to right, turning black squiggles into ideas, scenes, characters, and concepts, blissfully unaware that your nexting brain is predicting the future of the sentence at a fantastic rate. It is only when your brain predicts badly that you suddenly feel avocado.”

Reader, I cackled.

Incongruity by itself isn’t necessarily funny

It’s important to remember that while incongruity is a vital ingredient of humor most of the time, incongruity by itself isn’t automatically funny.

If you were walking on the sidewalk and you got hit by a car, that’d be incongruous. But I bet you wouldn’t think it was funny! This example borrowed from Rod A. Martin’s The Psychology of Humor, a textbook with which I am straight obsessed.

Why did the monkey fall from the tree? Because it was dead.

(where I found this)

Where to use incongruity in your marketing

Like other approaches to humor, incongruity can fit neatly into lots of different spots in your marketing strategy.

But one place it’s super-effective? The top of the funnel, where you need to snag attention FAST.

Spot #1: Use incongruity at the top of your funnel to get attention

PPC ads, videos, and email opt-in popups are all fair game for grabbing someone’s attention, making them say “Wait, what?” and then flipping the script on them.

Here’s an opt-in I screenshotted from Paris fashion designer (and Punchline subscriber!) Striiiipes. This opt-in is hidden behind a tiny footer link that says “Don’t click here”:

via Striiipes

This introduces incongruity. Why wouldn’t you want me to click around your site??

When you do click that little link, you’re treated to the resolution:

via striiipes


One of my favorite parts of my own top-of-funnel setup is a lil ol’ page on PunchlineCopy.com called “Secret Cat”.

Users click a link in one of my first few onboarding emails to tell me more about themselves — and as a reward, they’re whisked straight to a page featuring a photo of my ridiculous cat lying upside-down.

sg upside down

This is not the same photo. He’s just usually upside-down.

Presumably, Secret Cat is not what my readers were expecting. But the experience of “finding” him is generally beloved.

(Or so I assume. 😬 Hey, people stay on the list.)

Viral video ads tend to use an incongruous or unbelievable setup as a hook to keep viewers watching, and then flip the script on their expectation.

Harmon Brothers is especially great at this. Just watch the opening of this Poo-Pourri spot, which they made:

You see a perfectly groomed, fancily dressed, beautiful woman (with a British accent — which is automatically more authoritative to American ears). Then you hear her declare, “You would not believe the motherlode I just dropped.”

That prooooobably wasn’t what you were expecting.

And you probably snickered a little bit. Boom: incongruity accomplished. You’ll keep watching. (This is just one of tons of successful, viral ads Harmon Brothers has created along the same lines.)

I’d include an example of a PPC ad that uses incongruity, but I haven’t seen one because PPC ad copy is UNIVERSALLY SO FUCKING BORING.

Spot #2: Use incongruity throughout retention, too

The better you get to know your customers, and the better they get to know you, the more opportunities you’ll have to surprise them.

Also, getting to know your people is just good marketing practice. You make more relevant offers, they feel like you’re actually helpful, everybody wins!

/gingerly steps off soapbox to avoid spraining my ankle… again

One place to avoid incongruity? Pricing & transactions

While incongruity-based humor can be totally innocuous, you still don’t want to introduce potential confusion or distraction anywhere you need a reader to trust you.

Also, and hopefully this doesn’t really need to be said, but don’t intentionally set your readers up with an expectation and then disappoint them.

E.g. if you send an email that says something like, “What’s hot, starts with the letter S, and ends with the letters A-L-E?” Your readers will expect a sale.

So for the love of Blob, don’t then link them to a picture of bread with the caption “StALE TOAST!”

oh god

^^^ This was the worst example I’ve ever written. But you get it.

Be aware when your audience’s predictions become expectations, and try to exceed those expectations.

What are your favorite incongruity-resolution jokes or marketing moments? Hit me with ‘em in the comments!

“What does laughter mean? The greatest of thinkers, from Aristotle downwards, have tackled this little problem which has a knack of baffling every effort, of slipping away and escaping only to bob up again, a pert challenge flung at philosophical speculation.”

 – Henri Bergson, 1911

What I Wear to Write

[Note: Hilary Joyner of Cutie Cameras and a few other ladybloggers invited me to do a #bloggeroutfit post today. Get ready for some serious navel-gazing. –Lianna]


The write way to dress

Here’s how I feel about “writing clothes”: What you wear informs your comfort, and your comfort informs the tone (and sometimes the quality) of your writing. Bear with me, because there’s a happy middle ground here.

Comfort is paramount. But being too comfortable isn’t good either. After all, I’m working. Gotta get my brain in the game.

As I write this, I’m still in my pajamas. Why? I DON’T CARE ABOUT YOU, FELLOW SLOBS. But when I’m writing something important–say, a landing page to increase conversions–I’m probably going to want to wear pants.

If I have a solid writing day with no meetings (#blessed), I usually go for jeans or cutoffs, a comfy T-shirt, and flats. If I really don’t want anyone to bother me at the coffee shop (read: most days), I wear my glasses. They frame my BRF nicely.


You can have my T-shirts when you pry them from my cold, dead hands

You probably want one of these shirts now.
Hildegard T-shirt FTW.

I collect T-shirts on pure intuition, which has led me to acknowledge that:

1) They’re usually gray.

2) They must be insanely soft.

3) I like people to know that I know about cool things that they probably don’t know about.

My newest acquisition–this kickass band tee from my friends (and rock superstars) Hildegard–fits the bill. It’s just creepy enough, nice and long, and did I mention how soft it is? Perfect for writing. And doing everything else.

Please don’t make me take it off.

I feel naked without earrings

In high school/early college, I went through a phase wherein the bigger my earrings were, the better. I’m talking plate-sized, pressed-tin “LEO” astrology-themed danglers, big ol’ wooden circles, you name it. I loved them.

One day, something changed, and since then, I’ve preferred post earrings. Was it an invasion of the body snatchers, or my burgeoning maturity? Maybe it was Maybelline! We’ll never know.

Either way, my Etsy wishlist now bears witness to my love for delicate post earrings. And wooden furniture. And backpacks. And necklaces. OH MY GOD I WANT IT ALL.

Owl about town.
Hoooooo are you?

These adorable little owls were made by my pal Miss Malaprop, who also happens to be participating in the #bloggeroutfit post roundup! They’re the earring equivalent of a great T-shirt: cute but not too fancy, goes with everything, and can be worn multiple days in a row without anyone noticing the smell.

Flats are my jam

Look, I love heels. I have a closet full of beautiful heels that, if they could talk, would probably be croaking something like “Please…just let me die…” I bust out a pair about two or three times a year.

Maybe it’s my crippling lack of self-confidence, but most days, I’m happy being 5’8″ and walking comfortably.

eBay jelly flats!
Flat as hell and SPARKLY TO BOOT! (Get it?)

I got these insanely sparkly jelly flats on eBay for like, $5. I wear them on days when the sky is not quite ominous enough for rain boots, but you JUST KNOW that if you wear anything leather on your feet, you’ll get drenched.

Moment of silence for all the ruined suede flats out there.

Anyway, that’s usually what I wear to write! Was this the most self-indulgent post ever? If you think so, you probably haven’t read this one.

FASHION FRIDAY: Go for a Romp(er)

Fashion Friday #fashionfriday

My friend Megan and I have been hung up on rompers lately. There’s something about the freedom of having your shirt attached to your pants. You could do anything: climb a tree, do the can-can, drop-kick a hamster.

Obviously, it was time to find out what our Etsy romper options were. Here we go!

Clover Romper
Ken sold separately.

Here is a romper for those whose breasts defy gravity. Seller jordanderuiter clearly has a stockpile of lanky, doe-eyed brunettes just lying around to try on her designs.

Blue Jumpsuit
Mysteries of the universe: Where does her torso begin and end?

I don’t know why rompers are called jumpsuits once they have legs, but I guess we’re moving on to jumpsuits. Try this one from seller KSClothing on for size. I’m not sure, but I think it’s made out of blue raspberry cotton candy.

"Demure" Jumpsuit
If this is demure, I am a nun.

Then there’s this “demure” red option from seller ovonion. I suppose the fashion industry’s definition of demure has changed from “modest” or “concealed” to “only shows a little bit of nipple on its way to exposing your entire stomach”.

Black Jumpsuit
See that drop-waist? WINNING.

To finish on a high note, I’ll show you my favorite of all. This classy option from seller MDSewingAtelier reminds me of a silky black blouse I once bought from America’s fine purveyor of fashion trends: Target.

The difference is that I wouldn’t leave this jumpsuit in the backseat of my car, bleaching in the sun for months while I pretended I was going to return it.

Do you own a romper/jumpsuit?? Can I try it on?



Eulogy for Ilya Z.

I met Ilya Zhitomirskiy in eighth grade. He was new to Lusher School, and sat, as alphabetical order dictated, at the last chair of the last lab table in Mr. Donolo’s homeroom. He was small, thin, and enthusiastic, with perpetually clogged sinuses. He made interesting sartorial choices. He had a Russian accent, which I thought was charmingly exotic. His last name was impossible to spell.

Ilya was not very popular at Lusher. Conversations with him would often turn into wild adventures through his plans for elaborate inventions or problem-solving schemes, and not many middle-schoolers had the patience to listen. But I liked Ilya’s snark and odd humor, his sharp sly grin when Mr. Donolo called on him for an answer he didn’t have. I liked Ilya.

I was sad to hear that Ilya would not be following most of our class to Ben Franklin High School, instead moving first to Massachusetts and then to Philadelphia to attend Lower Merion High. In the two years that followed, he and I occasionally reconnected by phone: rambling late-night conversations punctuated by his thoughtful silences. Ilya would call me out of the blue, leaving me long messages with a casual invitation to call him back. It touched me that he remembered me enough to keep in contact. I’m good at remembering old friends and acquaintances, but even if I weren’t, it would have been impossible to forget Ilya.

In 2005, after Katrina, I ended up at a boarding school just outside of Philadelphia. On a rainy afternoon after class one day, I rushed to the Newtown train station and rode the SEPTA into Philly, where I met Ilya on a wet street corner. He’d grown a couple of inches, but mostly he looked the same. He was wearing a green plaid shirt and rainbow-streaked jeans with writing on the back of one thigh. We spent the afternoon walking around South Street and the surrounding neighborhoods, ducking into galleries; I probably spent a lot of it talking about the storm and how I didn’t feel like I was fitting in at my new school. When it started to rain harder, we went to the station to wait for my train back to the suburbs.

Ilya and I sat on the tiled floor of the platform, watching damp passengers hurry by. Spending the evening with him had made me want more; I sat hoping for a kiss while the red minutes changed on the station’s digital clocks. It didn’t happen, and I got on the train feeling as if I’d missed a chance at something.

In college, Ilya called me a few more times, and once or twice I called him. I didn’t know that, briefly, he also attended Tulane. We lost touch.

Last month, I searched for Ilya on Facebook and sent him a friend request, which he accepted. I looked at all of his photos–he’s smiling in almost every one–but didn’t write anything on his wall. I don’t know why I didn’t write to him immediately, to ask how he was doing, what he’d been up to. I was reminded to contact him every time I looked at my own profile, which boasted that I was “now friends” with Ilya. I just didn’t click over.

Today, I went to Ilya’s Facebook page, finally intending to get in touch. I started to type, “ilya! how are you?” and noticed that the post below what I was typing included the words “RIP Ilya.” I was too late. Ilya died nine days ago, on November 12, 2011, at the age of 22.

It’s hard for me to believe that there’s no way for me to talk to Ilya anymore, even though we hadn’t spoken in several years. I don’t understand how someone can just cease to exist–that there’s no channel through which I can reach him, that he’s just gone. It seems impossible that the cheerful, quirky boy I knew in middle school, who became a caring, passionate, brilliant mathematician and hacker, could bring his own existence to an end.

I spent this morning crying at work. But I almost feel as if my tears aren’t valid, because I didn’t know Ilya as well as I could have, as well as his friends or family or others he cared about. It’s like my grief is embarrassing, too much, like I’m not entitled to feel this sorrow. My life won’t change in any tangible way because Ilya is gone; I didn’t know he was dead and it’s already been nine days. I wanted to do something, to share my pain, but my impulse was not to, because it might be offensive to others who knew Ilya better, who are grieving in their own ways. I know that it’s all right to grieve, but I feel crushed. I’m angry at myself. If there was even the slightest chance that my getting in touch could have changed anything–but I know better than to think of that as a real possibility. What if I had reconnected with Ilya, just in time to lose him permanently? His number is in my phone, and I want to call it. My heart is breaking for those who shared their days with him, who knew the man he had grown into, who recognized his amazing potential and his generous spirit. How can it be that Ilya will never smile again?

Ilya, wherever you are now, you are loved.