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Information as Surprise - Harness Claude Shannon's Key Idea

How do you measure how much information a statement contains? The short answer is surprise.

If you live in Los Angeles and I told you the weather tomorrow would be sunny, you would receive no information from me. It’s sunny there every day. But if I told you Salesforce intends to buy Uber to ferry salespeople to their prospects, that would be interesting!

Claude Shannon invented this idea, information as surprise. His theories enabled modern-day computing, with many others contributing. And if you’re curious about that chronology, read the sublime book The Dream Machine, but let’s stick with information as surprise for this post.

Clickbait, those attention grabbing headlines all over the internet, thrive because they shock us, grab our attention. Those eye-catching articles are the grocery aisle tabloids of our generation.

TED talks benefit from the same concept: short talks with leaders in a domain who astonish us with insight about our world and ourselves: how we carry ourselves changes our confidence, how education impinges creativity, or how an outbreak would impact the world according to Bill Gates in 2014.

We see this in software, too. Intrusion prevention systems alert engineers to potential breaches. If that system spews out false alarms all day, the system provides no insight. But if it reports few accurate anomalies, it’s invaluable. Equally so for a Looker dashboard that shows revenue spiked last week in California.

The next time you find yourself astonished, amazed, stupefied, or dumbfounded, recall Shannon’s theory of information content. Use it to your advantage whenever you present, write, or discuss. The hook, that idea that captures an audience, the challenger sale which provokes a sales prospect to think differently about a product, the unexpected connection in an outbound email - all of these evoke surprise.

This idea is so powerful that it spawned modern computing. At the same time, it can teach us how to liven up our small talk.