Learning from Janet in the shower

If I mention the word “psycho” to you, there’s a very good chance that a certain image will spring to mind. An image in black and white: water trickling into a shower drain, slowly being supplanted by a darker fluid, all punctuated by ear-piercing shrieks. There’s also a very good chance that you just shuddered a little.

Assuming that image flashed across your brain, you’re remembering Janet Leigh’s unexpectedly brief shower in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho.” It remains one of the most memorable scenes of American cinema – even of popular culture – even though it’s nearly five decades old.

What makes it so memorable? And why is that important to anyone whose organization runs advertising, has a website, or communicates with customers and prospects in other ways? It’s simple: Sir Alfred understood the human mind and how to trigger the desired response.

Consider that all of Hitchcock’s most-loved movies are nearing their 50th birthdays, but continue to terrify audiences. In the years since his classics such as “Rear Window” and “The Birds” graced the screen, thousands of suspense and horror films have tried to capture our imaginations. Few even begin to approach the visceral terror that Sir Alfred always managed to stir. How could that be, given that today’s movies deliver increasingly plentiful portions of blood, gore and special effects?

Again, it’s simple. Hitchcock knew that the most effective horror wasn’t what played out on the screen. It was what happened inside the viewer’s mind.

Take Miss Leigh’s demise in “Psycho.” Today’s directors would spare no expense in giving us a colorful glimpse into her innards as Anthony Perkins performed his crude dissection. Blood, bile, and the occasional organ would splatter on the lens. We might be frightened, but I suspect most of us would instead focus on trying to retain the gallon of Coke and pound of Raisinets we downed during the coming attractions.

“We had to imagine the rest – and therein lies the key.”

But that crafty Sir Alfred? All he offered us was a shower curtain, some water, shadows, and a shrill soundtrack – all in shades of boring black and white at the peak of the Technicolor era. We had to imagine the rest – and therein lies the key.

You see, human imagination is more powerful than any word, any visual, any piece of music, or any technological tool. And the wise advertiser (or anyone else skilled at influencing opinions) knows that.

It’s a concept called “discovery,” in which the consumer of the message is presented with the dots and then must connect them on his or her own to create the picture. But the power of the imagination is only part of the reason that it’s such an effective approach.

The consumer has to become actively involved with the message. He or she must focus his or her full attention – even if just for a moment – on making the connections. The brain must be fully engaged with the subject matter, so it can create its own conclusions.

I’ll never claim to be a neuroscientist, but I know from experience that making the brain focus and perform that work imprints the message on the mind. It becomes more meaningful – and what’s even more important is that it becomes far more memorable.

Keep that in mind as you create (or direct) your organization’s own communication efforts. If you treat your customer or prospect as intelligent, and focus on involving and engaging his or her mind, your effort will be far more effective and memorable than your competitors who simply shove a volume of information in his or her face.

The next time some “expert” tells you that your advertising and other tools must be completely straightforward and spew all the pertinent facts at the most basic level, think of the shower at the Bates Motel. You’ll see the shadows, hear the music, and know that Mr. Expert is dead … wrong.