A good story surprises us

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 19, 2023
Filed in Business storytelling, Communication

I can think of nothing that an audience won’t understand. The only problem is to interest them; once they are interested they understand anything in the world. 

—Orson Welles1

A good story tells us something new. It doesn’t have to blow our minds. It might just raise our eyebrows a little. 

If you find the story interesting, there is a good chance others will.

So what’s interesting?

Of course, there are so many things that can be interesting. For example, we find stories that deny an old truth intriguing.2 They linger in our minds. 

Here are some possibilities from Murray Davis’s fascinating article from 1971.

  • What seems to be good is actually bad, or vice versa. 
  • What seems to be structured is, in fact, unstructured, or vice versa.
  • What seems to be stable is, in fact, unstable, or vice versa.
  • What seems to be unrelated is, in fact, correlated, or vice versa.

When you catch yourself thinking: Huy! What the‽ Hmm, that’s interesting. You’ve been surprised. Take note. 

For example, I discovered a surprising story in Derek Thompson’s The Hit Makers about the French painter and philanthropist Gustave Caillebotte and his role in defining the Impressionist canon.

The story of Gustave Caillebotte

Born into a wealthy Parisian family in 1848, Caillebotte’s family amassed their wealth through textiles. Although his initial career path was law and engineering, he soon discovered a remarkable talent and passion for painting.

At 27, he submitted a painting titled “The Floor Scrapers” to the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris. The artwork portrays three shirtless men scraping varnish off a parquetry floor, showcasing the ordinary lives of labourers.

It was rejected. 

The Academy didn’t like his nudes (men with their shirts off), calling them ugly.

But not everyone agreed. A group of irreverent artists, including Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, loved his painting and became fast friends.

Caillebotte bought dozens of their work, including paintings by Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Pissarro and Sisley. At the time, there were few other buyers.

And because Gustave was a good friend, he bought the paintings that were thought to be their less commercial works. He was keeping them afloat.

Gustave was convinced he would die young. As a result, he wrote his will bequeathing his art collection to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris and appointed Renoir as the executor.

His fears were prophetic. He died at 45 of a stroke.

At first, the museum rejected his bequeath. The gift seemed preposterous to the old guard. Who would want these out-of-focus pictures in the national gallery? The paintings were called filth, and academics threatened to resign if they were accepted. 

After a couple of years of negotiation and publicity—the kerfuffle became known as the Caillebotte Affair—the museum accepted half of his collection. According to one tally, the acknowledged paintings comprised eight pieces by Monet, seven by Degas, seven by Pissarro, six by Renoir, six by Sisley, two by Manet, and two by Cezanne. In time, these painters became known as the Caillebotte Seven.

These artworks were shown in 1897, three years after Caillebotte’s death, in a new wing of the museum, and it was the first impressionist art exhibition in Europe.

The fight over his estate brought publicity to the paintings, and the crowds flocked to the spectacle.

Lots of people saw these paintings. And while the old guard was nonplussed, the nouveau riche in Europe and the United States snapped them up. And they wanted C7 painters.

One hundred years later, James Cutting, a psychologist from Cornell University, did an extensive literature review, counting more than 15,000 instances of impressionist paintings in books and catalogues, and concluded that Caillebotte’s seven were the Impressionist canon.

Caillebotte’s donation and their notoriety and eventual popularity created what we understand as The French Impressionists.

Cutter went on to test his theory. He showed his university class impressionist paintings and asked which ones they liked the best. They chose the C7. 

Then, in another experiment, he showed unknown impressionist paintings on a ratio of 4 unknowns to the 1 in the canon and then asked which ones they liked, and they picked the unknowns.

He concluded we like things that are familiar to us. It’s called the mere exposure effect.

It’s interesting because what seemed to be good taste and expertise is actually how many times a work was seen.


The surprise doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. Just look for stories that have an unanticipated outcome that’s counterintuitive. That denies an old truth. Caillebotte’s example upends the truth that the best paintings become the most famous. 

Our brains are constantly predicting what might happen next. If the story unfolds in a new way, we take notice, and so will your audience.


1. Callow, Simon. Orson Welles: Hello Americans. vol. 2, Vintage Books, 2007.

2. Cutting, James. Impressionism and Its Canon. University Press of America, 2006.

David, Murray S. “That’s Interesting! Towards a Phenomenology of Sociology and a Sociology of Phenomenology.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, vol. 1, 1971, pp. 309-44.

Thompson, Derek. Hit Makers: How Things Become Popular. Kindle ed., Penguin Books, 2018.


About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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