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Formats Unpacked: Brain Software Podcast
How a podcast about hypnosis uses wordplay and absurdity to keep listeners hooked
When both Matt and I left our jobs at the BBC and Channel 4 we were surprised at clients’ reliance on campaigns. We’d come from a world of format thinking and could only see the negatives of campaign thinking, many of which I mentioned last week.
A lot of our clients needed to communicate new and complex ideas and were delivering these in one-off campaigns. Whilst our brains do reward novelty, they only love it in the right amount. What we learned from our years in broadcast is that if you want to deliver something new surround it with familiarity - the Goldilocks Effect.
This is what formats do so well. They have a familiar structure with a constant stream of new content housed within. This trick is the key to making audiences open to new things and it can be applied in many ways.
When discussing how he came up with the plots of his best-selling books, the brilliant Richard Osman, who has developed many of our favourite TV shows over the years, sums this up beautifully. Speaking to the Guardian he said, “the real key with the format is to make it familiar, but different…if I put that at the heart of what I’m doing, I can go anywhere.”
In his brilliant book Hitmakers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction, Derek Thompson calls the essence of this combination the Aesthetic Aha. He says “it is not merely the feeling that something is familiar. It is one step beyond that. It is something new, challenging, or surprising that opens a door into a feeling of comfort, meaning, or familiarity.”
I’m currently reading Blindsight: The (Mostly) Hidden Ways Marketing Reshapes Our Brains by Matt Johnson and Prince Ghuman. They point to films such as Star Wars bringing science fiction to huge audiences by using familiar story structures. They called this NaS which stands for New and Safe. The ‘Safe’ makes you feel welcome and the ‘New’ provides the dopamine hit which makes you come back for more.
So how are your campaigns working? Are your messages getting through? Is there a way you can develop continuity and familiarity to help with that? If you need help, we have a brilliant workshop for you.
OK. On to the reason why you’ve all come back. This week’s unpacking comes from John Bejacovic who asked if he could unpack one of his favorite podcasts. John writes about copywriting, marketing, and my love for the books and screenplays of William Goldman.
Over to John…
What is it?
Brain Software is a podcast by hypnotists Mike Mandel and Chris Thompson. It launched in 2011 and is currently on its 219th episode.
What’s the format?
Each episode lasts around 50 minutes, and consists of Mike and Chris talking over each other, completing each other's sentences, doing funny voices, and teaching you something new about hypnosis, influence, or self-development. Brain Software started out as audio-only but recently also added a video on YouTube.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
The fact that Mike and Chris are fun and likable makes Brain Software work. They’re energetic, in a good mood, and they’re enjoying recording the podcast. In that way, the Brain Software podcast sounds like a classic morning radio talk show — just two guys you want to believe are two of your cooler, more outgoing friends.
With a half-dozen recurring segments, Brain Software also resembles a late-night talk show. Some of these segments are straightforward and factual whilst others are 100% pure entertainment, filled with recurring characters, inside jokes, or even Monty-Python-level absurdity. As an example, many episodes feature an entirely fictional “Special Report” from a hypnotist named Brado (voiced by Mike as a kind of uber-Canadian), ranting about the pathetic state of hypnosis up in “Hypno North,” Meaford, Ontario.
Fine, you might say. Many podcasts are made up of different segments, and feature likable, bantering hosts.
So I asked myself what makes Brain Software special, and what keeps me — a non-hypnotist — listening to this particular podcast, rather than any of the hundreds of other similar podcasts, which all share interesting information in a fun, high-energy package.
I realized that the real magic behind Brain Software is a constant drip of surprising, sometimes mind-boggling wordplay and verbal pyrotechnics. For example, although each episode starts out with a standard-sounding intro (“Welcome to the Brain Software podcast…”) it immediately veers off into surprising, dopamine-releasing play with words (“... emanating from the hypnotic world epicenter, Toronto, Canada.”)
I took notes through several Brain Software episodes and found dozens of instances of strange, sometimes nonsensical, and yet always fun subversion of the normal use of the English language. A few repeating examples:
1. Bizarre and yet status-building titles: Hypnotic world epicenter, the hypnotic cyclotron.
2. Hyper-specific, absurd denials and disclaimers: “We are not a cult. Nor are we in one. Nor is either of us applying for the bursar's position at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto."
3. Nonsense words, are repeated until they start to assume meaning. Mike is fond of loochie. Earlier Episodes were sponsored by the Shyzzjigg Corporation.
4. Analogies that make your mind lock up. Chris likes to introduce Mike as the "Keith Richards of hypnosis."
5. Takeoffs on a familiar phrase or cliche. One episode segment is called metaFIVE ("one better than a metaphor").
But is this stuff just there for fun, just for a laugh or a smile? Maybe, but maybe there's more going on beneath the surface. Maybe it’s really a demonstration of Mike and Chris's hypnotic skills.
I'm not an expert on hypnosis, but I do know of a hypnotic technique known as a confusion induction. The idea is to overload a subject's critical brain — "the Keith Richards of hypnosis?" — in order to make him more suggestible.
Likewise, hypnotists often say that we humans can't think in negatives. This is why absurd denials can be both funny and influential. "We are not a cult" forces you to imagine, if only for a moment, Mike and Chris as beatific, robe-wearing cult leaders.
And of course, every surprising twist on a worn-out phrase lights up your brain for a moment, making you slightly more suggestible. In fact, as Mike explained in one episode, hypnosis is just emotional arousal plus a suggestion. If you don't believe me, the hypnotic proof is in the podcast — take a listen to Brain Software and experience it for yourself.
In spite of their emphasis on fun and even absurdity, Mike and Chris often share truly unique insights on persuasion, psychology, and even propaganda. One episode that sticks out in my mind even years later is an explanation of various techniques of control — used by abusers, cults, and even governments — and illustrated by repeated references to Gordon Ramsey's Hell's Kitchen.
I don’t know of another podcast that brings together all the elements of Brain Software. To me it’s really a cross between Car Talk, absurd late-night sketch TV, and a standup show, stimulating and surprising the listener with a constant stream of clever wordplay. The added possibility that maybe, just maybe, this wordplay is actually some kind of hypnotic manipulation, and that Mike and Chris are somehow working on you, without your understanding how they do it, gives the podcast an added bit of a thrill.
Thanks for reading. Tell me what formats you’re loving in the comments and get in touch if you’d like to unpack one. And if you haven’t already, subscribe toand the .