Otters and a Frog
Lessons in Differentiation
A few nights ago I was relaxing at the lake. I’ve been spending summer weekends on this little parcel of land since 1963. I know this piece of ground and the lake it sits on very well.
Last Saturday around midnight, I heard a noise that sounded familiar, but not at night. It was a loud chirp, a truncated whistle, short and sharp. I assumed it was a bird in distress, probably succumbing to a nocturnal predator like an owl.
It got louder and closer, so I went outside with my trusty flashlight to inspect. I looked up in the trees for a bird. But the sound was lower, so I went to the water’s edge. The sound was coming from the water. It was moving – fast – and it was multiplying.
It was beginning to freak me out because my expectation was a bird, but it was now several critters, moving back and forth very quickly, and getting closer every second.
Suddenly a pair of diamond-like eyes pierced the darkness just above the surface of the water moving at a very high rate of speed. Then another set of eyes, and another.
Crisscrossing sets of eyes accompanied by louder and louder chirping, had me standing on my tiptoes on the dock trying to squeeze more illumination out of my flashlight than it could deliver.
Then it happened. One of these demon-eyed monsters swam up on a boatlift and stopped long enough for me to identify it. It was an otter, a river or lake otter, to be specific. My high anxiety and anticipation was released and replaced by excitement over seeing something I had never witnessed before on the lake or outside the cabin door.
I was excited. Not too excited to go to bed however. A few hours later, at 4 am, an increasingly louder and louder chorus of the same chirping otters awakened me. I dressed, grabbed my flashlight and went to answer the call of the wild, again.
This time there was a whole family in front of the cabin, mama and five young-of-the-year pups, as big as her, in full vocal mode. Half were in the water, half were on the shore. I got close enough to witness the source of their rambunctious activity and noise.
They were hunting, feeding voraciously on sunfish. Two swam right up to my light, stood in the water on their hind legs in two feet of water, posed without prey and disappeared briefly underwater. Their dark silhouettes knifed through the water in a silent streamline arc, only to return to their starting position with fresh sunfish clamped in their front paws, eating them like sandwiches.
Amazing. I’ve spent summers on this little parcel of land for nearly half a century and never heard of, much less seen, any such occurrence.
Something unexpected caught my attention. Then initially expected one thing – a bird – it turned into something else, something different.
A few nights later, back home in town around dusk, something jumped out of a small plant near the front walk. Based on a lifetime of experience with hopping things, my instant perception was – toad. Hopping thing in town = toad. But my friend said it was a frog. Nope. No frogs here. I’ve never seen one here. Toad.
It hopped again, and sure enough it was a frog. A decent sized leopard frog that would be perfectly familiar at the lake, and as prey to an otter, but never witnessed in this particular place by me.
What’s the point of this episode of Mojo’s Wild Kingdom?
Differentiation is critical to being noticed and considered. It depends on breaking through people’s defense barriers by upsetting their expectations. I heard a bird chirping at night. Unexpected. I found the “bird” swimming in the water. Unexpected. The “bird” turned out to be a raiding party of furbearing carnivores engaged in a nocturnal feeding frenzy. Completely unexpected.
Something unexpected caught my attention. It ultimately turned out to be something quite rare, in my experience. Expectations set up opportunities for differentiation. The opportunity is dependent on the audience’s relative experience.
Something moved in my periphery and I assumed it was the expected – a toad. Upon closer inspection it was a common sight in some places, even nearby, but not here. Not in this specific place. Even the common place can be different enough to draw attention in the right, or “wrong” place. Again, expectation sets up an opportunity for differentiation.
Differentiation is critical to capturing attention and creating awareness. Both are essential first steps in communicating your ideas. Both are dependent on the audience’s prior experience and relative sense of place.
Being different than what’s expected helps break through the defenses that people instinctively and naturally use to filter out all the noise in today’s environment.
Be the unexpected difference that captures curious attention.
Be an otter where no otters go.
Be a frog where folks expect toads.