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How to Hold Your Prospects’ Attention By Shrouding Your Message in Mystery

by | Feb 17, 2016 | B2B Copywriting, Collateral, Online Mktg. and Copywriting, White Papers, Case Studies, Technology Marketing, Content Marketing | 0 comments

In my last essay, we saw how we can use surprise to focus our audience’s attention on our message, and thus make our message “stickier,” or more memorable.

The Power of MysteryA surprise lasts only a brief instant, however. What if our message is too complicated to be delivered in a just that instant?

In the technology market, after all, that’s most often the case. Our products and services tend to be complex. Our differentiators are not always immediately obvious. A fair amount of explanation is often required.

So while a momentary surprise may attract our prospects’ attention, we also need to hold their attention.

Are there techniques can we use to hold prospects spellbound for longer periods – long enough for our complex messages to get through to them?

The Power of Mystery

That’s the question Robert Cialdini – Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Marketing at Arizona State University and author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – was trying to answer, as he sought ways to improve his writing and speaking on scientific subjects. He wanted to better hold the attention of his students.

Prof. Cialdini collected numerous examples of writing on scientific topics. He made notes on which held his interest, which didn’t, how much, and why.

And he found something he hadn’t expected.

What Cialdini found – according to Dan and Chip Heath in their book Made to Stick – was that the articles that best held his interest were constructed like mystery stories. Each began with a question that had no obvious answer (like, “What are the rings of Saturn made of?”), and then proceeded like a police investigation. They examined available evidence, pursued promising leads, hit dead ends, followed up on new clues and applied deductive reasoning. Eventually a breakthrough was achieved which led to a discovery. Only then was the answer to the original question revealed. {1}

Mysteries are powerful, says Cialdini, because they create a need for closure. We want and expect an answer, but we don’t know what it is.

In literature, the mystery genre is popular because skillful writers work hard to construct a puzzling mystery that makes us want an answer. They provide clues that make us expect an answer. They also make sure the answer isn’t obvious by providing plenty of twists and turns along the way, and by obscuring or withholding key information until the very end.

Like the advertisers we discussed in my previous article, mystery writers – and those scientific writers Cialdini found most engaging – take advantage of something unexpected. But unlike the unexpected moment provided by a sudden surprise, mysteries take us on an unexpected journey.

Surprise attracts our attention. But mysteries hold our attention.

The Plight of the Technology Buyer

Business technology buyers often face a situation similar to that of the avid mystery reader. Tech buyers know they have a problem, and they want and expect a solution. But they don’t know what that solution is.

Of course, many tech buyers will have a strong idea about the general type of solution they need. Others, though, may not yet fully understand the problem they’re facing. But all of them want to find the best solution for their company. Like the mystery reader, they have a need for closure. They want a solution that’s fully satisfying, like the end of a great story.

Taking Advantage of the Need for Closure

So, how can we take advantage of this need for closure?

Famed screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, whose seminars play to sellout crowds in the film world, says the key is simple human curiosity.

“Curiosity is the need to answer questions and close open patterns,” says McKee. “Story plays into this universal desire by doing the opposite, posing questions and opening situations.”

McKee says great movie scripts are designed such that every scene is a Turning Point. A Turning Point, by McKee’s definition, is where the point-of-view character doesn’t get what she was hoping for. Instead, she gets something different. This unexpectedness creates anticipation and desire in the viewer.

“Each Turning Point hooks curiosity. The audience wonders, ‘What will happen next? How will it turn out?’ The answer to this will not arrive until the Climax of the last act, and so the audience, held by curiosity, stays put,” says McKee. “Think of all the bad films you’ve sat through just to get the answer to that nagging question.”

Does this mean we should put an unexpected twist in every scene of every video we post online? Or make our marketing collateral read like an Agatha Christie novel?

Of course not.

After all, other things besides mystery novels and films generate curiosity and hold attention, things like:

  • Sports
  • Games
  • Hobbies
  • Human interest stories
  • Celebrity gossip

But many of these don’t make us ask, “What will happen next?” Is there a common thread?

As it turns out, there is.

The Gap Theory of Curiosity

Like films and stories, the domains just mentioned naturally pose questions. For sports and games those questions are most often variations on either, “Who will win?” (if one is a spectator) or “How can I improve my chances to win?” (if one is a participant). Hobbies evoke questions like, “How can I do this better?” or “What do I need to complete my collection?” and so on.

But then we have to ask ourselves: Why do we crave answers to those questions?

And the answer to that question may lie in a theory proposed by George Lowenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University, in 1994.

Lowenstein says curiosity occurs when we feel a gap in our knowledge. Knowledge gaps cause pain, he says, like an open wound, or an itch that needs to be scratched.

To remove the pain, we need to fill the gap.

The Gap Theory seems to explain why certain knowledge domains engender such fanatical interest. And why we’re willing to sit through a bad movie just to find out what happens. Like Cialdini and McKee, Lowenstein suggests we feel a need for closure when confronted by a gap in our knowledge.

Putting the Gap Theory to Use

The implication for marketers, here, is that we need to open gaps before we can close them.

We need to highlight specific knowledge that our prospect is missing. But we don’t want to fill the gap right away. We first need to demonstrate that the gap exists, and why they need to fill it.

How do we do that?

One way is to pose a provocative question related to the big problem your product or service solves. (Note that this should be a question he can’t easily answer without help.) Alternatively, you could point our that someone else knows something your prospect doesn’t – that someone solved that big problem and gained a significant benefit, for example. Or you might present a situation with an unknown outcome and invite your prospect to guess or predict what that outcome will be.

The key is to force your prospect to search his mind for an answer – an answer he’s unlikely to come up with on his own – and to make him want the answer.

Make it appear that his knowledge gap could be hurting his company or his career. Then, once he’s hooked – once you’ve piqued his curiosity – you can lead him on the journey that will fill his knowledge gap… with your message.

To make complex messages stick, say the Heaths, we need to change our thinking from “What information do I need to convey?” to ” What questions do I want my audience to ask?” Our goal should not be to summarize. Instead it should be to make our prospects care about knowing what we want them to know.

We’ll provide the same content. We just need to structure it differently.

A Caveat Regarding Overconfidence

One problem with applying the Gap Theory is that people tend to think they know more than they really do. It’s tough to make a prospect’s knowledge gap work to your advantage if the prospect doesn’t think he has one.

One way to combat such overconfidence is to challenge your prospects. If many of them have a preconceived notion about your solution or the problem it solves, make them commit to it. Present a situation and ask them to make a prediction on its outcome. Challenging readers on their own preconception or prediction makes them feel more engaged and more curious about the real outcome. They want to find out it they were right!

Another method is to make the reader aware that others disagree with her. Present contrasting arguments for contrasting points of view.

Be fair. Don’t let the reader think you’re favoring one side over another. Appearing unbiased will make the reader more curious about which side is right. Then, reveal the correct answer. Perhaps it’s none of those mentioned! It doesn’t matter, because at this point you’ve engaged her curiosity and she wants you to fill her knowledge gap.

Filling Gaps Fuels Curiosity

One of the most important points to remember about applying the Gap Theory is this: filling knowledge gaps doesn’t curb curiosity. In fact, the opposite is true. Think about any hobbies or sports you’ve participated in. The more expert we become – the more complete our knowledge – the more we want to fill in the gaps in our expertise.

That’s why human interest stories have such great appeal. We’re all human. We know a lot about what is means to be human. But there are many human experiences we have never experienced ourselves. Such stories stimulate our curiosity, because we can easily imagine ourselves in the protagonist’s situation.

Or consider the huge industry built on celebrity gossip. We already know a lot about celebrities from mainstream media coverage. But that doesn’t stop a sizeable segment of the population from wanting to learn even more intimate, scandalous and even trivial details about them.

So, don’t worry that you’re letting the cat out of the bag. The more knowledge your prospect has about how to solve his problem using your solution, the more he is going to want more information from you.

When the Gap is a Gulf

OK, you say, but what if there’s not much knowledge there to begin with? What if my technology or solution is so different, that my prospect’s knowledge “gap” is more like a canyon?

In this case, you first need to fill in knowledge to reduce the canyon to a gap. Provide enough context and backstory that your prospect will care about his knowledge gap. White papers, case studies and other long-form content are ideal for this task.

If you begin with the problem your prospect has but can’t yet solve – a knowledge gap he cares about – you can fill in his canyon until he can focus on the gap you care about: How your product or service can help him solve his problem.

Take-away Points

1. Unexpectedness doesn’t just grab attention, it can also be used to hold attention.

a. Surprise attracts attention.

b. Mysteries hold attention.

2. The Gap Theory of Curiosity states that:

a. Curiosity is cause when we feel gaps in our knowledge, and

b. Knowledge gaps cause pain, until they are filled in.

3. We can take advantage of our prospect’s need for closure by proving to them that a gap in their knowledge really exists.

4. Showing your prospect the gap in his knowledge will make him more likely to desire – and thus more likely to remember – your message.


{1} Heath, Chip & Dan, Made to Stick, Random House, 2007.

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