Content Formula – The most captivating formula (according to the “Godfather of influence”)13 min read
In this post, you’ll learn a content formula and why it’s perfect for writing blog posts, and other marketing content.
Let’s say you’ve written a blog post you’re proud of. Yet you see the vast majority of readers bouncing away.
Your post is practical and useful. Yet nobody leaves a comment to thank you.
You’re sharing insights that have helped you tremendously. Yet those same life-changing tips don’t even make a dent in other people’s lives.
What’s the problem?
When the man whom is often called the “Godfather of influence” faced this same problem, he found a surprising answer.
He was teaching a class to college students who were distracted by thoughts about partying and hooking up after school. You can imagine how difficult it would be to get those students to listen and learn something. However, when he used a certain content formula to structure his lessons, these same students were so attentive that they were in no hurry to leave after the bells rang.
In this post, you’ll learn that same content formula and why it’s perfect for writing blog posts, and other marketing content.
You’ll see how you can use this content formula to get and keep your readers’ attention.
Despite its effectiveness, you almost never see this formula talked about by content marketers.
In fact, when you search for tips on how to keep readers on your site for longer, you’ll most likely find advice like this:
- Improve your website design
- Optimize your site for speed
- Offer relevant content suggestions
- Insert images, graphs and other elements into your blog posts
This advice is all well and good, but it won’t solve your problem if your content doesn’t interest your visitors.
If you don’t write captivating content, none of these tips will keep your readers reading.
So, what is the most captivating type of content?
Many people would say your content needs to be useful and practical…
Why practical content isn’t captivating
You’ve probably heard the advice “make useful and practical content”. This makes a lot of sense. People want practical guides. They don’t want to figure out every step in a process by themselves.
However, practical content, i.e. instructions, is just a necessary evil for the reader.
How often do you read instructions from the beginning to the end, without being able to put them down?
More likely, you just skim through them, trying to look for the most important nuggets so you can start applying them.
Sure, practical content is good content, but it’s definitely not the most captivating type of content.
So, what is the one type of content that people consume from the beginning to end, without skimming at all?
What type of content makes people sit in complete silence for two whole hours (in a movie theatre)?
What type of content makes people pick up a book and read it for hours on end?
The most captivating type of content
It’s stories, of course.
However, not all stories are created equal.
This post is about a particular type of story that’s behind the second highest grossing novel genre in the world.
This novel genre is so popular because it’s based on one of the most influential psychological triggers: curiosity. In other words, it taps into our inherent (strong) desire to learn or know something that piques our interest.
You may have guessed it – I’m talking about mystery stories.
Yes, I’m talking about those mystery stories where a detective is solving a murder. If you look at sales numbers, there seems to be nothing more intriguing than a mysterious death. It’s also exciting to try to solve the case with the detective.
The murder mystery is a popular and engaging novel genre, but, according to The Godfather of influence, it can also be used to write non-fiction content:
How the Godfather of influence discovered the mystery content formula (and used it to write his best-selling non-fiction books)
It’s likely you’ve heard of Robert Cialdini (often referred to as The Godfather of influence), or his often-cited book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.
But before Cialdini was a best-selling author and an authority figure in the marketing world, he was a regular scientist.
In Pre-Suasion: A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade, Cialdini writes that when he was preparing to write his first book aimed at the general audience, he wanted to do his best to make the book accessible and interesting. He analyzed other educational books to find out what makes some books great and others boring.
Most of his findings were expected. Interesting texts were:
- Easy to understand
- Used the same kind of language as their target audience
- Logical structure
- Vivid examples
- And so on…
However, these traits didn’t entirely explain why these interesting texts were so successful.
There was one other trait that Cialdini hadn’t noticed before. It’s also something that not a lot of “content marketing experts” talk about, because it grabs your attention so effectively you don’t necessarily notice the technique itself being used.
That technique was the mystery content formula.
And Cialdini noticed that the most interesting educational books used mysteries to draw the reader in – and that was one of the biggest reasons why they were so exciting.
At the beginning of this post, I talked about how Cialdini managed to grab and keep his students’ attention. Yes, it was thanks to the mystery formula. Also, if you read Cialdini’s books, you may just notice how he uses mysteries to make his stories more interesting.
Mysteries are not only captivating, but they’re also persuasive.
If you read good sales letters, you may notice that a lot of them use elements of a mystery story.
For example, have you seen sales pages where they argue against other solutions before revealing the solution they’re trying to sell? That’s almost like a detective coming to false conclusions, and crossing out names from the suspect list, before finally figuring out the real solution.
There are also other reasons why you should be using the mystery content formula.
Why mysteries work
We focus mostly on things that we are emotionally invested in.
For example, we binge-watch TV series because we are emotionally invested in the characters. However, emotional investment doesn’t apply just to the consumption of entertainment. Think about successful founders like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Richard Branson – do you think they would’ve been so successful without an emotional drive, like wanting to make space travel an everyday thing (every child’s dream!).
Similarly, when you can get your readers emotionally invested in your content, they will more likely read it from the beginning to the end, and take action on your advice.
And the good news is that storytelling is an inherently emotional medium (unlike facts and instructions).
In storytelling, emotion comes from conflict.
You get emotionally invested when Luke Skywalker loses his hand, and the Rebel forces are almost destroyed.
In a mystery story, conflict is about trying and failing to find the solution to the mystery. You get emotionally invested when the detective follows clues that lead nowhere, and when she comes to false conclusions.
We’ll talk more about how to apply that to your content a bit later.
They evoke curiosity
Curiosity – the draw of the unknown – is what makes people click through to interesting blog posts.
Also, if you can create a mystery that evokes curiosity, people will start and keep reading your blog post.
They have to know the answer to the mystery! And the only way to find it out is to read.
Sure, some people will skip to the end to reveal the answer right away, but there are also many people who hate spoilers. They know they won’t be satisfied if they don’t let the mystery unravel naturally by itself.
Every good detective novel has a unique premise.
For example, in a certain famous mystery novel, someone is murdered on a train, but the victim doesn’t seem to be whom he claimed to be, and weirdly, all the other passengers seem to have some kind of a connection with the victim (sound familiar?). That’s interesting!
Moreover, when you have a unique angle in your blog post, it’s sure to stand out in the sea of sameness that is the blogosphere.
They make people think
One of the biggest reasons why people love mystery stories is because they get to solve the mystery alongside the detective!
You get the same clues as the detective.
You’re not just passively following the story and the characters. Instead, you are actively thinking “what could these clues mean?” or “who could be the murderer?”
It’s good that people are actively consuming your content. However, there’s another benefit to this – it makes your content more persuasive…
Think about it. You’re not force-feeding a lesson to your readers. You take them on a journey with you.
They’re not just readers. Instead, they’re active participants, trying to solve the mystery.
So, when you finally reveal the solution, it’s almost as if they themselves came up with it. That way, the conclusion of your post sticks with them better.
How is that possible?
At the beginning of a mystery story, the detective has a lot of suspects. However, throughout the story, the suspects are proven innocent one by one, until only one suspect remains. This leads the reader logically to the same conclusion as the detective. They arrive at the same conclusion by themselves! And that’s what makes them take ownership of the conclusion.
They produce AHA!-moments
When you read blog posts, how often do you feel like you’re learning something new? Or how often does it feel like you’re just skimming through stuff that you already know?
If people don’t get any AHA!-moments from your post, they’ll soon forget it.
In a good mystery story, there are surprising reveals.
After all the dead-end clues and false conclusions, when the murderer is finally revealed, that’s a powerful AHA!-moment! It’s an emotional moment that sticks with you.
Now, how do you apply the mystery formula to your writing?
How to write a mystery (without telling a story)
A mystery story consists of four acts. But first, you need an idea.
There’s a simple formula to coming up with ideas for your mystery, and it goes like this:
Think of things that were once mysterious to you (and that still are to many people), but are obvious to you now. Did the solution surprise you when you found it? If yes, then it might just be a good idea!
More specifically, there are four elements to every good mystery:
- The mystery itself
- What’s exciting and unique about it?
- What false clues and conclusions are in the way of solving the mystery?
- The surprising solution
You’ll see this formula in action at the end of this post, but before that, let’s talk about the four acts of a mystery story:
ACT I: Introduce the mystery
First, introduce the mystery in an interesting way. Also, keep your target audience in mind – in what mysteries do they want to find an answer to?
“Do you have a tough time waking up? Do you find your alarm clock too annoying, yet, you never wake up in time without it? There’s a little-used app that helps you wake up cheery without annoying you. I’ll tell you about it in a minute.”
ACT II: Investigate clues or suspects that lead to false conclusions
What other possible solutions are being offered in the marketplace? What other solutions would your target audience consider? Talk about them and argue against them. This gets the reader involved in the “investigation”, and leads her to the logical conclusion.
“What’s the secret to waking up easily and on time? A lot of people suggest placing your alarm clock far away from the bed. That way you’ll have to get out of bed to shut it down when it wakes you up. However, that is unpleasant and makes you dread the idea of waking up. Isn’t there a more pleasant solution available?”
ACT III: Hint at the right solution
If you want the solution to have an impact on the reader, you need to build it up. When you give hints to the reader, it keeps her involved in the “investigation”.
“Actually, there’s a reason why alarm clocks don’t work, that you may not have considered. Think about it – why is it, when your alarm clock starts ringing, that you shut it off, or hit the snooze button (which leads you to just fall asleep again)? It’s because you hate the alarm clock sound! What if there was an alarm clock sound that was both effective and pleasant?”
ACT IV: The solution
Reveal the solution and offer more evidence that backs up the solution. Also, you can talk about the benefits of the solution, and how the reader can apply it to her own life.
“There’s actually an app in the Android store (which only has a few thousand downloads) that replaces your annoying alarm clock sound with your favorite Spotify playlist. It wakes you up gently by increasing the music volume slowly. And if you don’t feel like getting up immediately, you can just keep listening to your favorite tunes. You will get cheery quickly, especially if you’re listening to energizing music. And you definitely won’t fall asleep again because the music will keep you awake – without annoying you!”
You may have noticed that this post is structured using the mystery content formula. Here are the elements, in short:
Mystery: How to write content that holds your readers’ attention?
Exciting and unique: The “Godfather of influence” also struggled with this problem, but found a surprising answer.
False clues and conclusions: Improving website design, inserting images into your post, writing practical content, etc.
Surprising solution: The mystery content formula.
Here’s another example:
Mystery: How can I force myself to do things I don’t feel like doing?
Exciting and unique: The solution originates from old Buddhist tradition.
False clues and conclusions: Being more disciplined, using todo-lists, meditation etc.
Surprising solution: Get out of your head and focus on your breath instead. Practice mindfulness (that is based on Buddhist tradition). For example, when you’re doing routine tasks like brushing your teeth, it’s effortless for you because you are out of your head. You are not thinking about “should I or should I not do this…?” You’re also not struggling with your feelings. Instead, you just do it without thinking. Even more difficult tasks can be accomplished by being mindful and just doing it.
Now you see why one of the most respected persuasion psychologists, Robert Cialdini, recommends the mystery formula.
You’ve also seen how this formula’s been used to write some of the most exciting fiction and non-fiction books.
You also know it’s been used for years to persuade people and convert readers into buyers on sales pages.
And now you have the exact same formula that allows you to use it too.
When you use the mystery formula, you might just notice how people stay on your site longer, and how more people come back to you to thank you for helping them.
Now, what would it mean to you to have followers who actually listen to your every word?
About the author: Mitro has been passionate about building online tribes through captivating content for over 10 years. Now he’s sharing his tribe building tips with writers, teachers, and influencers. Get notified when his next email list building case study is released here.