You'll see your user engagement metrics shoot through the roof if you implement this one simple change in your blog writing. It's a tactic that almost every bestselling author uses to keep readers turning the page until they hit the end of the book. It's the reason why people preface every big reveal on the web with SPOILER ALERT. The secret is called suspense, and the key to making it work is so simple you'll wonder why you never used it before.
Why You're Doing it All Backward
Since day one every one of us has heard that these are the keys to making engaging content:
- Inform your audience - It's absolutely true that you want your reader to walk away feeling like they've learned something valuable, but they won't do that if they walk away from the post before they even finish it.
- Use subheadings and bulleted lists - This is a great way to make it easy for readers to skim through your content, so that it's not so intimidating to look at. But it's not going to keep them engaged.
- Get creative - Readers love seeing a new take on things, and a "WTF" title will certainly spark their interest, but without suspense they won't make it to the end.
So what's the problem with the traditional blog writing approach? What's backward about it?
You're answering all the questions up front, when you should be answering them at the end. When you delay gratification, you'll make your readers ravenous for more.
But wait, won't your readers just get tired and walk away? Won't they get burnt out on suspense and seek out the answer elsewhere?
How to Prevent Reader Burnout
The television show Lost picked up 15 million viewers in its first season, and carried 11 million of them through to the end. The show is well known for its mysteries, and mysteries are little more than unanswered questions. So why did so many people patiently wait through to the end of six seasons of unanswered questions?
Let's start with a different question. What about the times when Lost wasn't doing so well? It was at those times that critics were saying things like "Real suspense comes from answers, not questions. Suspense comes not from wondering what's going on but from wondering what happens next...If you withhold answers, it becomes impossible to satisfy."
But doesn't this contradict our premise: that holding out on answers is a good thing?
Yes and no. While you should hold out on answers, there's some nuance here.
To keep readers interested, you need to keep raising questions and answering them. With each new answer comes a new question. That's why cliffhangers work. What does this process look like? Here's the typical format:
- Raise the main question
- Answer the main question
- Make a list of supporting evidence or points
- Elaborate on each piece of supporting evidence or point
Here's how to do it with suspense. Can you spot the difference?
- Raise the main question
- Make a list of supporting evidence
- Ask a smaller question that leads into each piece of supporting evidence
- Answer the final question
That's right, they key is to turn your format on its head and transform it into a mystery. Question, evidence, answer. The article itself, and every section of the article, should fit this format. Do this, and readers can't wait to see what you're going to say next.
I won't be so bold as to say this is how you should always write your content, especially when it comes to how-to guides. Too much delayed gratification makes a guide less useful, but using a few of these elements can certainly result in more engaging content.
Can you see where I used these tactics in this very post? Did they work on you?
Image credit: Robert S. Donovan