Curiosity & The Non-Scummy Way to Write Irresistibly

Curiosity is one of the most prevalent writing tactics we see today.

Many writers leverage what’s called a “curiosity gap” to drive click-throughs. But they take it to an outrageous level.

And sometimes, the curiosity gap ends up being a curiosity CANYON.

You click through to the article or email, only to discover that it over-teased and under-delivered.

A few examples:

  • You won’t believe what happened when this woman found an unmarked box on her doorstep
  • The one product that will change economy-class air travel FOREVER
  • Want to know the secret to getting a raise? Use this magic sentence and immediately get your boss on board

Notice how these all tease something life-changing, unbelievable, or utterly mind-blowing.

But, um...guys? How often have you clicked through and felt that the level of hype created by a headline (or subject line) really delivered?

Probably not very often. And that’s where the problem lies.

When we abuse the power of a curious mind, it becomes less effective over time...and our readers start to feel jaded. (I know I do.)


So what can you do about it?

First, let’s talk about curiosity in general.

It does work as a writing tactic: Psychological studies show that the human brain is naturally wired to want to fill gaps in knowledge.

Great minds have commented on its power, too:

“Curiosity is the most superficial of all the affections; it changes its object perpetually; it has an appetite which is very sharp but very easily satisfied, and it has always an appearance of giddiness, restlessness, and anxiety.” ―Edmund Burke

This touches on something especially important when it comes to the power of curiosity: It causes a state of temporary anxiety (good or bad), which can be very useful.

Think about when you were a little kid tearing into a wrapped gift. There’s this frantic moment where the not knowing what’s behind the wrapping paper produces a rush that made you want to hurry up and get that paper off so you can see the thing underneath. IT’S SO EXCITING!

The same thing happens with negative emotions, too. Like when the person in the horror movie goes into that dark, scary basement and you know it’s going to end badly but you just can’t look away. The Germans even have a word for this: Schadenfreude.

In short, curiosity helps excite our readers with the promise of closing the knowledge gap around something unknown.

How To Use Curiosity the Right Way

The thing to remember with curiosity is that it's a special tool--and it shouldn't be used to trick readers.

You just need to know how to approach it in a non-sleazy way. Here’s what I recommend (and try to live by.)

1. Keep your information gap honest. Don’t over-promise or over-hype.

Example: Here’s how we increased sales by 10% in one month (and how you can, too)

2. Make it specific. Don’t try to appeal to the masses: Speak to a fear, pain point, or area of interest that’s relevant only to your target audience.

Example: Worried about merchandise returns this holiday season? These 7 new tools make return management less stressful

3. Keep it story-based. Pique curiosity by rooting the information gap in an experience you’re going to share and elaborate on (that others can learn from.)

Example: What we learned from 10 months of product demos (And what we wish we’d known when we started)

The common theme here is that you’re not abusing the power you hold as the writer and making outrageous claims that ultimately disappoint.

By using curiosity within the confines of honesty, specificity, and story, you can keep your readers happy while still speaking to their naturally curious minds.

If there's one thing I hope you take from this quick writing lesson, it's this: Don't abuse the power of an information gap.

It’s tempting to write a crazy, outlandish headline with a curiosity gap so irresistible that even your Mom is sharing it on Facebook.

But if you can’t deliver on that promise, you risk losing the trust of your audience you’ve been working hard to earn.

Use curiosity by all means--but try to keep yourself honest.

P.S. Did you miss last week's post on how to make your writing sell stuff? You can read it right here.

This article originally appeared in my newsletter, A Cup of Copy. Sign up and get these free tips sent right to your inbox every other Wednesday.