Content Formula – The Most Captivating Formula (According To The “Godfather Of Influence”)

In this post, you’ll learn a content formula and why it’s perfect for writing blog posts, copywriting, and other content marketing.

Let’s say you’ve published some new content you’re proud of. Yet your metrics are telling you it’s not resulting in many conversions.

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 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. So he did what any college professor would do. He turned his pupils into a case study.

He used a certain content formula to structure his lessons, and 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 creating blogs, social media posts for LinkedIn to Twitter, an effective content strategy, and other marketing content.

You’ll see how you can use this content formula to get and keep your readers’ attention across several different formats.

A woman eating popcorn while staring into the camera.

Despite its effectiveness, you seldom see this formula talked about in the world of digital marketing.

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
  • Optimize your blog for SEO
  • Offer relevant content suggestions
  • Insert images, graphs, and other elements into your blog posts

This 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 something captivating, none of these tips will keep your readers, well, 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, step-by-step guides. They don’t want to figure out the entire process by themselves. You can be that provider.

However, practical content, like 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 skim through them, trying to look for the most important nuggets so you can start applying them.

A tower of nuggets.

Sure, practical content is good content, but it’s definitely not the most captivating.

So, what is the one type of content that people consume from beginning to end without skimming at all?

What makes people sit in complete silence for two whole hours, like 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 behind the world’s second-highest-grossing novel genre.

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 desire to learn or know something that piques our interest.

You may have guessed it – I’m talking about mystery stories.

The Mystery Gang reading a book then looking at the camera.

Yes, I’m talking about those mystery stories where a detective solves 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)

You’ve likely heard of Robert Cialdini 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 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
  • It had a logical structure
  • Vivid examples
  • Humor
  • And so on…

However, these traits only partially 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 “marketing strategy 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.

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 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 other reasons you should use the mystery content formula.

Why mysteries work

They’re emotional

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, Bill Gates, and Richard Branson. Do you think they would’ve been so successful without an emotional drive?

Similarly, when you can get your readers emotionally invested in your content, they will more likely read it from beginning to 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.

For example, you get emotionally invested when Luke Skywalker loses his hand, and the Rebel forces are almost destroyed.

Luke Skywalker creaming, "NO".

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 they come 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 – 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 many people hate spoilers. They know they will only be satisfied if they let the mystery naturally unravel.

They’re unique

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 who he claimed to be, and weirdly, all the other passengers seem to have some kind of connection with the victim. That’s interesting!

A man in a suit saying "So unique".

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…

They’re 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.

Will Smith looking through a magnifying glass with the caption "Sherlock Homeboy".

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.

How do you apply the mystery formula to your writing and content marketing?

How to write a mystery (without telling a story)

A mystery story consists of four acts. But first, you need an idea to turn your digital workplace into a mysterious temple of ancient content marketing knowledge.


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 still are to many people), but are obvious to you now. Did the solution surprise you when you found it? If yes, then it is a good idea!

More specifically, there are four elements to every good mystery:

  1. The mystery itself
  2. What’s exciting and unique about it?
  3. What false clues and conclusions are in the way of solving the mystery?
  4. The surprising solution

You’ll see this formula in action at the end of this post. But before that, let’s look at the template for the four parts of a mystery:

ACT 1: Introduce the mystery

First, introduce the mystery in an interesting way. Also, keep your target audience in mind. What mysteries do they want to find an answer to? Here’s an example:

“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.”

Bill Murray smashing his alarm clock.

ACT 2: Investigate clues or suspects that lead to false conclusions

Supplement your introduction with clues to throw them off. 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 them 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 3: Hint at the right solution

If you want the solution to impact the reader, you must 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 4: 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 their own life:

“There’s actually a mobile app 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!”

Trevor Noah pointing at his head and saying "Problem solved".

One of the best places to highlight your solution is your landing page.


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 to-do lists, meditation, etc.

Surprising solution: Get out of your head and focus on your breath instead. Practice mindfulness. For example, doing routine tasks like brushing your teeth is effortless for you because you are out of your head. You are not thinking, “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 can use the same formula for all your copywriting and blogging needs. Of course, you can add some variability to this, especially if your metrics show that something else is more effective.

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.

What would it mean to you to have followers who listen to your every word?

About the author: Mitro has been passionate about building online tribes through captivating content marketing for over 10 years. Now he’s sharing his tribe-building tips with writers, teachers, and influencers.