Bluma Zeigarnik, circa 1921
It’s 2008. I’m a Certified Financial Planner, presenting a retirement planning workshop to 49 successful business women. Five minutes into my presentation, a woman named Leslie stands up, and asks a question that will eventually change the course of my career.
By the end of this post, you’ll hear that question, and how it impacted my life.
Question: are you curious about what I was asked, and why it affected me?
The Zeigarnik Effect
If your answer is, yes, you are experiencing the Zeigarnik Effect. There are other terms for this technique — suspended story, cliffhanger, open-loop. Whatever you call it, if properly used, it’s a masterful storytelling tool.
One of the most important functions of a story is to illicit emotion. The Zeigarnik Effect effectively does this. It’s a psychological phenomenon discovered by Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. She discovered that we tend to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed ones.
How does this translate to creating impactful business stories?
The Magnetic Pull Of Unfinished Stories
Like the story that opens this post, a narrative that stops on unanswered questions creates a need in the listener for closure. When a story is left tantalizingly unfinished, it sticks in peoples’ minds. This creates engagement because they pay closer attention until they hear the end of the narrative.
Here are additional benefits of the Zeigarnik Effect:
- Increased Recall: Stories that are suspended are better remembered. This is particularly beneficial when conveying critical business concepts or unique selling points.
- Emotional Connection: Unfinished stories evoke emotional responses. This mental investment translates into a stronger connection with your message.
- Encourages Action: The desire for closure motivates listeners to take action. Whether it’s attending the next meeting, following up on a sales call, or engaging with a marketing campaign, the Zeigarnik Effect can be a subtle yet powerful call to action.
Implementing the Zeigarnik Effect:
- Start with a Bang: Kick off your presentation with an engaging story that promises value.
- Create a Cliffhanger: At a critical juncture, pause the narrative. This could be during a presentation, and also in a series of marketing emails or across social media posts.
- Promise Resolution: Let your audience know that the resolution is coming. This creates anticipation.
- Deliver and Connect: Deliver a satisfying conclusion in your presentation or in a subsequent communication. Link back to your business message or call to action.
The Zeigarnik Effect is more than a psychological curiosity; it’s a powerful narrative technique in your communication toolkit. It enables you to craft stories that captivate and linger in the memory, plus drive engagement and action. Unfinished business, it turns out, can be a compelling way to keep your audience coming back for more.
Now, the rest of my story…
In an abrasive tone, Leslie asks me, “Michael what’s your deal? What are you here to sell us?”
Her aggressive tone caught me off guard. So, I stood in front of that group for what felt like an eternity, feeling foolish while I searched for an answer.
Meanwhile, 49 women who, just a minute earlier, were enjoying their coffee and after-dinner cake are all staring at me with a look that says, “Well! We’re waiting!”
Finally, a thought pops into my head: “Tell them about your mom trying to start her business.”
I think, “Well, I got nothing to lose because they clearly don’t trust me.”
I tell them the story about my mom struggling to get funding to start her business after she and my dad divorced. This was in the 1980s and it was difficult for women to get business loans.
As mom told me, “Michael, when we divorced everything was in your dad’s name. I don’t have a financial identity. It’s like I don’t even exist.”
When I was done sharing the story of my mom’s struggle, I told that room full of women, “The main reason I’m here is to make sure no woman goes through what my mom did to try and realize their financial dreams and goals.
After a long silence, the mood in the room changed. Leslie looked at me and said, “Michael! We’re all good! You can carry on.”
That was the night I accidentally discovered the power of storytelling to emotionally move people, to gain their trust, and to earn the right to do business with them. After that seminar, I had a 257% increase in the number of people who signed up for one-to-one meetings with me anytime I shared stories.
Because of those experiences I eventually retired from financial planning in order to help others overcome the public speaking fear and shortcomings I dealt with as a young advisor.
The next time you’re asked an uncomfortable question, don’t avoid it. Answer it. You never know where it will take you.
Need help creating more curiosity in your stories?
Schedule time to talk with Michael: https://calendly.com/speakingcpr/30-minute-call