Last week I talked about open loops and cliffhangers in my Friday newsletter and several people responded asking for more information. (What? Not a subscriber? Subscribe using the form in the right hand column!)
I’m in an open loop right now. Friday I missed the delivery from Amazon Prime. As it turns out, my door buzzer either doesn’t work or I haven’t figured out how it works (most likely the latter—it’s a whole phone/security system thing). Unlike Amazon in the US, they don’t just leave the package at the door. They like to make sure you get it which is sweet, but the crime rate in Portugal is so low, especially compared to the US that it’s most likely a non-issue. Especially where I live. I left a note by the buzzer, asking the delivery man to just leave the package, but I am still popping up from my chair every 75 seconds or so to see if the truck is below. And, even though I know that CTT doesn’t deliver on weekends, I spent most of this past weekend looking out the window, hoping for the truck. An undelivered package is an open loop.
Cliffhanger vs. Open Loop
A cliffhanger is an ending to a story, a chapter, or an episode where there is an element of suspense. The reader or viewer needs to know what happens next. A group of teenagers are having a party and the lights suddenly go out. (Pro Tip: Girls, if you are wearing matching bra and panties, don’t go into the basement.) You have to keep watching or reading to find out what happens next. A cliffhanger at the end of a television series is great—until the show is cancelled and then loyal viewers are screwed.
An open loop is something that is unresolved. The end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade leaves an open loop: Indiana successfully found and gained possession of the Ark of the Covenant. Mission accomplished. But, the last shot is of the crate containing the Ark sitting in storage. We see that there is an energy scorching the crate from the inside. Did the writers intend to create another episode that involves the Ark? Is the entire government warehouse about to go up in flames? If the movie were real life, would that Ark be a ticking time bomb for the world? Am I the only person who worries about this? It’s an open loop.
Hollywood uses open loops to keep you watching television shows. The Black List is an example of a show that does this well. Almost every episode ties up the loose ends that pertain to that week’s particular bad guy, but there is an overarching seasonal story line that is moved along in each episode. So you get some resolution—the bad guy is dealt with—but you don’t have a resolution to whatever big thing is happening that season. The last episode of a series season is almost always a major cliffhanger. Each season is part of an even larger story line, so while the season may resolve one issue (closing the season’s big loop), it also opens up the next loop to keep you watching. And this is how you end up spending an entire weekend bingeing NCIS on Netflix.
Something that is incomplete sits in your brain, nagging at you to finish it. How are Gibbs and McGee going to escape from that South American prison? More important but probably not as fun, how can you use open loops in your business book, your speeches, or in your marketing?
The Zeigarnik Effect
Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik postulated that an activity that has been interrupted is more readily recalled. When you’re working on something and it’s incomplete, there’s a certain amount of tension in your brain and often in your body. When you finish the task, that tension is relieved. Think of how satisfied you are when you cross something off your to-do list. Zeigarnik postulated (and for the record, it was later disputed, which in itself creates an open loop) that students whose studying is interrupted to perform some other, unrelated task will remember the material better than those who didn’t take a break.
If you are a trainer or have an online course, you can schedule breaks or change tasks to help people better retain the information. The Pimsleur language method does this. It incorporates “graduated interval recall” which teaches a new word or construct, then goes onto something else, comes back to the initial teaching, and, over a series of timed intervals moving back and forth to each construct, moves the information from short term to long term memory.
Open a Loop to Gauge Interest
If you are using an email platform with a preset series of emails, you can give information on a topic, not tell the whole story, then give people the option to click for more information and tag those people who do. (You can do the same thing in blog posts with content upgrades.) Or you can promise more information in the next email. The three video launch strategy works this way, too. The first video teaches you something and promises to teach you the next step in the next video. Video two delivers on that and makes a promise that is delivered in video three. Video three delivers on the promise and then gives a sales pitch for a product.
In my newsletter, I mentioned that I have seen speakers use open loops by telling you they are going to cover five points and they hit them one by one, but somehow skip number three. The audience will say, “WAIT! You forgot number three!” They unintentionally (or intentionally) created an open loop.
You can tease out information on social media, asking a question or giving a weird statistic with a link to more info or (if you’re really mean) a line that says “more to come.”
Use Cliffhangers to Keep People Engaged
A few weeks ago in my newsletter I mentioned the Tasters’ Choice (Gold Blend in the UK) coffee commercials that featured vignettes chronicling a budding romance between two neighbors. Each commercial ended on a cliff hanger. The series ran for seven years. That’s a hugely successful campaign. People followed the couple and wanted to know what would happen next. Can you use that technique, perhaps to tell a client success story through a series of vignettes that leaves people wanting to know what happened? Why not? Just remember, people are going to need a resolution to that cliffhanger or you’re just going to piss them off.
Nonfiction books don’t immediately lend themselves to cliffhanger chapter endings. But I have read a few that will end a chapter with something like, “What we discovered next made us rethink our entire project.” Or, “All this will help you succeed in whatever endeavor, but you need to watch out for several factors that can totally tank your business.” Whoa! Danger Will Robinson!
You may not have anything that dramatic. However, you could put a “coming up next” paragraph at the end of each chapter that tells people why they want to know the forthcoming information. Or you could say something like, “Now that you understand the concept, I’m going to show you how to apply it.” Not really a cliffhanger, but definitely something that would get me to turn the page.
Encourage People to Complete a Task
If you’ve completed a survey online, you’ve probably seen people do this. Tell people how far along they are in the process. If you’re completing a survey, it will tell you that you’re 20% done or 70% done. The closer you are to finishing, the more likely you are to complete it. Online courses do the same thing. Each time you complete a lesson in a module, it will tell you how close you are to completing the module. Each time you complete a module, it tells you how close you are to completing the course.
Right now I am using an app called Practice Portuguese. It is good in that each lesson tells you how much you’ve completed as you go along (12/18 for example). But I have had a certain amount of frustration and impatience with it and now I know why: I have no idea how many lessons are in a module or how many modules are in the course. Do they keep adding modules? Am I ever going to be able to have a conversation in Portuguese?
Everybody Loves a Winner
A fundraising thermometer is an open loop. A study conducted by Cynthia Cryder (Washington University in St. Louis) and George Loewenstein (Carnegie Mellon University) found that the rate of donations substantially increased once 33% to 66% of the goal had been reached (as opposed to 0% to 33%) and increased significantly again once 66% of the goal had been reached (versus 33% to 66%). If you’re running a fundraiser, don’t put that thermometer up on your website or on that big sign until you’ve reached at least 30% of your goal. You should never start a fundraising thermometer at zero—it’s not an incomplete task; at zero, it’s a task that hasn’t started. People don’t want to be the first person to donate. They are more likely to jump onboard when they see that other people have donated.
If you’re launching a GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaign, you want to set a goal where you can easily reach 30% quickly. That may involve reaching out to donors before starting the campaign and asking them to jump on immediately so you get that initial momentum going. You can always increase the goal once donations start rolling in, but with the information from the study I just cited, I would not increase the goal before reaching two-thirds of the way and I would raise the goal by not more than 30%.
In all of these situations, open loops are used to keep the audience engaged. You want people to participate and give you feedback.
Does Everyone Have Open Loops?
Recently I learned that there are some people who don’t have an inner dialogue going on in their heads. What? [Sound Effect: Needle scratching across record] Which makes me wonder, are there people who aren’t bothered by open loops or even aware of them? (And are they the same people?)
If you’re a list maker like I am, you know the value of closing loops. It brings satisfaction, decreases stress, and helps clarify your thoughts. It takes away that worry of “what am I forgetting to do?” and also helps you waste less time wondering what you should do next. I use monthly brain dumps and weekly lists to keep myself on track. (And to reward myself with little hits of dopamine when I cross something off the list.)
Even if there are a few people who don’t feel the nagging of open loops, the satisfaction of closing an open loop is rewarding for enough people to make it a useful tool in engaging your clients, whether it is catching their interest in the first place or helping them to learn and succeed. How can you use cliffhangers and open loops in your business?
And, if you are already using open loops in your business, I’d love to hear what you’re doing—let me know in the comments below.
PS: While I was writing this, the Amazon man came. Resolution. New open loop: I need to read the book!