Why should we care about mystery stories?

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —April 11, 2008
Filed in Business storytelling

posts_you_missed-6Robert Cialdini discovered a secret to learning in 2005. As a world-leading psychologist he was surprised he didn’t already know this secret but now swears by it. He was researching a new psychology book he wanted to write for a general audience and wanted to know the characteristics of effective science writing for an informed public readership. Most of his review confirmed what he already knew: must have a clear and focussed point, well written, concrete examples. The big surprise for Robert was that the best examples where written in the format of a mystery story.

Robert’s laboratory is his classroom so he tried out the approach there. A typical lecture, before using the mystery story format, would end with his students starting to pack up five minutes before the lecture’s scheduled finishing time. When he presented the same information as a mystery story, and he was yet to reveal the who’d dunnit, the students remained totally engaged and didn’t move, even after the lecture was supposed to have finished. It was like magic.

So here is the structure Cialdini discovered in his review and then wrote up in volume 24 of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

  • Pose the mystery
  • Deepen the mystery
  • Home in on the proper explanation by considering (and offering evidence against) alternative explanations
  • Provide a clue to the proper explanation
  • Resolve the mystery
  • Draw the implications for the phenomenon under study

To test this out I wrote a blog post using the mystery format called ‘What is happening to Melbourne’s trains?’ I would be grateful to receive your feedback. Just leave comments on the blog post.

Cialdini, R. B. (2005). “What’s The Best Secret Device for Engaging Student Interest? The Answer Is In The Title.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 24(1): 22-29.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Stephen Bounds says:

    Hi Shawn,
    I think the “mystery” format is weakened in your post because you aren’t able to provide a concrete answer to the initial question posed. Because the “answer” is actually a series of suppositions and hypotheses, there’s no sense of closure.
    To be honest, I had to go back and look at the top of your article to remember what the “mystery” was! And even then, I didn’t feel “satisfied” with the answer provided.
    This differs from a lecture environment, where the lecturer has a definite point they want to make, and thus a clear answer resolving the question posed.

  2. Hi Stephen, were you referring to the Melbourne trains post or this one? I was only writing in the mystery format for Melbourne trains. Just checking. Thanks for the feedback.

  3. Joitske says:

    Hi Shawn, liked this one because I’m teaching now and shared an example, hoping that it will attract the interest of student, but this would have been a great form. In your train blogpost however, it doesn’t catch me that much. Maybe your solution isn’t as unexpected and clear as it should be for this format to work?

  4. Thanks for the feedback Joitske. Looks like I need more practice.

  5. Tushar Panchal says:

    Hi Shawn,
    perhaps a bit late in commenting on this topic. Nonetheless, I will give it a go.
    Living in Melbourne, I know the hysteria it can create with any topic related to transport. Considering the media attention, involvement of Government and the debate raging everywhere about safety to timetabling, most people impacted by trains (directly or indirectly) will have discussed this issue at different times (office talk, over a drink, family dinner etc).
    With so many people involved, I would assume (again a hypothesing) that most “mystery” items would have been discussed, debated, have been enlighted and sweared at.
    As such, could it also be that to be effective in “Mystery Storytelling” following leads provided by Robert Cialdini, we actually need to create a mystery plot in a landscape that is familiar to everyone and yet not so obvious and a point of discussion? i.e the landscape is familiar but the “mystery” itself has been overlooked and not been enacted by anyone else?
    The above would lead to an increased sense of curiosity resulting in participatory listening. Well at least that is what my logic would have it.
    Secondly, the “mystery” itself needs to something simple yet when discovered, the mystery impacts everyone with a “oh, so that’s it. I didn’t know that” feeling. The more esoteric and removed the “mystery” is from the participating audience i.e. when they can’t relate to the nuances of the “mystery” the less focused they will be as the storytelling continues.
    Wel, this is a long enough comment. Back to what I was doing.

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