Have you ever watched J.J. Abrams’ TED Talk?

I’ll include a link at the end of the article.

I found it this morning.  I clicked on a Google News headline along the lines of “The most shocking thing about J.J. Abrams’ choice to reveal the new cast list for Star Wars Episode IX..”  Google knows me.

If I can kill the intrigue, here it was: the choice to reveal the cast list at all.  Especially the late Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill’s return.

And the author pointed to that TED Talk, and its concept of “The Mystery Box,” as the reason this was so shocking.

The Mystery Box is one of Abrams’ secret weapons in creating great drama.

And you should know about it.

This is one of those cases where studying fiction can make you a far better copywriter and marketer…

Recall that Abrams really broke out with Lost.  At least, I don’t think he was really on my radar before then.  And I think that’s true of many of his now-fans.

If you haven’t watched Lost, I won’t spoil too much.  But at this point, I doubt too many people who really intend to watch it haven’t yet.

The basic premise?  A jet crashes on a tropical island.  And the story follows the crash survivors.  All sorts of paranormal insanity ensues.

More questions are raised than are ever answered.

That last sentence is the most important.

More questions are raised than are ever answered.  From one episode to the next, you always have lingering questions.  From one season to the next, the unanswered questions are even bigger.

There’s so much mystery.  To everything.

And even in the end, much of the mystery is never resolved.  Where were they, really?  Did they even survive the crash that started it all?

It was a cultural phenomenon.  It got fans talking.  It got critics talking.  It got everyone talking.

“What will happen next?  What did that mean?  Who was that person, really?”

More questions than answers.  Massive mystery.

When asked by the TED organization to share something he’d never shared before — and to make it profound — Abrams talked about the mystery…

You really need to watch the video.  I can’t do it justice — and I won’t spoil the the origin of the concept of “The Mystery Box,” which is heart-warming.

But I will speak to the concept — and its role in marketing.

To sell, we solve problems.  Nearly every great product or service is a solution to a pressing problem.  Gary Bencivenga once said that “problems are markets.”

But here’s the thing.  It’s impossible to communicate that you can solve your prospect’s problems if you don’t first get and hold their attention.

And for the most part, your prospect doesn’t give a rat’s patootie about yet another person offering to solve their problem.

They’ve heard a million pitches.  They’ve been disappointed by a million promises.

They’re jaded.  Overwhelmed with selling messages.

And frankly, tired.

Tired of all this crap.  Tired of marketers.  Tired of salespeople.  Tired of all the BS.

“Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”

Just talking about their problem doesn’t move the needle.  Neither does offering the solution.  (Although you DO have to get to these quickly.)

But they’re always open to being entertained…

That same prospect that you claim won’t sit still for a 60-minute sales video?

They binge-watched Lost — all 3 3/4 days of it.  That’s 90 hours.

Last night they watched whatever on Netflix for 1.3 hours.  Getting their daily quota toward 480 hours per year.

They watch stuff all the time.  They stay engaged.  They happily put their attention somewhere…  Wherever it’s most rewarding to put it.

And what you’ll find as an almost invariable trait of those things to which they’re willing to lend their sustained attention…  Is MYSTERY.

Unanswered questions.  Beginnings without an immediate ending.  Loops opened, but not closed.

They’re shown a box, that contains a mystery, but not allowed to open it — yet.

Right now, it’s unknown.  Uncertain.  Intriguing.  Curiosity-provoking.  Full of possibility.

More questions are raised than are ever answered.

That’s what stimulates their need for novelty.  That’s what stokes the fires of curiosity.

The great mystery.

It can drag them along for 100 episodes of a hit TV show.  Or it can open the conversation that leads to their problem and the solution you offer.

Either way, it can grab attention.

And if you’re the one who knows how to create that mystery?

Well — it can also lead to the sale.

Here’s the J.J. Abrams TED Talk.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr

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