Why crime stories work

The human brain is basically a prediction machine. At any given time, it tries to figure out what happens next. Tension comes from the uncertainty about the prediction: Will the prediction match the true course of events?

That’s e.g. why criminal stories are so popular. It’s also why we love a good riddle or puzzle. We love to figure things out (and be right about it).

Tension increases when hope joins the party. When we hope for a certain outcome, it hurts even more when that outcome doesn’t come true – e.g. because we sympathised with one of the parties involved in the criminal story. Or we rooted for one side in a tennis match.

Movies make shameless use of this. Great movies let us anticipate how the story unfolds only to leave us in the uncertain about whether we’re actually right. Worse: Even if they resolve part of the story, they will leave at least one piece open so that there’s always something to anticipate and predict.

Great communicators create tension by using this principle, too. They trigger our prediction machine and then use our anticipation of the resolution to keep us hooked. They might e.g. show us a clever way to solve one of our problems and then use our desire to figure this out and make it work for us to lead us to listen to them, glued to their lips, for more than an hour.

(PS: If you want to learn how to make use of this in your own communication, you might want to consider joining my masterclass “Leaders Light the Path” which launches this fall. Get notified here.)

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Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz

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