Six “Hooks” to Make Your Content Irresistible
What makes content irresistible?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a French aviator, writer, and author of The Little Prince. He also knew a thing or two about motivating others. He once said this:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, and divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
This is an example of motivating people using something called the quest — a call to adventure, a rally cry to join a journey of understanding or discovery, even if it’s intellectual and not physical.
The quest is one of six different types of hooks that make your content irresistible to others.
As defined by marketing author and keynote speaker Andrew Davis, a hook is a refreshing twist on a familiar theme designed to ensnare your audience. I’d add that the hook should also make your work memorable. It’s what causes your exploration and ideas to resonate, emotionally, with the audience. The hook is what they recall. It’s what they discuss when referring others to you. It’s what separates you from the noise and brings people back for more.
All of this means we should stop today and ask ourselves this question:
“What’s our hook? What’s our refreshing twist on the familiar themes our content explores?”
What is a Hook?
I like using something called the XY framework to describe the hook. This XY framework is most effective in the world of showrunning when crafting your show’s premise — the overarching idea fueling every decision you make and every episode you publish. The premise describes more than WHAT your show explores. It also describes HOW you explore those topics. This gives the audience a reason WHY they should care.
The premise combines both your content’s topics and your hook.
Here’s the XY Premise Pitch:
“This is a [thing] about [X], where we [Y].”
In other words, “This is a [thing] about [topics], where we [hook].”
Evolved even further, to be even more useful, we end up here: “This is a [thing] about [topics]. Unlike other [things] about [topics], only we [hook].”
Taking it that one step further to articulate what only we do forces us to think critically about the actual value we provide to others…or don’t provide.
Yes, others create stuff about similar topics and themes. Even if the story is somehow wholly unique, your audience will still group you with other things in their minds. You’re one of many blogs about business, or podcasts about music, or video series deconstructing the created work of artists you admire.
Given all of this, here’s the hard truth we should be embrace more readily:
WHAT we explore does not make our work irresistible. HOW we explore it does. The reason WHY others care is the hook, not the topics.
We need to admit that, yes, others create [this kind of project] covering [these topics], just like us…but only we [use this hook].”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s theoretical ship builders would find his call-to-act irresistible, not because they longed to hammer some planks together, but because they longed for the sea. By positioning the work as a quest, the work seems irresistible…no matter WHAT it is.
Ask yourself: “What’s our hook? Do we have one? What would make our work irresistible?”
“This is a [thing] about [topics]. Unlike other [things] about [topics], only we [hook].”
The key here is to simply state your hook with plain language. Describe it at face value. An irresistible hook is not an adjective on a sliding scale, comparing you and others. Saying you go “deeper” or have “more honest interviews” or explore things in a “smart” way or “more entertaining” manner — those are not hooks. Truly irresistible hooks can be described at face value. Simply stating what your hook is — in other words, stating HOW you explore your topics, without some version of “better than others” — is the sign of something original, something that might be so refreshing and powerful for the audience that it might just become their favorite thing.
Here are some example hooks, before we list all 6 types:
This is a [newsletter] exploring [marketing, podcasting, and creativity], but unlike other newsletters about marketing, podcasting, and creativity, only we [are on a journey to understand what it takes to make someone’s favorite things, in which we ask one big question per week to advance this quest].
This is a [podcast] about [music], but only we [have the artist explain how the song originated by breaking it up into tiny parts and piecing back together for us.]
This is a [documentary] about [business success] but only we [attempt to replace the typical high-growth business story with a new, better archetype by elevating the stories of companies who prioritize people over profits].
This is a [blog] about [the most transformative books in the world and the people who wrote them], but only we [ask our interview subjects to share the 3 books that transformed them the most and explain why, so that we can find the 1,000 most transformative books in the world].
This is a [YouTube show] [interviewing celebrities], but only we [have our guests eat spicier and spicier wings as we ask them more and more personal questions].
“This is a [thing] about [topics]. Unlike other [things] about [topics], only we [hook].”
Andrew Davis describes six different types of hooks. Andrew has spent a career creating deeply resonant, refreshingly different content, first in television in places like the Jim Henson Company and NBC, and later as a marketing author, agency executive, and globetrotting keynote speaker.
You’ve already met “the quest.” This is a nuanced, advanced type of hook.
The most difficult yet powerful hook: The Quest
Applying Andrew’s idea of the quest to the world of podcasting specifically reveals three distinct types found across the audio landscape. They are…
1. Show-wide quests: The quest stretches across the entire show. The very premise of the podcast is, itself, a quest. Each episode thus supports that same journey. Here’s an example:
The Coup (This is a show about industry and business disruption, where we go on a journey to understand why disruption happens and how we might see it unfolding before it hurts our businesses. The “vast and endless sea” we long for: turning ourselves into the innovators who do the disrupting.)
2. Season-specific quests: Each season is a contained quest. The host declares what’s being explored early on, then endeavors to arrive at the destination by the end, inviting the audience to join that medium-scale journey.
Crimetown (This is a show about crime and justice, where each season we go deep inside a different city to investigate the characters, events, and culture of crime. We long for: Getting tantalizing access to the world of criminal and governmental power brokers in America’s cities.)
3. Episode-specific quests: These are just like season-specific quests but unfold inside just one episode at a time. The early moments unveil what is being explored, with more questions than answers at that point. The end of the episode provides some kind of satisfying resolution to the quest.
Radiolab (This is a show that “investigates a strange world,” where each episode, we go on a journey to understand something complex but important from science and society.)
5 more types of hooks
(I’ve listed some example shows under each.)
The Gimmick is a named, often clever conceit that alters how the content is delivered.
The 60-Second Super Cool Fold of the Week. (Unlike other arts and crafts shows, only they share a clever way to fold paper in under 60 seconds each episode.)
5 Questions With… (Unlike other interviews with top leaders in business, only they constrain the interview to the 5 biggest questions the host could think up.)
The Micro Daypart
The Micro Daypart owns small moments of the daily routine or a certain part of the day/week/month.
Whiteboard Fridays. (Unlike other shows for marketers where an expert whiteboards something, only they own the idea of Fridays.)
Marketing Over Coffee (Unlike other shows about marketing trends, only they own the idea of catching up on marketing trends during your coffee ritual.)
The mashup combines two or more seemingly disconnected things, borrowing specific elements of each, to create something original.
Disgraceland. (Unlike other shows of famous musicians, only they combine the true crime drama and monologues of a show like Lore with the behind-the-scenes, human interest stories about musicians of Behind the Music.)
I Made It. (Unlike other shows about world-class creators, only they combine the deep dissection of a single project like Song Exploder with the current trends discussed in the “creator economy”).
The Visual Hook
The visual hook offers one readily-identifiable and repeatable visual or concept each episode as a means to make the complex simple and more accessible.
Standing Ovation (Unlike other shows interviewing public speakers, only they have their guests play a real moment from their real speeches as a way to teach something complex but important about public speaking.)
Smashing Fears (Unlike other shows about entrepreneurship, only they focus the episode on a single fear an entrepreneur experienced as a way to teach something complex but important about building your business.)
The Challenge declares the stakes and tries to deliver — without certainty that it will.
Serial. (Unlike other murder mystery shows — at least up until this show launched — only they traced over an unsolved mystery from years ago to see if they could crack the case.)
Super Tech Support, a miniseries within the show Reply All. (Unlike other tech support- or tech-focused shows, only they have listeners present a bizarre tech problem to see if they can solve it.)
What makes content irresistible? It’s not the topics you explore. It’s the way you explore them. A compelling premise provides people the motivation to subscribe. When I say “subscribe,” I don’t mean click a button or join a list. I mean subscribe to your beliefs, your ideas, your journey, your experience. I mean opt into the movement and the community.
That motivation comes from a premise, because a premise — when crafted correctly — is what makes the content irresistible.
As you leave the friendly confines of this newsletter and return to work — whether you make a show or another type of experience — remember to ask yourself:
“What’s our hook? If others will create similar projects about similar projects, then what’s our refreshing twist? What can we say with confidence ONLY WE provide?”
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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