Intended Ambiguity Demystified

While driving through a small Midwestern town on a recent road trip, we came upon a sign in front of a business that mystified me. There were three words posted on the marquee, and they didn’t make sense. As I tried to decipher the ambiguity of what they meant, my curiosity spun as I tried to resolve the meaning of:

Hot loaded Italian

Hmm. Hot loaded Italian … what? As we neared the sign, we could see it was in front of an Arby’s restaurant which offered more context. At least now we could assume “Hot loaded Italian” was a sandwich instead of someone who was beautiful (or angry), intoxicated (or packing heat), and from Italy (or of Italian heritage).

Intended ambiguity may, at first glance, seem like an oxymoron. But, let’s dig deeper to explore how it can work for you. 

“Intended ambiguity,” stimulating “unresolved curiosity,” is a powerful headline and subject line copywriting technique. Why? Because it arouses thought, curiosity, and questions, the mind spins until the question is resolved with an answer. And that draws your reader in.

By using a few words that aren’t a complete thought, but tantalizing in what they suggest, you create an air of mystery and hook your reader into wanting to know more.

If you’re a dog lover, here’s another intended ambiguity puzzler: 

Dogs Indoors at Risk

The unresolved curiosity here? Dogs, presumably inside a home or apartment, are at risk of … what? Sleeping?

Then there are emojis in email subject lines that can also create a sense of unresolved curiosity. As I was writing this column, an email came in saying:

We're making improvements that we think you'll ♥

At first glance, I missed the emoji heart, thinking the sender erred and left off a word. But there was unresolved curiosity with the use of the emoji.

Then there are ambiguous unresolved claims. 

We’re ahead 30 percent. 

Thirty percent ahead of what? We hear claims like this in political campaign speeches all the time these days. The claim hits us, the mind either spins for a moment wondering “30 percent of what?” or accepts the statement and moves on to keep up with the rest of speech. 

Intended ambiguity can be a strategic copywriting tool. Use it for headlines and email subject lines to stimulate unresolved curiosity and the irresistible urge for the reader to pause and want to learn more. But, be careful—there’s a fine line between drawing readers in with ambiguous words creating unresolved curiosity, and repelling them through simple vagueness or borderline deception. 

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Gary Hennerberg

After a lot of years in marketing and sales, this is what I know works:

Stories sell. Think unique. Stimulate emotion. Close deals. And here are a few other gems from my new book, “Crack the Customer Mind Code.” Know the persona, interpret your offer and let your prospect give themselves permission to buy. That’s how the brain is wired. It’s how people think.

What else? When I’m not breaking down complex topics (or ones marketers over-complicate) into easy-to-grasp stories that sell, I crunch numbers. Manage projects. Write. Teach. Lead.