Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Other Die (by Chip and Dan Heath) is one of the books I revisit at least once a year. My memory is failing me about where I found this book — maybe seeing it on a shelf in the bookstore (the book was published in 2007) or perhaps recommended from a colleague. For this post, I’ll summarize the main takeaways from the book.
What’s a sticky idea?
Most people have probably heard some variant of the kidney thief story. It uses all six of the elements (as described in a bit) that allow you to reasonably retell the story an hour after you’ve heard it the first time. The majority of the ideas we encounter are interesting (but not sensational), truthful (but not mind-blowing), and important (but not life-or-death). Sticky ideas are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact which changes opinions or behavior.
The authors put together a clever acronym for traits of sticky ideas.
- Essential core of ideas
- A lawyer once said if you make ten strong points to the jury, they won’t remember any of them when deliberating.
- Shortness isn’t the only goal — sound bites are not the ideal
- Proverbs are the ideal — simple and profound
- Get the audience’s attention and maintain that attention when you need time to get the ideas across
- Counter-intuitive (e.g., a bag of coconut-oil popped popcorn is worse than a whole day’s worth of fatty foods)
- Could use surprise, which increases alertness/focus, to grab people’s attention; but surprise doesn’t last
- Need to generate interest and curiosity; open the gaps in their knowledge, and then fill those gaps
- Explain things in terms of human actions and sensory information.
- (Business concepts like mission/vision/strategy statements usually fail on this level. They are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless.)
- In proverbs, abstract concepts are encoded in concrete language (e.g., “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.”)
- Most day-to-day situations do not have the backing of authority figures (e.g., surgeon general).
- People need to be able to test our ideas for themselves (try before you buy).
- Many people grasp for hard numbers, but sometimes this is the wrong approach. Ex: Reagan v. Carter in 1980 presidential campaign — Reagan said “Before you vote, ask yourself if you’re better off today than you were four years ago.”
- People are more likely to give charity to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region.
- We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.
- Firefighters swap stories after every fire, which multiplies their experience.
- Mentally rehearsing things helps us when we actually perform it in the physical environment.
Image credit: Bennett
- Commander’s intent: A clear, plain-talk statement that appears atop every order specifying the goal and desired end-state of the operation
- Finding the core: Strip an idea down to its most critical essence. It’s about discarding lots of good insights to let the most important insight shine.
“A designer has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add but when there’s nothing left to take away.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
- Burying the lead: The propensity toward complexity is at war with the idea of needing to prioritize.
- Analysis paralysis: Prioritization helps people make decisions, which is why finding the core is so valuable. (Side note: The authors have another book on this subject alone.)
- Simple = Core + Compact: It’s a bandwidth issue; compact messages can be lies (the Earth is flat), irrelevant (goats like sprouts), or ill-advised (never let a day pass without a shoe purchase). In other cases, compactness can seem an unworthy goal.
- Proverbs: These stories/phrases are simple yet profound. They are found in every documented culture and guide the individuals with shared standards (i.e., ethics, social norms).
- Schemas build on existing knowledge: A schema is a collection of generic properties of a concept or category. For example, you could scientifically describe a pomelo, or instead say that it’s “like a grapefruit but super-sized with a softer peel.”
- Accuracy vs. accessibility: accuracy at the expense of accessibility, accessibility at the expense of accuracy. The most common example is the solar-system model of an atom, which is accessible, but not accurate.
Jacques Carelman’s ‘Masochist’s Coffee Pot’ from his Catalogue d’objects introuvables, 1969
- Use surprise to break schemas, then provide a fix. People are surprised when their assumptions prove to be incorrect. For example, Nordstrom comes up in examples of surprising customer service. An example is allowing customers to “return” products from a competitor that Nordstrom doesn’t even sell.
- When comparing monetary differences:
- Use percentages, as large dollar amounts are difficult to fathom for most people.
- Use trivial-cost items (e.g., a car payment is the same as eating fast food twice a day for a month).
- Involve mystery to create a need for closure. Curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge. Gaps cause pain — it’s like having an itch that we can’t scratch. (For more information, check out this article that describes George Lowenstein’s work in gap theory.)
- To persuade people that don’t think there is a gap in their knowledge, pose a question and have them commit to an answer. The simple act of committing to an answer makes someone more engaged and more curious about the outcome.
Image credit: skylervm
- Concrete sensory nouns. Fables often employ this approach; language is often abstract, but life is not.
- Too much abstraction: From a previous example, the abstract concept of world-class customer service isn’t as concrete as being able to return products to a store that doesn’t sell them.
- “Velcro theory of learning”: Your memory isn’t just a filing cabinet; ideas are the hooks and your brain has the loops. The more hooks your idea has, the more likely it is to stick.
- Universal language: At times this may feel like you’re dumbing something down, but you need to get to the common denominator of lingual communication.
- Personas make abstract people more concrete: Personas as fictional characters created to represent different people that might use a product in a similar way.
Image credit: khunaspix
- Experts have credentials, and we want to emulate celebrities: For example, doctors earn credibility through various academic channels, and presumably celebrities wouldn’t have attained their fame without some credibility.
- Anti-authorities: An example is Pam Laffin, who became an anti-authority for smoking. She had personal experience with the effects of smoking and stood against those who purported that smoking was safe.
- Sometimes the trustworthiness of people (not their status) allows them to act as authorities: If a celebrity tells you to buy shampoo, or a friend tells you to buy shampoo, you’ll trust your friend because you actually know her.
- Details of the examples can lead to credibility rather than credibility coming from some external source. At least one study has shown how this can work in a courtroom setting.
- The human scale makes statistics approachable. In Stephen Covey’s book The Eighth Habit, he polled 23,000 employees and asked about satisfaction. He scaled that down to a soccer team of 11 people (e.g., “only 4 players would know where the goal was”).
- Sinatra test: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. An idea passes the Sinatra Test if it alone is enough to establish credibility in a given domain. For example, if you’ve got the security contract for Fort Knox, you’re in the running for any security contract.
- Testable credentials: An example of this is the Arby’s Where’s the Beef? ad campaign. The customers could test for themselves whether the beef patties were bigger, thus allowing them to try before they buy.
- Availability bias: We’re biased toward what’s easiest to remember. The typical example is the question, “Which kills more people — tornadoes or asthma?” The answer is asthma, but we hear more about tornadoes on the news, thus the bias toward danger is more available.
Image credit: Christophe Leung
- Thinking analytically shifts us away from emotion. A study was done that showed when you appeal to people’s logical side (e.g., statistics), they tend to be less generous.
- Semantic stretch: exploiting terms and concepts for their emotional associations. The easiest way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about to something they do care about.
- People matter to themselves. Marketing departments aren’t as effective when they sell products rather than the benefits. For example, people don’t want nails; they want something to help them hang a picture of their family on the wall.
- Using “you”. For example: “People enjoy a sense of security when they use Goodyear tires” vs. “You enjoy a sense of security when you use Goodyear tires.”
- Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: These categories aren’t really a hierarchy; people pursue all needs simultaneously. Also, we tend to think other people focus more on lower-level needs, but put our own needs on a higher level. All needs are important, so don’t zero in on just one level. It also helps to appeal to higher levels.
- We have two basic models of making decisions:
- Calculate consequences, weigh alternatives — choose the alternative that yields the most value. (This is the standard view of decision making in economics classes: People are self-interested and rational.)
- Make decisions based on identity. Who am I? What kind of situation is this? What do people like me do in this situation? There are no calculations — just norms and principles.
Image credit: YoungDoo Moon
- Stories are told and retold because they contain wisdom. They are effective teaching tools, and show how context can lead people to make the wrong decisions. Credibility = believe, Emotion = care, Story = act.
- Simulating past events is more effective than simulating future outcomes. When people imagine certain events (seeing a light, being touched), they activate the corresponding areas (visual, tactile) areas of the brain.
- Stories as rehearsals: Mental rehearsal can also build skills. Visualizing yourself successfully performing a task from start to finish improves performance significantly. This works for a variety of fields — welding, dart throwers, trombone players, figure skaters.
- Don’t jump directly to the punchline/solution and leave out the story. The story provides the context and makes the solution stickier.
- Stories tend to fall into three common plot types:
- Challenge: the protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge (e.g., underdog, rags to riches, triumph of willpower over adversity)
- Connection: makes us want to work with and be more tolerant of others (e.g., good Samaritan, Chicken Soup for the Soul)
- Creativity: makes us want to do something different, to be creative, to experiment with new approaches (e.g., someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way)