Made To Stick (Book Highlights)
“Business managers seem to believe that, once they’ve clicked through a PowerPoint presentation showcasing their conclusions, they’ve successfully communicated their ideas. What they’ve done is share data. . . . but they haven’t created ideas that are useful and lasting. Nothing stuck” (245–246).
by Chip and Dan Heath
What is it that makes some ideas persist, while others simply fade away? Why are certain urban legends memorable upon one hearing, while important information can be studied for hours while still not finding a place in a person’s mind? In short, what makes an idea stick in a person’s head?
The Curse of Knowledge
Brothers Chip and Dan Heath conducted their research in order to answer these questions, and the result was Made to Stick. Heath and Heath identify the persistent enemy of “sticky” ideas as the “Curse of Knowledge.” That is, those who know something well have a hard time remembering what it is like not to know it and can often have great difficulty in communicating.
While they warn their readers that creating sticky ideas is not a foolproof method, the Heath brothers do identify six features common to sticky ideas, principles that can help overcome the Curse of Knowledge. They maintain that following these six principles can help anyone transform their idea into a sticky one: “That’s the great thing about the world of ideas—any of us, with the right insight and the right message, can make an idea stick” (252). The six principles of sticky ideas spell out the acronym SUCCESs: Sticky ideas are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and packaged as Stories.
First, sticky ideas are simple. This does not imply, of course, that complex ideas can never become sticky. It rather recognizes that any idea, regardless of its complexity, must be stripped down to its core if it is to be memorable. This is why good news writers begin their articles with a “lead,” the single most gripping aspect of the story. No matter how complicated the article or situation is, it must be reduced to a single core message. As Heath and Heath put it, “If you say three things, you don’t say anything” (33). The simple idea, however, must also be profound. Proverbs are a prime example of sticky ideas, simple in their structure, but profound in their meaning.
Second, sticky ideas are unexpected. People quickly recognize patterns and are accustomed to filing new ideas into their existing mental framework, so for a new idea to stick, it must surprise them. It must create a void in their knowledge that they desire to be filled, a problem that they feel must be solved. Otherwise, the idea will be forgotten almost as soon as it is heard. Here the Curse of Knowledge becomes particularly meddlesome, since in the mind of the communicator, the idea is so obvious as to be common sense. “Common sense,” however, “is the enemy of sticky ideas” (72). Instead, communicators should emphasize what is counterintuitive about their idea to heighten feelings of surprise.
Third, sticky ideas are concrete. As the Heath brothers write, “Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. If you’ve got to teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language” (104). Concrete examples take advantage of everyday experiences as hooks on which to hang abstract ideas. People may have a hard time understanding what “prejudice” is, but they are not likely to forget an exercise in which they are split into two groups and treated differently based on an arbitrary feature. The concrete experience makes the abstract idea familiar, and thus, more memorable.
Fourth, sticky ideas are credible. Two types of credibility can aid a person in presenting their ideas. One is external: Cite an authority on a matter, or have a celebrity speak in favor of a position. Certain people might be perceived as credible “authorities” if they seem to be representative of the audience in question, as when actors portraying mothers star in laundry advertisements. The other type of credibility is internal, in which the idea is shown to be credible on its own merits. Several tools can aid in this credibility, including the Sinatra test. As Frank Sinatra sang of New York, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” The same can be applied to an idea—if it can work in one instance, that provides credibility that the same idea can make it anywhere.
Fifth, sticky ideas are emotional. Rational belief alone is not enough to prompt people to act; they must also care. Sticky ideas appeal to the emotion of the audience, whether that emotion is one of pity, envy, pride, love, or even fear. One of the most common examples of using emotion to create a sticky idea is in personalizing an idea. As Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will” (165). Thus an appeal for money to help starving African children finds less success than an appeal which includes the story of a 7-year-old African girl, complete with a picture of her and her family history. While such appeals are useful and necessary to make an idea stick, the brothers Heath warn that people are suspicious of emotional manipulation and quick to resist it. Emotion should not be overplayed.
Sixth, sticky ideas are packaged as stories. Stories can unite all of the previous five principles of sticky ideas comfortably and easily, as they provide both simulation and inspiration. In hearing a story, listeners simulate the events and place themselves in the narrative. Stories create in the listener’s mind a credible, concrete situation, disarming plausible objections that would arise if the same material were presented in argument form. At the same time, stories are easy to remember because they are simple, and they create an environment for unexpected twists to occur easily. In addition to simulation, stories create inspiration, drawing in the emotions of the listener. This is why urban legends—like the one about infamous kidney thieves leaving people in a bathtub full of ice—can thrive with literally no evidence to support them at all.
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