Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

madetostick.jpgImagine: You’re at the airport and don’t have anything to read on the flight. You see two books at a kiosk. Six Principles of Effective Communication, a non-descript textbook, and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, a bright orange hardcover with what looks like duct tape on the cover. Which book would you buy?

The point of this imaginary scenario (I made the first book up) isn’t that you need a catchy title and cover to sell books, althought that may be true, but that how ideas are communicated is often as important as the ideas themselves.

Chip and Dan Heath have spent the last ten years studying this phenomenon – why some ideas “stick.” Chip as a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford and Dan as an educational entrepreneur and consultant. In Made to Stick, they share what they have learned.

“Stickiness” is used to describe ideas that stay with us, that become part of our mental furniture. In other words: effective communication. The brothers adopted the idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book The Tipping Point. But while Gladwell was studying the nature of social epidemics they wanted to understand the structure of effective communication – what makes ideas that stick tick.

Their answer? If you want to create an idea that sticks develop a Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Story. This acronym (SUCCES) may be memorable, and a little corny, but what does it mean exactly? At the risk of oversimplifying, it means using what we know about how people think, act, react, and interact with ideas to craft effective communication.

From the introduction to the epilogue, and through chapters dealing with each of the six qualities, the authors model a basic structure for effective communication.

Step one is strip your idea to its core. When we try to communicate too much nothing sticks. But simple is not dumbing down, simple yes, but profound. Think proverbs not sound bites.

The remaining qualities take the next steps. If you want your idea to stick you need to make your audience: pay attention; understand and remember; agree/believe; care; and be able to act.

The rest of the acronym flows from this: Unexpected focuses on getting their attention; Concrete on helping them to understand and remember; Credible on convincing them to agree or believe; Emotion on making them care; Story on being able to act.

The authors flush out these qualities using examples and explanations from psychology, politics, screenwriting, economics, folklore and even epidemiology. What makes the book enjoyable, and useful, is the way it blends and balances these diverse anecdotes and explanations from social science research. They avoid jargon and heavy academic style by mixing in stories, examples, and “Idea Clinics” – short sections that model the application of these qualities to specific examples – with their argument. Each chapter is thought provoking without being intimidating or tiresome.

The book also uses pop culture and historical references – from memorable advertising like Subway’s Jared spots, Wendy’s Where’s the Beef, and the Don’t Mess with Texas anti-liter campaign to the political sound bites like Bill Clinton’s “It’s The Economy Stupid” and Ronald Reagan’s “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” – to illustrate how recognizably sticky ideas reflect the six qualities.

A good example of the interesting social science involved is the concept of the Curse of Knowledge; the phenomenon that once we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. This “curse” undermines communication when we explain our ideas as if our audience has the same level of knowledge as we do.

A Stanford Ph.D. student’s dissertation experiment provides a vivid illustration. The experiment involved breaking participants down into two groups: “tappers” and “listeners.” Tappers were instructed to tap out the rhythm of a song chosen from a list of well-known melodies and the listeners had to guess the song based only on the rhythm being tapped.

Listeners only recognized the song 3 times out of 120. What is even more interesting, however, is that the tappers were asked beforehand to predict the odds of a correct guess and predicted 50%.

Why were the tappers so overconfident? Because they knew the song. Concentrating on the song’s melody as they tapped it out they could not imagine what it might be like to guess without that knowledge.

The book is full of examples that reinforce the ideas being discussed. In the Idea Clinic from the Concrete chapter the authors relate the story of James Grant, longtime director of UNICEF. Grant always traveled with the ingredients of Oral Rehydration Therapy – a packet made up of one teaspoon of salt and eight teaspoons of sugar.

When he met with leaders in developing countries he would take out his packet and ask: “Do you know that this costs less than a cup of tea and it can save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives in your country?”

Grant could have offered lots of statistics and an in-depth explanation of the medical causes, and the devastating impact, of dehydration in the developing world. But his packet and question make the issue concrete and recognizable far better than the technical details found on your typical fact sheet.

These are just a few of the examples and concepts the authors use to illustrate their ideas, but they should give you a taste of the interesting and insightful subjects covered in the book.

Made to Stick is an interesting, thought provoking, and useful guide to generating ideas that stick. It will help you understand the nature of effective communication and implement better strategies in this critical area.

And that is help that we all can use.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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