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Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die - Dan Heath, Chip Heath A superb book that presents convincing arguments, great stories, great research, great analogies, and highly actionable advice on how to communicate ideas in a way that will "stick". That is, in a way that will make people remember your ideas and act on them. In fact, the book uses its own advice to convey its ideas, and, uh, well, it stuck. I wish I had read it long ago. I wish everyone would read it, as it would improve the average quality of communication significantly.

Some good quotes from the book:

How do we find the essential core of our ideas? [...] Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound. The Golden Rule is the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so pro- found that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.

How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across? We need to violate people's expectations. [...] For our idea to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity. [...] We can engage people's curiosity over a long period of time by systematically "opening gaps" in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.

How do we make our ideas clear? We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. [...] Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images—ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors—because our brains are wired to remember concrete data.

How do we make people believe our ideas? [...] Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves—a "try before you buy" philosophy for the world of ideas.

How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something. [...] We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.

How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories. [...] Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

To summarize, here's our checklist for creating a successful idea: a Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story. A clever observer will note that this sentence can be compacted into the acronym SUCCESs.

This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily recreate our listeners' state of mind.

Had John F. Kennedy been a CEO, he would have said, "Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives."

Highly creative ads are more predictable than uncreative ones. It's like Tolstoy's quote: "All happy families resemble each other, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." All creative ads resemble one another, but each loser is uncreative in its own way.

If you say three things, you don't say anything.

To be surprising, an event can't be predictable. Surprise is the opposite of predictability. But, to be satisfying, surprise must be "post-dictable." The twist makes sense after you think about it, but it's not something you would have seen coming.

So, a good process for making your ideas stickier is: (1) Identify the central message you need to communicate—find the core; (2) Figure out what is counterintuitive about the message —i.e., What are the unexpected implications of your core message? Why isn't it already happening naturally? (3) Communicate your message in a way that breaks your audience's guessing machines along the critical, counterintuitive dimension. Then, once their guessing machines have failed, help them refine their machines.

Curiosity, he [Loewenstein] says, happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge. Loewenstein argues that gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don't, it's like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap. We sit patiently through bad movies, even though they may be painful to watch, because it's too painful not to know how they end.

To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from "What information do I need to convey?" to "What questions do I want my audience to ask?"

Abstraction demands some concrete foundation. Trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air.

Memory, then, is not like a single filing cabinet. It is more like Velcro. If you look at the two sides of Velcro material, you'll see that one is covered with thousands of tiny hooks and the other is covered with thousands of tiny loops. When you press the two sides together, a huge number of hooks get snagged inside the loops, and that's what causes Velcro to seal. Your brain hosts a truly staggering number of loops. The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory. Your childhood home has a gazillion hooks in your brain. A new credit card number has one, if it's lucky.

Novices perceive concrete details as concrete details. Experts perceive concrete details as symbols of patterns and insights that they have learned through years of experience. And, because they are capable of seeing a higher level of insight, they naturally want to talk on a higher level. They want to talk about chess strategies, not about bishops moving diagonally.

Caples says companies often emphasize features when they should be emphasizing benefits. "The most frequent reason for unsuccessful advertising is advertisers who are so full of their own accomplishments (the world's best seed!) that they forget to tell us why we should buy (the world's best lawn!)." An old advertising maxim says you've got to spell out the benefit of the benefit. In other words, people don't buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children's pictures.

This finding suggests that it may be the tangibility, rather than the magnitude, of the benefits that makes people care. You don't have to promise riches and sex appeal and magnetic personalities. It may be enough to promise reasonable benefits that people can easily imagine themselves enjoying.

How can we make people care about our ideas? We get them to take off their Analytical Hats. We create empathy for specific individuals. We show how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about. We appeal to their self-interest, but we also appeal to their identities—not only to the people they are right now but also to the people they would like to be

We cannot simply visualize the story on a movie screen in our heads; we must somehow simulate it, complete with some analogue (however loose) to the spatial relationships described in the story. These studies suggest that there's no such thing as a passive audience. When we hear a story, our minds move from room to room. When we hear a story, we simulate it.

Stories are like flight simulators for the brain. Hearing the nurse's heart-monitor story isn't like being there, but it's the next best thing.

The problem is that when you hit listeners between the eyes they respond by fighting back. The way you deliver a message to them is a cue to how they should react. If you make an argument, you're implicitly asking them to evaluate your argument—judge it, debate it, criticize it—and then argue back, at least in their minds. But with a story, Denning argues, you engage the audience—you are involving people with the idea, asking them to participate with you.

There is a curious disconnect between the amount of time we invest in training people how to arrive at the Answer and the amount of time we invest in training them how to Tell Others. It's easy to graduate from medical school or an MBA program without ever taking a class in communication. College professors take dozens of courses in their areas of expertise but none on how to teach. A lot of engineers would scoff at a training program about Telling Others.

For an idea to stick, for it to be useful and lasting, it's got to make the audience:
1. Pay attention
2. Understand and remember it
3. Agree/Believe
4. Care
5. Be able to act on it