Read this book if: You want to get better at making your ideas heard and remembered.
The authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath, are “worthy successors to Robert Cialdini”, according to author Dan Pink. Anyone who’s read and enjoyed Cialdini’s great work, Influence, will find value in reading Made to Stick. It’s also a great read if you enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. While Cialdini looked at how and why people are able to generally influence others, the Heath brothers take a critical look at why certain ideas make an impression and stand the test of time. This has tremendous practical application in a world constantly bombarded with information and a rapidly shortening attention span.
Making your ideas stick and resonate with others is important not only for marketers, salespeople, and ad execs, but also for a mother trying to instill good habits in her 12 year old or a COO conveying the company’s core values to her team.
How do we make ideas stick? Based on their extensive research, Dan and Chip distill it down to 6 key factors
- Simple – “to strip an idea down to it’s core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentlessly prioritize.”
- Unexpected – “we need to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counter intuitive.”
- Concrete – naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images and human actions. Ambiguous ideas don’t stick nearly as well
- Credible – Using a credible source is much more effective for stickiness than a mass of numbers and statistics
- Emotional – People care about ideas because they feel something about them
- Stories – They paint a vivid picture of a situation that allows us to get deeply involved and connected
Why Stories Stick Best
As they moved through the various factors in the book, they certainly saved the best for last. The stickiest and most memorable ideas are stories that make use of all the other factors that come before them. Many stories that we all still recall go back thousands of years. King Solomon ordering a baby cut in two. The prodigal son. Aesop’s fables. Noah’s ark. Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
These stories have no PR, marketing department, or advertising budget. They spread organically and stand on their own merit. They also make heavy use of many of the factors described by Dan and Chip Heath. Take the example of King Solomon, one of the most indelible stories from the Bible. Two women claiming to be the mother of a child in a custody battle go before King Solomon for judgment. He summarily orders the live baby split in two by a sword so each woman would receive half of the child. The true mother cries out in anguish and says the baby should go to the other woman. At this point, Solomon knows the true mother is the one who would give up the child to save its life.
This parable is jam packed with factors that would predict it to be sticky by the Heaths. It’s unexpected (splitting a live baby in two!), filled with concrete images (the court of Solomon, a huge sword, a baby, two would be mothers), credible (the King is laying down justice), and emotional (will they kill the child??). The simplicity of the message is also clearly an argument against moderation. It’s a cautionary tale not to automatically compromise by finding a middle ground between two opposing positions. But how much less memorable would it be to read that definition in a dictionary than to hear the tale of Solomon’s judgement?
Avoiding the Curse of Knowledge
One of the big themes the Heaths return to constantly throughout the book is the ‘curse of knowledge’. Experts and professionals can spend months, years, or decades learning answers to various questions in their field of study. Then they may only get a matter of minutes to convey this knowledge, whether at a cocktail party, in a TED talk, or to a business partner or prospective client. The curse of knowledge blinds us to the basic information a newbie needs to hear in order to get excited and involved in the idea. The more advanced we get at something, the more we tend to talk or write in abstractions and jargon that doesn’t stick. This doesn’t mean you need to dumb something down, but instead find a simple, concrete, unexpected, and emotional story that will resonate with people.
The curse of knowledge is a massive problem in the health and fitness world. Any exercise scientist, personal trainer, or nutritionist who spends years of their life passionately learning about muscle contractions, energy pathways, and nutrient metabolism will feel a burning desire to convey the detail and nuance to people, seeing it as the key to changing habits and understanding how to eat and exercise for long term health. In reality, nobody wants to know this stuff except the professionals. Ask the average person what cholesterol actually is and 99 out of 100 probably won’t be able to tell you. You could be the most knowledgeable nutritionist in the world and teach your clients an entire textbook worth of information and they might not lose a pound.
On the flip side, look at Nutrisystem. It’s a simple program based around a combination of pre-made meals and real food (simple). Their commercials have transformation stories with celebrities (credible) losing dozens of pounds (emotional), some of them being formerly huge football players (unexpected). Nutrisystem has been a massive success. I personally know half a dozen people in my family and office who have used it to lose anywhere from 30-60 pounds. Nutrition is all about compliance. You need to truly believe in what you’re doing and incorporate it into your daily habits. In other words, it has to be sticky for it to work. It’s not a surprise at all that a hugely successful program like Nutrisystem has nailed the sticky factors down cold.
What’s the Take Away?
The biggest two takeaways from this book are 1) work relentlessly to craft better stories based on the Heaths’ factors and 2) always put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you’re trying to convey a message to them to avoid the curse of knowledge. Whether you’re trying to close a customer, lobbying for a new project at work, arguing your political views, or explaining the concept of manifest destiny to a stranger, this book is a great read and there are nuggets of wisdom in there for anyone. Highly recommended!