By Chip Heath and Dan Heath
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Do you feel that your ideas lose momentum quickly? You can use the tactics in this book to make your ideas “sticky.” Sticky ideas are those that “are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact – they change your audience’s opinion or behavior.” Sticky ideas have six traits. They are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and told as stories, and this summary covers the counterintuitive and well-researched tactics for transforming your ideas so that they stick. Learn why simple does not mean “dumbed down.” Understand how unexpected is more than a gimmicky surprise and the ways to not just capture but hold your audience’s interest. Hear about how making ideas concrete can help others collaborate on them rather than disengage. Find out how to load your messages with credibility without expert endorsement. Get others to care about your ideas by making them emotional, even for an audience that is far from sappy. And finally, get insight into the best way to tell a story so that others will be inspired to act.
The six qualities of sticky ideas are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story-like. A simple message design is core and compact, like a proverb. It communicates profound insights in few words. Tactics for making your messages simple include using prioritization, taking advantage of schemas, and putting generative analogies into play. Ideas are unexpected when they introduce the element of surprise, yet keep one’s interest. Ways to make your ideas unexpected include breaking a pattern, pushing to uncommon sense, and using the gap theory. The gap theory relies on the premise that people want to know more about something when they realize they are lacking in knowledge. Communicating concretely helps people understand and collaborate on your ideas. Using images, language, and objects, creating experiences, and taking advantage of schemas can be helpful here. All the prior qualities don’t matter if people don’t believe your message, so credibility is important. Credibility can come from authorities or anti-authorities. It can also be conveyed through using details, the human scale principle, or testable credentials. By making your ideas emotional, you can get people to care about them. The best ways to do this are to appeal to self-interest and personal identity. Last, telling stories supplies simulation and inspiration, and greatly increases the likelihood that people will act.
“People are tempted to tell you everything, with perfect accuracy, right up front, when they should be giving you just enough info to be useful, then a little more, then a little more.”
The foundation of a sticky idea is a concept that has been made simple. This does not mean merely “dumbing something down” by using easier or fewer words. Saying less is important, but in addition to making your ideas “compact,” they should also be profound, or focused on the “core.” Sticky messages that meet the “simple” criteria share an insightful perspective or truth in as few words as possible. This helps others understand and latch on to what you are trying to say. If you’re not able to communicate the essence of the idea in plain words, then the idea probably still falls short of the “simple” criteria.
Where “simple” has worked
Let’s look at a few ways that simple, sticky, ideas have been used to great success.
The U.S. military has a history and reputation of a regimented chain-of-command. The meticulously outlined plans dictate the fate of thousands. But there’s a reason the term “fog of war” also exists. Sure, a plan sounds good at the outset, but it is impossible to build in contingencies to account for real life: weather, unexpected maneuvers, damage to equipment or transportation. More importantly, who could recall those contingencies during a dangerous and chaotic war zone?
How has the U.S. military solved this issue? By creating simple, sticky messages. In addition to creating detailed plans, they also craft a message that communicates the core objectives of the detailed planning. This is called the “Commander’s Intent.” The Commander’s Intent, or the “CI,” shares the core objective of the plan so that individuals can still move forward with attempting to accomplish the overall goal even when they are inevitably deterred from the original plan due to unforeseeable circumstances.
“Commander’s Intent manages to align the behavior of soldiers at all levels without requiring play-by-play instructions from their leaders. When people know the desired destination, they’re free to improvise, as needed, in arriving there.”
Take this example of a CI: “Break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region.” There are many ways to break the will of the enemy in the Southeast region, ways that are likely laid out initially in a detailed action plan by the Commander and his team. But, as the efforts begin, it is impossible to know what might occur. The Commander’s Intent is a perfect example of “simple,” because it is core and compact. It is short, but it says a lot. It can be used by many throughout the chain-of-command to know what to do when the plan becomes irrelevant. The Commander’s Intent holds its power because it is simple. And simple is sticky.
THE low-fare airline
Southwest Airlines has a reputation for creating a fun, light-hearted work environment and atmosphere for travelers. But when asked what the “secret to running the company” is, Herb Kelleher, the long-tenured CEO, replied, “We are THE low-fare airline. Once you understand that fact, you can make any decision about this company’s future as well as I can.” This simple message - “We are THE low-fare airline,” is perhaps not what the outsider would have expected as Southwest Airline’s guiding principle. Yet, it is effective because it is not coupled with vision-speak about creating a jolly work culture and experience for flyers. Yes, that aspect of the company’s vision is important, but not as important as relentlessly cutting costs and using a “budget” mentality, at least according to Herb Kelleher. What is perhaps less well known about Southwest is that, while competitors in the airline industry struggle to retain slim margins, Southwest has managed to be profitable for over thirty years. Herb Kelleher enabled profitability by defining success not as an experience that feels good for employees and passengers, but instead as making money. Southwest Airlines has created a “Commander’s Intent” for the organization.
As a result, employees throughout the company have clear direction to guide and prioritize their decision-making. Made to Stick shares the specific example of a marketing staffer who surveyed customers on how to improve the flight experience. She shares the results with senior management: They want a light Caesar salad in place of the peanuts currently served. Kelleher provides the response:
“Will adding that chicken Caesar salad make us THE low-far airline…Because if it doesn’t help us become the unchallenged low-fare airline, we’re not serving any d*** chicken salad.”
The Southwest example of Commander’s Intent is memorable because it is clearly the result of relentless prioritization on behalf of senior executives. Rather than weighing multiple directions simultaneously (i.e., “fun experience” and “low-fare airline”), senior leadership has made it clear which they should choose. And the resulting financial success speaks for itself.
How to make your ideas simple
Making your ideas simple and sticky is not as easy as it seems, but it’s worth the effort because of the way it beautifully applies to any corporate, professional or organizational context. In explaining why Commander’s Intent is used in the military, Colonel Tom Kolditz says:
“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
This is not just applicable for those with military aspirations. Likewise, “No sales plan survives contact with the customer.” “No lesson plan survives contact with teenagers.” We don’t have to be in the fog of war to need messages that are simple in order to stick. Here are some ways to do that.
Apply the Commander’s intent
One way that the military reaches its Commander’s Intent for a mission after much detailed planning is asking the question, “If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must ______,” or “The single, most important thing that we must do tomorrow is ______.” Let’s translate this prioritization exercise to a few business situations as a thought exercise.
The single, most important function of this product is ____________.
The single, most important feeling our customers should leave our stores with is ____________.
If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s meeting, we must ____________.
If we do nothing else on a customer service call, we must ____________.
Using the Commander’s Intent approach can help organizations get the results they want from employees, customers, suppliers, or other stakeholders by focusing efforts and ensuring simplicity.
A lesser known approach to making something simple is leveraging schemas. Schemas are a compilation of associations or memories we make with something.
Do you know what a pomelo is? Here’s a description:
“A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart.” Now let’s use a schema.
“A pomelo is basically a super-sized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind.”
See what happened? Schemas “…substitute something easy to think about for something difficult.” Most of us already have a schema for a grapefruit. Schemas are useful because we don’t live in a simple world. We live in a world of complex ideas and work environments, where distilling complicated topics and plans is very difficult. So, instead of spinning for hours and hours, trying to prioritize and mince words, think of a comparison or a metaphor (in other words, a schema) that might be able to replace a lengthy topic or passage.
Create generative analogies
A third tactic to make ideas meet the “simple” criteria is using generative analogies. This is basically a twist on using schemas. The perfect example here is how Disney calls their theme park employees not “employees” but “cast members.” Disney employees as cast members is a simple and sticky idea because it is core (strikes at the center of the concept), and compact (communicated succinctly). Furthermore, it is a generative analogy because it inspires numerous actions when the analogy is applied. Cast members wouldn’t go on a smoke break onstage, or be seen mouthing off to the director. Likewise, all of Disneys’s cast members, even those such as street sweepers, have an internal “code” for behavior throughout their day to day work. If a cast member wouldn’t do something or act a certain way, neither should they.
The next chapter of Made to Stick covers the second quality of sticky ideas – they are unexpected.
“We can’t succeed if our messages don’t break through the clutter to get people’s attention. Furthermore, our messages are usually complex enough that we won’t succeed if we can’t keep people’s attention.”
The second quality of a sticky idea is one that is unexpected. Two distinct challenges are part of this trait. First, it is important to get the audience’s attention with an unexpected surprise, but taking care not to have the surprise be too hokey or in poor taste. Second, we must hold one’s attention by sustaining their interest in the topic.
Where “unexpected” has worked
Creating the element of surprise calls for walking a fine line between pleasantly clever and distasteful. The main tactics to do this are “breaking a pattern” and pushing through common sense to “uncommon sense.” While capturing attention through surprise is important, perhaps more difficult is retaining the audience’s attention through generating interest. You can generate interest by creating a sense of mystery and leveraging the “gap theory.” That is, teasing your audience with information that they do not yet know so that they’ll want to learn more. Let’s first look at some best in class examples of utilizing the “surprise” component of “unexpected.”
The Enclave minivan
This case study highlights a television commercial for an Enclave minivan. The viewer sees the minivan transporting a family in a typical neighborhood. Three siblings and their parents are on the way home from what looks like football practice. Suddenly, the car enters an intersection and is violently hit by another car running a light. It is a dramatic and catastrophic collision and scene.
There actually is no Enclave minivan. The commercial was sponsored by the Ad Council and the U.S. Department of Transportation and is meant to promote the use of seatbelts. The commercial uses the tactic of breaking a pattern in order to incorporate the element of surprise and unexpectedness. Our schemas expect a minivan commercial to progress in a specific way. Instead, we are jarringly shocked at the unexpected event of the tragic collision. It is not something one is soon to forget. This is one of the most basic ways to surprise someone. Instead of what usually comes next, break the pattern and introduce an unexpected event.
Super Bowl wolves
When architecting the unexpected element of our message, we should be sure not to make them too weird. A “jack in the box” vision for your surprise is not the best approach. During the Super Bowl in 2000, there was a commercial which showed a high school marching band entering a football field in preparation for a performance. Shortly thereafter, the commercial shows hungry wolves tearing on to the field and attacking the band members. This was in poor taste, because the product the commercial was intending to sell had absolutely no connection to the wolves and the terrifying scene. The only purpose the hungry wolves played was to serve as an unexpected surprise to jolt the viewer to attention.
Instead, the surprise should be directly connected to the simple (core and compact) message. The “Enclave” commercial works because the surprise of the traffic accident is in relation to the need to buckle up. The Super Bowl wolves likely just left a lot of people scratching their heads. Avoiding “gimmickry” and “out-there” methods of surprise that have no connection to the main point is best.
Push to uncommon sense – Names, names, names
How else should one think about creating surprise? One way is to challenge yourself to go beyond common sense to uncommon sense. In other words, if the core message on its face appears straightforward or expected, take it just one step further to illustrate the extent of what you mean. This is pushing common sense to uncommon sense.
The Daily Record in Dunn, North Carolina has the highest “rate of penetration” of any local newspaper in the United States. It’s actually at 112%, which means that some households get more than one paper! The secret to the Daily Record’s success is the publisher’s unceasing mantra- “Names, names, names.” While also being an outstanding example of a simple message, the publisher, Hoover Adams, also employs the “push to uncommon sense” tactic with this core message.
Many people understand “names, names, names” to mean that the newspaper’s primary focus should be on local news and local people, a mission not unheard of for a local publication. What is unexpected about Adams’ message, however, is that he means much more than that. He truly means that the paper should publish as many names of individual people as possible. “Names, names, names” isn’t just a memorable way of saying “focus on local news.” It literally means what it says. Hoover explains, “If I could, I’d publish pages from the phone book to get names. In fact, if I could gather up enough names I’d hire more typesetters to lay out more pages so they’d fit.” It is when Adams took the message down an unexpected path of implications that his message was truly surprising.
The next challenge in making ideas and messages unexpected is keeping them interesting. Just as using schemas to make complicated topics simple was necessary due to the complex nature of the topics, so too is this tactic crucial because of the need to explain multiple components of multi-layered ideas and concepts. The field of science is a good example to use in this case.
Robert Cialdini, a university professor and social psychologist, was on a quest to make his scientific lectures and the overall way he spoke about science and research more interesting. He analyzed volumes of scientific articles that were all specifically written for non-scientific audiences. The main consistency he found among them was that they introduced their respective topics in the context of a mystery. He says, “…the most successful of these pieces all began with a mystery story. The authors described a state of affairs that seemed to make no sense and then invited the reader into the material.
Cialdini recalls that one of the more striking and interesting pieces was written by an astronomer telling the tale of the “puzzle” of Saturn’s rings. The predicament was that three independent scientists, all reputable and at elite institutions, claimed that they knew what Saturn’s rings were made of. The problem was that they all said different things – one gas, one dust, and one ice crystals. It turns out the answer was actually dust covered in ice. But that is beside the point. The point is that, by making this densely scientific topic into a mystery, “…that writer had me turning pages like a speed-reader,” says Cialdini. By structuring any piece of information or communication in a similar way, it’s possible to keep the attention of your audiences as well.
The final way to keep your audience rapt and make what you have to say “stickier” is by applying the “gap theory.” The theory here is that people don’t care to hear more about what they don’t understand. If it’s altogether new or foreign, it’s hard to get people invested in what you have to say. The “gap theory” builds on the research of George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist, who claimed that people want to know more about something when they realize they are lacking in knowledge.
“Our tendency is to tell people the facts. First, though, they must realize that they need these facts. The trick to convincing people that they need our message, according to Loewenstein, is to first highlight some specific knowledge that they’re missing.”
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