By Chip Heath and Dan Heath
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.”
A key nuance to Loewenstein’s research is that the more we know, the more we become aware of what we don’t know, and therefore the more curious we become at resolving that gap. A young, twenty-nine year old staffer at ABC Sports in the 1960s was operating in this vein when he wrote a three page memo for senior executives, pitching ways to improve coverage of college football. The staffer, Roone Arledge, would go on to become the head of ABC Sports and ABC News and found the Wide World of Sports, Monday Night Football, 20/20, and Nightline. Though his successes came prior to Loewenstein’s research, Arledge’s thesis of how to engage viewers in sports games they may not otherwise care about is in line with the gap theory.
Whereas before coverage focused on the narrow lens of the game itself, Arledge’s approach was to “bring the viewer to the game,” not the “game to the viewer.” He prioritized broadcasting things like the history of team rivals, fans tailgating, the hype of the game within the college town, and the overall feel of game day. In summary, he theorized that providing the context around the game would draw viewers into the game itself and make them aware of a “gap” in their knowledge. His approach was clearly a success.
How to make your ideas unexpected
Several tactics for the trait of “unexpected” can be applied to our own lives. If we want to get someone’s surprise, break a pattern in a way that is unexpected, yet clever at the same time. Also, be sure to push from common sense to uncommon sense. When explaining that all printed materials should be formatted according to the company’s brand standards, use an unexpected example that will stick. “We take brand standards seriously here, and we mean it. If a toilet goes down, even that “Out of Order” sign better be in the right font and colors.” Lastly, use the “gap theory” and the concept of a mystery story to keep your audience interested to fully hear you out. Say you work in supply chain and are pitching to a supervisor the reasons for switching to a more costly supplier for a specific component of the product due to repeated failures of the mechanism. Instead of starting with the economics of why this would result in fewer products returned and replaced, introduce it as a mystery – “Why were customers returning our product so frequently?”
Breaking a pattern, pushing through to uncommon sense, and applying the gap theory can all help your ideas become more unexpected, and therefore more sticky.
“Concreteness creates a shared ‘turf’ on which people can collaborate. Everybody in the room feels comfortable that they’re tackling the same challenge.”
Making things concrete implies that we should stop talking and writing in the abstract, and start using words that reflect real life, in the concrete. If someone is attempting to share a topic with others, it’s most likely that he or she is very knowledgeable about the topic. With extensive knowledge often comes the use of abstract, technical language, or buzz words. This makes it much harder for concepts to be understood and remembered, and even harder for two or more people to engage together on the topic due to a lack of shared understanding. So, making ideas more concrete both improves others’ recall and also fosters a sense of teamwork and collaboration due to enabling a common language around the concrete image.
Where “concrete” has worked
Understand and remember
This chapter in Made to Stick begins with the re-telling of one of Aesop’s fables “The Fox and the Grapes.” (The fox assumes the grapes are sour because he cannot reach them and is disappointed). This is a story that has withstood the test of time not only because it relates a truth that resonates, but also because of its use of simple imagery – a fox, an orchard, grapes, a hot summer day. Anyone can picture it. Contrast that with the dense lingo, jargon, and – even worse – acronyms that abound in today’s corporate world, and it is clear to see how we can get through a presentation and be staring at blank faces without a clue what was just said. We’ll see a few modern-day examples of how others made their ideas concrete and sticky, and then offer a few pointers of how to apply it yourself.
The Nature Conservatory’s landscape celebrities
The Nature Conservatory is a non-profit organization that raises money to protect vulnerable environments. In 2002, it began facing a challenge of how to make donors really understand what their money was going to and feel compelled to give. Their previous approach – “bucks and acres” – literally allowed donors to purchase acres of land outright, and therefore guarantee its preservation. As the Nature Conservatory struggled to protect more land, they realized that they couldn’t buy it all and instead needed to fund certain protections against it. This was much less tangible for donors.
So, they took a creative approach of making these quantities of land more concrete. They invented “landscapes,” not the word, but the way that it applied to their goals. Instead of setting goals in terms of “number of acres protected,” they set out to protect fifty “landscapes.” It was much easier to have a conversation with a donor about the “Mount Hamilton Wilderness” (a set of brown hills to the east of Silicon Valley) than “those brown hills.” By inventing these names and calling them landscapes, they made this concept much more concrete for donors and inspired more giving. Making something concrete when it otherwise wouldn’t be is one way to help others understand and remember your ideas.
The Ferraris go to Disney
As mentioned previously, making ideas concrete can also increase the odds that others will have an easier time collaborating on them or discussing them together. This is important for stickiness, because a message can’t travel if others can’t discuss it with one another.
HP wanted to establish a venture with Disney wherein Disney would use their technology as part of the user experience in the parks. In order to impress the Disney executives and get them to sign, HP hired an independent consulting firm to help them get their message across. The firm took their pitch to the next level, and made it concrete.
Instead of a PowerPoint presentation or something similar, the consultants created a life-size, interactive exhibit about a fictional family called the “Ferraris.” The exhibit was set in the Ferraris’s home, and displayed actual technology throughout that featured how their Disney experience had been enhanced by HP’s technology. Because of the concreteness of the exhibit, it was a hit. Those at both HP and Disney could not stop talking about it. Because there was something so tangible between them, it made it much easier to have a discussion about and collaborate on the possibilities. News of the display spread like wildfire and it remained up much longer than originally planned due to the excitement.
How to make your ideas concrete
The maroon portfolio
Making ideas more concrete and tangible is something anyone can do. Made to Stick shares the example of a young man pitching his idea for a notebook computer to a prestigious venture capital firm. The firm ended up investing millions of dollars in his idea. But the young man, Jerry Kaplan, began the meeting convinced it was going to be a train wreck.
While waiting for his turn in the board room, Kaplan saw every other entrepreneur begin their presentation in a crisp suit, prepared with their extensive business plan in hand. He realized that he, in contrast, had come ostensibly unprepared, with only his maroon leather portfolio and a pad of paper in hand. He began his presentation by sharing the gist of his idea – a personal, portable computer that could store information and perform tasks on the go. In the midst of an awkward silence, he risked a theatrical approach that ended up being the key to his success, due to its ability to make his idea concrete and an object of collaboration. Kaplan recounts, “I tossed my maroon leather case in the air. It sailed to the center of the table where it landed with a loud clap. ‘Gentlemen, here is a model of the next step in the computer revolution.’”
Kaplan describes the interactions that followed this gesture as, “It had been magically transformed from a stationary-store accessory into a symbol of the future of technology.” He describes the senior partners and experts beginning a collaborative thought exercise with his portfolio as the centerpiece. They debated how much information a computer of that size could store, its possible functions and capabilities. It was by taking his abstract, futuristic idea, and making it concrete that Kaplan was able to capture the attention of the venture capital partners in a way that the previous entrepreneurs with their slick presentations hadn’t. “It changed their attitude from reactive and critical to active and creative.” Providing something concrete opens peoples’ attitudes and minds in a way that keeping ideas in the abstract keeps closed.
This is a tactic to consider employing when we are trying to help our ideas and strategies go the extra mile. What about selecting an object or item that embodies the qualities you wish to inspire among your team for a period of time? Major world religions use this ubiquitously (e.g., a crucifix or statue of Buddha). Perhaps your motivational speech about the need to untangle foreign market regulation in the next quarter would be better remembered if it were accompanied by a globe on display. Making something tangible can make all the difference between something people are excited to talk about and work together on, and something people avoid or ignore.
Rick Warren’s megachurch, Saddleback Church, in California, is a bustling operation. It has countless ministries and no doubt a very large budget to support its many activities in the community and beyond. However, it is at its core a church, and is always looking to bring on new members and help serve their spiritual needs.
Saddleback Church is not just any church, however. It has over 50,000 members. What enabled this success? Of course there are many pieces to the puzzle, but undoubtedly one of the components is Saddleback’s ability to be clear-eyed and concrete about its target “audience.” “Over the years, the church’s leaders have created a detailed picture of the kind of person they’re trying to reach. They call him ‘Saddleback Sam.’” Saddleback Sam isn’t just a nice nickname. It is an entire fictional person, fleshed out to the very last detail. “His age is late thirties or early forties. He has a college degree and may have an advanced degree…Surveys show that Sam likes his job, he likes where he lives, and he thinks he’s enjoying life more now than he was five years ago.” The description goes on. Saddleback Church has learned how to harness the power of concreteness to help them grow their church and offer relevant ministries. Now, instead of every idea being subject to anyone and everyone’s opinions, it is put in front of only one: Saddleback Sam. By describing him in the concrete, it is possible to extrapolate what “Saddleback Sam” would think of any given event or decision. Just as we have seen with the previous qualities of sticky ideas described, something concrete has the power to be digested by and influence the decisions of many varied decision-makers.
One clear application for those wishing to make their ideas more concrete and stickier could be to do this same exercise for your customer base. Perhaps you have a few segments you are trying to reach and not just one “Saddleback Sam.” Go ahead and create a persona for that customer. You might be surprised at how much more easily and intuitively it is to make decisions when you have your customer in the conference room with you, at least in the fictional sense.
“We can’t route our memos through people’s mothers to add credibility.”
Credibility is another key to creating or spotting sticky ideas. The idea has to be believable to be remembered and shared with others, or else it is easy to dismiss. For those who aren’t experts or who don’t have expert endorsement, there are a few creative ways to enhance the credibility of ideas.
Where “credibility” has worked
Pam Laffin, the anti-authority
A powerful way to appear credible is to invoke authorities. This is also one of the more straightforward approaches. Made to Stick relates the example of an urban legend that took off under the claim that bananas from Costa Rica were spreading flesh-eating bacteria. The emails claimed stamps of approval from the FDA, the Manheim Research Institute, the Center for Disease Control, and other institutions. Though that email was a ruse and lie, it still stands that the more you can tie prestigious brands and institutions to your idea, it is more likely that others will find you credible. What about the concept of “anti-authority,” or, someone who would on the face of it have no apparent value in supporting the cause?
Pam Laffin was hired to be the face of the anti-smoking campaigns of the mid-1990s. She is the perfect example of the anti-authority because she is at the same time both an average person and someone who couldn’t be in a more perfect position to convince others to give up cigarette smoking. At the time that she began speaking on behalf of the campaign, she was a twenty-nine year old mother who had begun smoking at age ten. Ultimately, she would pass away at age thirty-one as a result of her smoking, but not before becoming an extremely effective spokespersons about the dangers of smoking. Ms. Laffin is an anti-authority because she does not come with any fancy credentials or research studies to her name. Instead, she brings real-life experience with the topic at hand. She is relatable and people will believe her because, unlike the authorities, she is like me and you – an anti-authority.
The dancing 73-year-old
A lesser-known tactic for enhancing credibility is to use lots of convincing details. There are studies that have shown that providing more detail, even where irrelevant to your argument at hand, makes others more likely to believe your case.
The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange (LLDE) was participating in a conference designed to help certain non-profits hone in on their core mission and values. When it was LLDE’s chance to share their draft mission statement, they claimed “diversity” as a core value, but was met with much skepticism from other participants in the conference. The others thought LLDE was just saying nice words and under-appreciating their value.
LLDE managed to silence its critics by using a convincing detail. They shared the identity of one of their longest members. Thomas Dwyer “is a seventy-three year old man…he came to the LLDE after a full career working for the U.S. government…and had no previous dance experience.” Being able to quickly and fluently highlight the small but robust detail was a huge point of credibility for LLDE among its fellow organizations. They were persuaded that LLDE did indeed have diversity as a core value.
Nuclear warhead BB’s
Credibility can also be easily gained through a basic awareness of the human scale principle. The basic premise is that things can be much more easily intuited if they are illustrated in terms that a human can relate to. The goal of the 1980s organization Beyond War was to raise awareness and the public outcry against nuclear weapons. They would go door to door with their case, hoping to spread awareness and gain support. One of their key challenges was helping people believe and make sense of the important detail of the number of nuclear weapons currently in existence. The number – 5,000 – was one that people certainly understood to be large, but was not on a scale that was easily internalized.
So, they brainstormed ways to make this credible statistic more accessible. They brought along a few props to their house calls, specifically a metal bucket and some BBs. First, they dropped one BB into the bucket and asked people to visualize that single BB as the Hiroshima bomb, describing the utter destruction that single bomb wrought. One BB representing a single nuclear bomb is a scale that people could visually and audibly sense. Then, they proceeded to pour 5,000 BBs into the metal bucket. “’This is the world’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons’…The noise was startling, even terrifying…‘The roar of the BBs went on and on.’”
This demonstration helps drive home the point that, “Statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves. Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than the number.” When enhancing the credibility of our arguments or messages by weaving in important statistics, it’s important not to lose sight of this fact, and make an effort to highlight the relationships the statistics give color to.
NBA rookie orientation
The last tactic for making your ideas more credible is to create experiences where people who are skeptical of your claim actually try out and are themselves convinced through “testing” your claim. This is called “testable credentials.”
In the 1980 presidential debate, Ronald Reagan employed this tactic when seeking to prove the need for a new candidate (himself) instead of re-electing Jimmy Carter for a second term. “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Rather than trying to convince his audience with the statistics of the country’s supposed deterioration under Carter, Reagan asked the audience to ask themselves whether the statistics were true, given their personal experience.
Another striking example of this in action was the NBA’s effort to teach rookies about the dangers of sexual transmitted diseases, especially given the attention they would receive as new basketball stars. They essentially planted actresses in the hotel bar where the rookie orientation was being held. Unknowingly, the rookies exchanged contact information and plans with the attractive women at the bar. The next day, it was revealed that the women were plants, and that they were in fact HIV positive. We can imagine how much more the NBA’s message about avoiding STDs rung true for those who had been duped by the experience. They are probably much more likely to agree that the NBA has a credible case in warning them against the dangers they will face in their new career.
How to make your ideas credible
In addition to invoking authorities or “anti-authorities” (those who have no formal credentials, but are believable due to their deep experiences), there are several other tactics you can employ when trying to enhance the credibility of your ideas. Of course, if possible it is usually beneficial to cite a trusted authority or thought leader. But, giving a platform to those who speak from experience might resonate just as deeply. In addition, adding specific details that support the most vulnerable areas of your argument can also be an effective way of deflecting skepticism. And, speaking or illustrating things on a “human scale” is also important in getting others to believe you, especially if part of your case relates to numbers or statistics. And lastly, maybe one of the most effective ways at getting people to believe you is for them to see for themselves. There is no teacher quite like experience.
“Belief counts for a lot, but belief isn’t enough. For people to take action, they have to care.”
Even if someone is presented with a simple idea, is unexpected by it, can understand it because it’s concrete and believe it because it’s credible, there is no guarantee that the idea will be “sticky,” because there are no guarantees that your audiences cares at all. That is why making your ideas emotional is so important. Getting people to care through emotion is the key to helping sticky ideas spread.
Where “emotional” has worked
The greatest copywriter of all time
One way of getting people to care about what you have to say is quite frank – tell them what’s in it for them. One of the most successful copywriters of all time was a man by the name of John Caples. His job was to write leads for mail-order advertising, a method of advertising that could track which specific ad had generated a sale. In this way, he could perfect his language and know exactly what would get people to care. The overwhelming trend was towards messages that highlighted self-interest. Caples explains, “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!).” Consider a few of Caple’s storied leads: You Can Laugh at Money Worries if You Follow This Simple Plan; The Secret of How to Be Taller; Retire at 55.
What is interesting is that it may not necessarily be the benefit itself that is drawing us in. Made to Stick details several studies that illustrate that people were more likely to buy a product when they could imagine themselves enjoying it. It wasn’t necessarily a gigantic benefit, or one they had always dreamed of. “This finding suggests that it may be the tangibility, rather than the magnitude, of the benefits that makes people care.” So, helping people through exercises where they can imagine themselves receiving a benefit may help them to care more than trying to meet their every exact need.
Maslow’s Pyramid is a framework for understanding different needs and wants that are part of the human experience. For example, “self-actualization – realizing our own potential, self-fulfillment, peak experiences” is near the top, while “security – protection, safety, and stability” is near the bottom. Again, studies showed a surprising finding. When asked to identify benefits that appeal to themselves, people chose benefits that met the needs on relatively high levels of the pyramid. For example, saying that a $1,000 bonus mattered to them because of its signal that the company valued their contributions to the company. On the contrary, when asked why they thought the bonus would be appealing to others, they largely chose reasons like its ability to be used towards home improvements, or providing security for emergency cases. “In other words, a lot of us think everyone else is living in Maslow’s basement – we may have the penthouse apartment, but everyone else is living below.”
Therefore, appealing to self-interest can take a more straightforward form (e.g., using “you”) or a more thoughtful approach – appealing to someone’s sense of self and personal and professional goals.
Texan truck drivers
A second way to get people to care is to tap into their sense of identity and exert a “peer pressure” tactic of sorts. Some interesting research on voting behavior shows that people, contrary to common sense, do not vote in their self-interest. They don’t vote for policies that would benefit their particular tax bracket or move forward legislation that would enhance their personal situation. Instead, studies have shown that people vote based on identity – how they think someone “like themselves” should vote. “In forming [political] opinions, people seem to ask not ‘What’s in it for me?’ but rather, ‘What’s in it for my group?”
In the 1980s, the state of Texas hired outside consultants to help them figure out how to decrease litter on the highways. It was becoming a costly and unsightly problem, and was perpetrated by many, a large portion of whom were truck drivers. The state knew that a traditional anti-litter campaign would not work for this demographic. Appealing to sympathetic emotions by persuading the truck drivers to care for the environment was not going to work.
It may be helpful to remind ourselves of the goal of making our ideas “emotional” – to get others to care. It is not just for emotion’s sake, and we cannot forget the wide swath of emotions that others experience. In this case, the campaign was designed to play on the identity of the many littering truck drivers. The consultants designed a campaign that leveraged a cadre of famous Texan men who also met the loose criteria of those whom a truck driver would identify with. This included primarily athletes and country music stars, all of whom were from Texas. These men appeared in short adds whose gist was to come down hard on litterers using the catchphrase “Don’t mess with Texas.” The result was a 72% decrease in visible roadside litter in Texas in the five years after the campaign.
How to make your ideas emotional
It will work in your favor to make your ideas appeal to others’ emotions, because if they emotionally connect with an idea, they are more likely to care about it, which motivates action.
Try to weave self-interest in your communications. Tell them what’s in it for them, not what you hope they will be impressed about in your idea or yourself. One trick is to more frequently use the word “you.” This can create the subtle difference between an abstract claim and something that hits home. And, tell them what’s in it for them in a way that helps them visualize the benefit tangibly. Remember, it’s not necessarily how impressive the benefit is, it’s how well the audience can imagine themselves experiencing it.
And, as you are enumerating the benefits to appeal to the audience’s self-interest, keep in mind that everyone else isn’t at the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid. Many people may be more likely to be motivated by higher-order rewards such as professional development or mentorship opportunities rather than that weekend trip to an exotic destination or a cash prize.
“The story’s power, then, is twofold: It provides simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act)."
The last trait to consider when planning to deliver messages that stick is the concept of “stories.” When ideas are conveyed in story format, it is more likely that others will act as a result of the tale due to two reasons. First, while listening to stories being told, our mind and body automatically go through a mental rehearsal. When we feel even the slightest that we too have experienced something (due to this simulation), it’s more likely that the story will stick with us. The second reason stories are an effective method of communication is because of their potential to provide inspiration to the listener. When someone is inspired, they are more likely to act as a result. And by getting people to act on our idea, we are inherently helping it to spread and to “stick.”
Where “stories” have worked
Take the scene of a group of Xerox copier repairmen eating lunch together. One of them has recently encountered a complex problem in a printer. He engages in “shop talk” at the lunch table. And, apart from being interesting to his fellow repairmen, it is also a way for them to learn and rehearse how they would have responded if it had been them who encountered the issue. After sharing all the dead ends he went down and the misleading signals he followed, the repairman shares that the issue was finally resolved. Whether they realize it or not, his fellow repairmen listeners are probably much more likely to be able to solve a similar issue themselves than if a corporate memo had been issued with the directive of how to resolve the issue.
Since they had listened in to the series of steps as a story, they themselves had mentally gone through the motions and it was engrained in their memory more tightly. Mental stimulation is effective because, when we hear someone detail an experience or walk us through the steps they took, scientific studies have shown that the same location in the brain is stimulated as it would be if we were actually participating in the physical activity itself.
Plots to inspire
The second way that stories are helpful in the sense of stickiness is that they have the power to be incredibly inspirational. After analyzing scores of inspirational stories, three main plots emerged for stories that are meant to inspire. Any of them can be employed to draw a little inspiration from your reader or listener.
The Challenge plot can be summarized in the prototypical David and Goliath tale. A smaller, apparently weaker protagonist is faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. But somehow, he or she ends up heroic, mustering enough bravery and fortitude to outsmart, outlast, or overpower the opponent. We are inspired by Challenge plots because we see a little bit of ourselves in the underdog. We listen to the story and want to be better ourselves. We have more strength and energy to conquer our own challenges. Using Challenge plots in telling stories can help them stick, because it can inspire people to act as a result of your tale.
Connection plots are used in stories that have relationships as their focus. They detail the arc of the meaningful connections humans make with one another, especially when the connection is unlikely. This human connection can take the form of goodwill and kindness (the Good Samaritan), romance (Romeo and Juliet), or friendship. Just as we are inspired with challenge plots to face the setbacks in our own life with grit and determination, connection plots motivate us to be better social beings and citizens. “They make us want to help others, be more tolerant of others, work with others, love others.” If you are trying to inspire your audience to take an altruistic or loving action, consider going with a Connection plot.
The last of the three inspirational plots is the Creativity plot. This is similar to the “Challenge plot,” but more directly focuses on “someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way.” The Creativity plot is the backbone behind the MacGyver series.
A short example comes from employees at the corporation Ingersoll-Rand. One day, frustrated with the long time span required to get a new product approved, the company launched a new group whose goal was to create a new product in under a year, a quarter of the time it typically took. For this new product, they needed to know whether a new product material was as durable as the existing material. Instead of waiting months and months for the lab testing, they solved the problem in a creative and scrappy way. They tied samples of each of the materials to the bumper of a car and drove around an empty parking lot, dragging the materials behind them until authorities asked them to leave. The materials held up similarly, and the decision had been made.
Creativity plots propel us forward with new energy around our own ability to be innovative. It is particularly motivating for those facing mental challenges or for those who feel trapped in the same old method of doing things. Creativity plots give a light at the end of the tunnel, illuminating new ways of doing things accomplished by everyday individuals.
How to use stories
So how can these insights about stories being “simulations” and inspirational be applied to our lives and goals? Just a few of the scenarios where stories could be leveraged include the following. When conducting employee training or introducing a new effort that will require large scale behavioral change, trying using a story because of its value as a simulation. Perhaps when forming a new team or in a merger situation where employees are coming together, weave in Connection plots to inspire them to remember the value of unity rather than division. If kicking off a creative or strategic effort to answer a deep-rooted organizational issue, consider telling a Creativity plot to inspire the team to persevere despite the past history.
Along with the five other qualities of a sticky idea or message, stories can be used in any situation where the goal is for the audience to understand, remember, believe, care about, and act on what you are trying to communicate.