“The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern.”
― Chip Heath, Made to Stick.
Takeaway: Sticky ideas are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and tell a story.
What makes an idea memorable and how do you communicate your message in a way that people take action? “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip and Dan Heath is an all-time bestseller that answers this question. While at Stanford GSB, I had the pleasure to take a class with Chip Heath about how to make ideas stickier. By sticky, the Heaths mean ideas people remember and understand and that will inspire them to change their opinion or behavior. In this post, I want to share with you the key principles I learned from this class and the book.
According to the Heath brothers, what makes it hard for us to communicate our ideas in an engaging and memorable way is the so-called “Curse of Knowledge”. This curse is our tendency to have a lot of insider information when sharing an idea with others, which makes it hard to communicate it in a way that sticks with people without that knowledge.
Fortunately, the authors have come up with six principles that beat this curse and that make ideas stickier. These principles are Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotional and Stories and can be summarized in the acronym “SUCCESs”:
Strip an idea to its core without turning it into a silly sound bite. Relentlessly prioritize and create a one-sentence statement that is both simple and profound. Apply the inverted pyramid from journalism: Start with the core of your message (the lead), only then add details in declining order of importance.
Violate people’s expectations, be counterintuitive, surprise them. Entertain people’s curiosity over a long period of time by opening gaps in their knowledge – make them aware that they are missing an important piece of information they want to have. Ask a question, give them a puzzle / a teaser or present to them a situation without a resolution. And then fill those gaps over time.
An idea becomes concrete when it can be described or detected by the human senses – when it is full of vivid images they can see, hear, smell or feel. Use simple comparisons, stories or props.
Sticky ideas have to carry credentials, help people test your idea for themselves. Use concrete details, testable credentials, statistics or find the one test case that makes your idea completely credible (called the “Sinatra test”).
For people to take action, they have to care. Create empathy for specific individuals, show how ideas are associated with things that people already care about, appeal to their self-interest, and their current and aspirational identities.
Use one of the three major plots to tell a story:
- The Challenge Plot, the classic underdog triumphing over adversity.
- The Connection Plot, a story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap (racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic etc.).
- The Creativity Plot, a story of someone solving a puzzle, being innovative or having a mental breakthrough.
In the book and the class, the Heath brothers share plenty of examples and anecdotes that illustrate these principles really well. I highly recommend reading the book to get a deep, hands-on course in communicating ideas.