Review of “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”

Nora Ephron, an American director and journalist, describes her early journalism professor setting an assignment for the class. He asked them to write a lead for their student paper. The lead is the first sentence in a news article – it captures the attention of the reader and sums up the focus of the story. In a news story, the introductory paragraph tells the most important facts and answers the questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

Nora Ephron’s journalism gave them the facts: the entire school faculty will travel to the state capital on Tuesday for a meeting with the Governor, Margaret Mead, as well as a number of other public officials. Each of the students – including Nora – studiously took to the task, writing the leads by re-ordering the facts to accord to who, what, where and so on. Reporting back, the students recounted versions of their leads, focusing on variously the Governor or the benefit for the teachers and so on. After hearing from all of the students, Nora’s journalism teacher told them the lead:

“There will be no school next Tuesday.”

Finding the “core of an idea” – and not burying it – is the single most important thing we can do. Journalists use the idea of the “lead” to find the most important aspect of a story and to tell it first. Less important details that add extra information are added later. Because stories can get abruptly cut for space reasons, journalists focus on the lead so that if part of their story gets cut, it still makes sense. It’s the “inverted pyramid”.

Nora Ephron’s idea of journalism changed when her journalism teacher told her the lead was “there will be no school next Tuesday”. She knew that journalists needed to find the most important elements of a story, but these five words demonstrated it so powerfully that it stuck with her for the rest of her life. What she and all her class-mates had thought were the key issues – the governor, the benefits for the teachers – where overturned. The core idea of the school’s teachers going to the state capital, when boiled down, was the impact it would have on the rest of the community.

Distilling an idea to the most important idea is “finding it’s core”. Just like “Aliens” is “Jaws on a spaceship” or “Speed” is “Die Hard on a bus”. The inverted pyramid forces you to prioritise your message. You don’t need to oversimplify or dumb down your ideas. “Jaws on a spaceship” or “there will be no school next Tuesday” are quite complex ideas when you delve deeply, but they sentences of just four or five words.

This story is a key theme in Chip and Dan Heath’s “Made to Stick” book, helping explain why some ideas – like urban legends about organ thieves harvesting kidneys or Kentuky Fried Rats – get retold endless, while others don’t survive past the CEO’s announcement.

Made to Stick - Why some ideas survive and others dieMade to Stick

This book could change the way you communicate. Although it is categorised in the “business” section of bookshops, it’s actually much broader and more useful than for just marketers and entrepreneurs. Non-profits and unions will find the lessons and stories in “Made to Stick” invaluable for their campaigns, fundraising appeals and recruitment. While many of the examples are business examples, many more come from schools, non-profits, environmental movements and governments.

Throughout the book, there were scores of times when I thought about how I could apply the lessons to my own work at the union I work for. It made me reconsider many of my pre-concieved notions and “accepted wisdom”.

For any union communications, design or campaigns professional, this book will be invaluable.

The Sticky Rules

The authors argue, successfully, that an idea which has some or all of these 6 characteristics will be more sticky, will be remembered more. The message needs to be:

Simple – If you say 3 things, you say nothing. A successful defense lawyer says, “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.” We cannot remember so many things so strip the message to its core.

Unexpected – When something unexpected happens our attention level goes up. We listen to every word that is being said and therefore end up remembering it better. We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically “opening gaps” in their knowledge — and then filling those gaps.

Concrete – Abstract ideas are hard to remember and act upon. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images — ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors — because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language: “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

Credible – If your message is not credible, it won’t be taken seriously and remembered. Add that element of credibility to your message and more people will do what you say. In the sole U.S. presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable Statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he used the “try before you buy” principle and asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”

Emotional – To make people act on your message you need to make them to care. Research shows that people are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.

Stories – Credibility makes people believe you, emotions make people care but to make people act you need to tell a story. Stories inspire, stories entertain, stories make people act. Construct a story to add punch to your messages. 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.

The good thing about “stickiness”? You don’t need to be a marketing guru or creative expert to make your ideas more sticky. You don’t need a massive budget or agency. By thinking about your ideas and using the principles in Made to Stick, you can make your ideas more successful and memorable.

If you take nothing else away from this review, it should be this story – the one about the main villain of the book – about the “curse of knowledge”.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The StarSpangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. (By the way, this experiment is fun to try at home if there’s a good “listener” candidate nearby.)

The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself — tap out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune — all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.

In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to You” for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless: How could you be so stupid?

The Curse of Knowledge is insider information – the information that people working for non-profits, unions or the government means they no longer remember what its like to not know. We can’t readily imagine what its like to be ignorant of the facts that we take for granted.

By applying the principles of Made to Stick, relative amateurs like you and me can make our ideas more creative, more memorable and more effective. Made to Stick is a great tool kit – a colour by numbers that gives you the rules you need to – if not make all your ideas foolproof – at least a bit better.

What’s even better, the authors, the Brothers Heath, have put together a bunch of useful resources from their book – for free no less – so you can more easily apply the SUCCES rules to your day to day work. Check it out here.

[box type=”info” border=”full”]You can get “Made to Stick” from Amazon.[/box]

3 responses to “Review of “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die””

  1. John Nemo Avatar

    Great, great post! Thank you for putting this together. I heard a lot about this book but it was great to get such a well thought-out analysis of the key takeaways. As a Union PR/Social Media person this is exactly what I needed. Good to see I’m already doing some of this well and need to improve in other areas!

    1. admin Avatar

      Thanks for the feedback. I found it a very interesting book. Combined with George Lakoff’s “The Political Brain”, it is potentially a very powerful tool for unions and progressives.

  2. Mark Lawrence Avatar

    Great post Alex, got to keep those messages short enough for sharing

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