Sometimes you need to make an idea ‘stick’. In other words, you need people to remember it, and tell other people about it. Saying this, and actually getting it to happen, however, are two completely different things. The book Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, is all about just this.
The Heaths are brothers, who realised that they had both been working for years on the science of ideas, but from different angles. Chip was a professor at Stanford interested in urban myths—perhaps the stickiest of all sticky ideas, because they endure even without any evidence behind them. Dan was chief executive of a company trying to provide educational texts in a new way, to make it easier for students to learn. Made to Stick brings their expertise together.
Six characteristics of ‘sticky’ ideas
The core of the book is that sticky ideas share six characteristics:
Simplicity – Made to Stick suggests that perhaps the ultimate in sticky ideas is a proverb. The same ideas are expressed in very similar terms in a surprisingly large number of languages, and are repeated in pretty much the same words each time. A rolling stone gathers no moss. Fine feathers make fine birds. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Simple, easy, memorable—but also profound. These are ideas that matter, because they go right to the heart of the issue.
Unexpectedness – Memorable ideas tend to be unexpected. They surprise us, and that’s partly why we remember them, because they jolt us out of our tendency to believe that we ‘know’ stuff. To generate long-term interest, however, you need to rely on more than just surprise. Your idea needs to make people curious, and want to engage with it. One way to do that is to show people what they don’t know, and then fill the gap in their knowledge.
Concreteness – The idea has to be expressed in terms that can be seen or grasped. Abstract ideas are much harder to understand, which is why nobody can ever remember a corporate mission statement. If you think about proverbs, they are basically ways to express abstract ideas in concrete terms. No smoke without fire doesn’t mean that it is important to remember that smoke comes from fires. It is a way to illustrate the (abstract) idea that there is generally a foundation for gossip and rumours.
Credibility – Your idea has to be credible. This means that people have to be able to believe it. This does not mean, however, that you need to provide reams of statistics to back it up. That is actually more likely to turn people off, because they will think that you are trying to ‘blind them with science’. Instead, you need to find a simple, concrete way to demonstrate credibility, linked to people’s personal experience, especially if you cannot rely on personal status.
Emotional – A sticky idea engages people’s emotions: it makes them ‘feel’ something, rather than just think. Logical thinking is helpful, but it is not really memorable. Generating an emotional response is much more likely to drive both interest and action. For example, recent drink-driving campaigns have tapped into concern about parents being killed and leaving children alone, or individuals’ fear of being incapacitated but not killed. By using footage of children weeping, the idea is much more powerful than mere words.
Stories – Finally, the stickiest ideas are conveyed by stories. We know that humans are hard-wired to remember stories: they are part of our shared history going back thousands of years. New stories have the same ‘stickiness’ as myths and legends. They help us to remember ideas.
What prevents sticking?
Made to Stick notes, however, that if making ideas stick was as easy as this list, then all ideas would be sticky. The most important thing that prevents ideas from sticking is what the Heaths describes as the ‘Curse of Knowledge’. They note that once you know something, you cannot ‘unknow’ it and it changes your perception. In other words, once you are familiar with an idea, it is hard, if not impossible, to remember what it was like not to have that information.
This makes it much harder to communicate the idea effectively. The only way forward is to go back to basics, and use the six principles of sticky ideas. This, in a nutshell, is the core of Made to Stick. That idea alone is important enough that it seems likely that this book will be sticking around for a while.