Is it simply because some ideas are just “better than others”? Certainly, there are good ideas and bad ideas, but we can all point to examples of “bad ideas” that have withstood the test of time, while seemingly great ideas have fallen by the wayside. Is it possible then, that there could be standards or principles that the memorable (aka “sticky”) messages share? And perhaps most importantly, if such standards did exist, could they be learned from and reused in our own communications? In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, brothers Dan Heath and Chip Heath set out to answer exactly those questions.
Learning from Urban Legends
In Made to Stick, the brothers Heath boil down the art of creating sticky ideas to two fundamental tasks: determining what your “core” message will be, and then sharing that core message in a way that connects with people. That’s it. There’s nothing all that complicated about it. In fact, the idea is so straight forward that many people miss the key concepts initially. Let’s take a look at them in a little more detail.
Keep it Simple, Stupid
Step one of creating “sticky” ideas is to determine the “core message” of your communication. In simpler terms – you need to understand and define the single most important message you’re trying to convey. Optimal word here? Single. As the Heaths state, “If you attempt to say three things, you end up saying nothing.” If your audience is going to remember only one thing from your message, what would you want that takeaway to be? That single overwhelming point has to be the focus of your message.
The term Heath and Heath use to exemplify that core message is “Commander’s Intent.” Borrowed from the US Army, the term “Commander’s Intent” refers to the overall objective of a particular military mission. In the Army, as the Heaths explain, there are literally thousands of details to be shared and orchestrated between dozens of divisions and platoons. The concept of the “Commanders Intent” was devised to ensure that no matter what you as a soldier were tasked with, you always had a crystal clear understanding of the overall mission objective. The Commander’s Intent could be as simple as “Get Platoon 345 onto Hilltop 24 and neutralize all threats”. Nothing confusing or ambiguous about that. If you’re a soldier, whether you’re in platoon 345 or not, you know the objective of this mission. Simple. Note the difference though between “simple” and “dumbed down.” The purpose of the Commander’s Intent is not to remove the complexity of the operation, but rather to provide an overall purpose to the activities of each soldier.
Visualize for a moment the last time you tried to communicate a particularly important message. What was it you were trying to share? Stop for a second. Don’t glaze over that question. Rather, spend a few moments actually thinking about it. “What was the message you were trying to share?” Can you explain it as cleanly as you’d like? Is there any room for ambiguity or misinterpretation? What was your Commander’s Intent?
Spelling out “Success”
So, what is it that makes urban legends so memorable? Once a “Commander’s Intent” has been established, Heath and Heath explain, a message’s chances of stickiness can be greatly improved by subjecting it to what they’ve cleverly named the “SUCCES” criteria. (Yes, with only one ‘s’ on the end.) While the brothers openly admit the acronym is a bit gimmicky, it works as a remarkably strong tool for remembering the 6 principles of stickiness. In short, they are:
- Simple. Is the message clear? If you’ve done your job in defining your “core,” then this should already be answered.
- Unexpected. When a message is unexpected, it challenges our preconceived notions (or “schemas”), getting our attention. (eg. Some guy named Jared lost 200 pounds eating fast food??? ) When an unexpected point is followed with insight, it generates interest. (Yes, Jared existed on an “all-Subway” diet and lost over 200lbs.) People want to learn more.
- Concrete. Is the message being shared easy to comprehend? Is your audience able to understand the tangible benefits of your idea?
- Credible. What gives you the authority to share this message and be listened to? The Heaths spend almost 50 pages discussing creative ways to give your idea credibility. (For insight on building personal credibility, revisit the Actionable Books article on The Speed of Trust, by Stephen Covey.)
- Emotional. Does the story appeal to a particular emotion? Whether it’s Fear (in the case of urban legends) or Compassion (Chicken Soup for the Soul), people need to connect with the message.
- Story. Undeniably, people connect with stories. It’s in our genetic makeup. Stories help us visualize the events being described, allowing us to transport ourselves into the situation.
Run an urban legend against this checklist. (Heath and Heath use the infamous “Bathtub-full-of-ice-Kidney-Heist” legend as an example. If you don’t know the one I’m referring to, visualize one you do know.)
- Simple Message? Don’t accept drinks from attractive strangers.
- Unexpected? I’ll say. Waking up in a bathtub full of ice is about as unexpected as it gets.
- Concrete? Man on business trip has a drink in a bar, wakes up in a bathtub full of ice missing a kidney. Tangible details make an idea concrete.
- Credible? Always – urban legends almost always begin, “A friend of a friend of mine…” Because there’s some sort of connection, it seems plausible.
- Emotional? The majority of urban legends pray on one emotion – fear.
- Story? The Kidney Harvest Heist is one of the most widely circulated stories of the 20th century.
The checklist holds. Made to Stick, however, is not a book about urban legends. Instead, the book is truly focused on determining the inherent traits of a sticky idea so those traits can be harnessed and taught. Written as a companion text to Malcolm Gladwell’s landmark book, The Tipping Point, Made to Stick is a major accomplishment in its own right. Rich with humour, contemporary examples and tangible applications, Made to Stick contains the resources and tools to transform even the most potentially bland idea into one that makes an impact.