These are my notes on ideas and concepts I found interesting — not a comprehensive summary of the book. Buy the book →
What are Sticky Ideas?
The ideas most of us traffic in every day are interesting, but not sensational. Truthful, but not mind-blowing. Important, but not ‘life or death’.
So which ideas stick? Ideas that are (1) understandable, (2) memorable, and (3) effective in changing thought or behaviour.
The Six Principles of Stickiness: The SUCCESs Template
Almost all sticky ideas share the same six principles:
To strip an idea down to its core, you must first know what to exclude.
Violate people’s expectations. Engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically ‘opening gaps’ in their knowledge — and then filling those gaps.
Explain your ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that your idea will mean the same thing to everyone in your audience.
Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials.
You need to make people feel something. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.
Hearing stories acts like a mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond quickly and effectively.
So how do you make your idea stick?
There are only two steps in making your ideas sticky:
- Find the core (see I. Simplicity).
- Translate the core using the SUCCESs checklist.
Oh, and watch out for the villains (see footer).
The first step is to find the core of your idea.
Turns out the army nailed this already: CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every military order, specifying a plan’s goal.
I could spend a lot of time enumerating every specific task, but as soon as people know what the intent is they begin generating their own solutions.
It is recommended officers arrive at the CI by asking two questions:
- If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must ______.
- The single, most important thing that we must do tomorrow is ______.
No plan survives contact with the enemy. Similarly, no sales plan survives contact with the customer, etc.
A designer of simple ideas should aspire to the goal of knowing how much can be wrung out of an idea before it begins to lose its essence.
Basically: Determine the single most important thing.
A well thought out, simple idea can be amazingly powerful in changing behaviour. It’s about elegance and prioritization, not dumbing down.
Simple messages are both core and compact.
Simple ideas are Core and Compact, like Proverbs
Great, simple ideas have an elegance and a utility that make them function a lot like proverbs.
Cervante’s definition of ‘proverbs’ echoes out definition of Simple ideas: short sentences (compact) drawn from long experiences (core).
That’s thesimple we’re after: compact and core.
So how do you make a profound Core idea compact?
- Use what’s already there (leverage memory flags to tap into people’s existing schemas)
- Create a high concept pitch (e.g. “This is X for Y”)
- Use a generative analogy (e.g. Disney Park employees are not ‘staff’, they are ‘cast members’)
To make a profound idea compact you’ve got to pack a lot of meaning into a little bit of messaging. How do you do that? Use flags. Tap the existing memory terrain of your audience. Use what’s already there.
A collection of generic properties of a concept or category. Tapping into schema allow you to use analogies in your ideas.
High concept pitches & analogies
Analogies make it possible to understand a compact message because they invoke concepts you already know.
Accuracy VS Accessibility
It’s important to balance accuracy VS accessibility, but many times it’s a false choice. If a message can’t be used to make predictions or decisions, it has no value, no matter how accurate or comprehensive it is.
Accuracy to the point of uselessness is a symptom of the curse of knowledge.
Remember: Simple = core + compact.
Two important questions:
- How do I get people’s attention?
- How do I keep it?
Surprise gets our attention. Interest keeps it.
Our brain is designed to be keenly aware of changes, so: The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: break a pattern.
Getting People’s Attention — Surprise
Surprise acts as an emergency override when we confront something unexpected and our guessing machines fail.
If you want your ideas to be stickier, you’ve got to break someone’s guessing machine (on a core issue), then fix it.
A good process for doing this is:
- Identify the central message you need to communicate (find the core).
- Ask: what is counterintuitive about my message? What are the unexpected implications? Why isn’t it already happening naturally?
- Communicate your message in a way that breaks your audience’s guessing machines along the crucial, counterintuitive dimension. Then, once their guessing machines have failed, help them refine their machines.
Make it ‘postdictable’ (seem obvious in retrospect).
Keeping People’s Attention — Interest
Mysteries are great at keeping our attention. What happens next? How will it turn out? We want to answer these questions, and that desire keeps us interested.
Mysteries are powerful because they create a need for closure.
— Robert Cialdini
The Gap Theory of Curiosity
Curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge.
Gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap.
One important implication of the gap theory is that we need to open gaps before we close them. The trick is convincing people that they need our message is to first highlight some specific knowledge that they’re missing.
E.g: News channels preview the headline story of the evening, before coming back to it later in the programme. Steal the News Teaser Approach.
If people believe they know everything, it’s hard to make the gap theory work.
Overconfident people are more likely to recognize a knowledge gap when they realize that others disagree with them.
Gaps start with knowledge
As we gain information we’re more likely to focus on what we don’t know.
Knowledge gaps create interest. But to prove that knowledge gaps exist, it may be necessary to highlight some knowledge first. “Here’s what you know. Now, here’s what you’re missing.”
Language is often abstract, but life isn’t.
Abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and remember it.
Abstraction also makes it harder to coordinate with others, who may interpret abstraction in different ways.
Concreteness helps us avoid these problems.
What makes something ‘concrete’? If you can examine something with your senses, it’s concrete. A V8 engine is concrete. “High performance” is abstract. Most of the time, concreteness boils down to specific people doing specific things.
Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of the expert.
If you’ve got to teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.
Using concreteness as a foundation for abstraction is not just a good mathematical instruction; it is a basic principle of understanding. Novices crave concreteness.
Abstraction demands some concrete foundation. Trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air.
Concrete is Memorable
On top of being easier to understand, concrete ideas are easier to remember.
Naturally sticky ideas are stuffed fill of concrete words and images.
The Velcro Theory of Memory
Memory is not like a single filing cabinet. It’s more like velcro: One side covered in thousands of hooks, the other with loops. When you press the two sides together, a huge number of hooks get snagged inside the loops.
Your brain hosts a truly staggering number of loops. The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory. Your childhood home has a gazillion hooks in your brain. A new credit card number has one, if its lucky.
Avoiding the Path to Abstraction
If concreteness is so powerful, why do we slip so easily into abstraction? The difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly.
It can feel unnatural to speak concretely about subject matter we’ve known intimately for years. But if we’re willing to make the effort we’ll see the rewards: Our audience will understand what we’re saying and remember it.
The moral of this story is not to “dumb things down.” Rather, to find a ‘universal language’, one that everyone speaks fluently. Inevitably, that universal language will be concrete.
Making Ideas Concrete
How do we move towards concrete ideas for our own messages? We might find our own decisions easier to make if they are guided by the needs of specific people: our readers, students or customers.
Of the six traits of stickiness, concreteness is perhaps the easiest to embrace. It may also be the most effective of the traits.
Being concrete isn’t hard, and doesn’t require lots of effort. The barrier is simply forgetfulness — we forget that we’re slipping into abstract speak.
What makes people believe ideas? We believe because our parents or our friends believe. Because we’ve had experiences that led us to our beliefs. Because of our religious faith. Because we trust authorities.
If we’re trying to persuade a skeptical audience to believe a new message, the reality is that we’re fighting an uphill battle against a lifetime of personal learning and social relationships.
A citizen of the modern world, constantly inundated with messages, learns to develop skepticism about the sources of these messages. Who’s behind these messages? Should I trust them? What do I have to gain if I believe them?
The takeaway is that it can be the honesty and trustworthiness of our sources, not their status, that allows them to act as authorities. Sometimes anti-authorities are even better than authorities.
If you have compelling social proof, use it.
The Power of Details
We don’t always have an external authority who can vouch for our message; most of the time our messages have to vouch for themselves. They must have ‘internal credibility’.
A person’s knowledge of details is often a good proxy for their expertise.
Using Compelling Details
Concrete details don’t just lend credibility to the authorities who provide them; they lend credibility to the idea itself. By making a claim tangible and concrete, details make it seem more real, more believable.
What we should learn from urban legends is that vivid details boost credibility. But, also that we must make use of truthful, core details — details that symbolize and support our core idea.
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 to remember the number.
The Human-scale Principle
Another way to bring statistics to life is to contextualize them in terms that are more human, more everyday. E.g. “For the price of a cup of coffee a month, you can buy a dozen mosquito nets and save lives in Africa”, etc.
Statistics aren’t inherently helpful: scale and context make them so. The right scale changes everything. The human-scale principle allows us to bring our intuition to bear in assessing whether the content of a message is credible.
Developing Internal Credibility by using an example that passes The Sinatra Test
New York, New York: “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.”
An example passes the Sinatra test when one example alone is enough to establish credibility in a given domain. For instance: If you’ve got the security contract for Fort Knox, you’re in the running for any security contract.
Turning the audience into a new source of credibility: Testable Credentials
Asking customers to test a claim for themselves is a ‘testable credential’ Testable credentials can provide an enormous credibility boost, since they essentially allow your audience members to ‘try before they buy’.
External validation and statistics aren’t always the best. A few vivid details might be more persuasive than a barrage of statistics. An anti-authority might work better than an authority. A single story that passes the Sinatra Test might overcome a mountain of skepticism.
“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
— Mother Theresa
Thinking about statistics shifts people into a more analytical frame of mind.
Once we put on our analytical hat, we react to emotional appeals differently. We hinder out ability to feel.
You don’t give to ‘African poverty”, you sponsor a specific child.
Managers have to make people care enough to work long and hard on complex tasks. Teachers have to make students care about literature, etc.
Semantic Stretch and the power of association
How do we make people care about our messages? To make people care about our ideas we don’t have to produce emotion from an absence of emotion. In fact, many ideas use a sort of piggybacking strategy, associating themselves with emotions that already exist.
The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something that they do care about.
Research conducted at Stanford and Yale shows that this processs — exploring terms and concepts for their emotional associations — is a common characteristic of communication. People tend to overuse any idea or concept that delivers an emotional kick. They labeled this overuse semantic stretch.
Appealing to Self-Interest
We make people care by appealing to the things that matter to them.
What matters to people? People matter to themselves. It will come as no surprise that one reliable way of making people care is invoking self-interest.
Companies emphasize features when they should be emphasizing benefits.
WIIFY — “what’s in it for you?” — should be a central aspect of every speech or sales pitch.
It’s important to keep the self-in self-interest. Don’t say, “People will enjoy a sense of security when they use Goodyear Tires.” Say “You will enjoy a sense of security when you use Goodyear Tires.”
Emotional, In Summary
How can we make people care about our ideas?
- We get them to take off their analytical hats.
- We create empathy for specific individuals.
- We show how our ideas are related to things people already care about.
- We appeal to their self interest, but we also appeal to their identities — not only to the people they are right now, but to the people they want to be.
- Stories are told and retold because they contain wisdom.
- Stories are effective teaching tools.
- Stories illustrate causal relationships that people hadn’t recognized before and highlight unexpected, resourceful ways in which people have solved problems.
As we’ve seen, a credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care. The right stories make people act.
The Un-passive Audience
Stories are strongly associated with entertainment, and being a passive listener or observer.
But, studies indicate there’s no such thing as a passive audience. When we hear story, our minds move from room to room. When we hear a story, we simulate it. But what good is a simulation?
Simulating past events is much more helpful than simulating future outcomes.
Why does mental simulation work? It works because we can’t imagine events or sequences without evoking the same modules of the brain that are evoked in real physical activity.
The takeaway from all this is simple: Simulation is not as good as actually doing something, but it’s the next best thing.
Stories are like flight simulators for the brain.
The Three Plots
Three basic plots can be used to classify most stories. If our goal is to energize and inspire others, these three plots are the right place to start.
1. The Challenge Plot
David and Goliath is the classic Challenge plot. A protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge and succeeds.
There are variations of this plot that we all recognize: the underdog story, the rags-to-riches story, the triumph of sheer willpower over adversity story.
The key element of a Challenge plot is that the obstacles seem daunting to the protagonist.
Challenge plots are inspiring even when they are much less dramatic and historical than things like Star Wars, Lance Armstrong, or Rosa Parks.
Challenge plots are inspiring in a defined way. They inspire us by appealing to our perseverance and courage.
2. The Connection Plot
The connection plot is all about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap — racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, etc.
This plot doesn’t have to deal with life-and-death stakes — the connection can be as trivial as a bottle of coke.
Connection plots inspire us in social ways.
3. The Creativity Plot
The Creativity plot involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way. It’s the MacGuyver plot.
Stories, in Summary
Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the curse of knowledge (see Villains below). In fact, they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework.
Stories are almost always Concrete. Most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure they’re Simple — that they reflect your core message.
It’s not enough to tell a great story, the story has to reflect your agenda.
In making your idea simple, watch out for these:
The Curse of Knowledge
Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like to not know that thing.
This is the arch-villain of sticky ideas.
The Tendency to Bury The Lead
One of the worst things about knowing a lot, or having access to a lot of information, is that we’re tempted to share it all. Stripping out information, in order to focus on the core, is not instinctual.
Focusing on Presentation, Not The Message
Public speakers naturally want to appear composed, charismatic and motivational. Charisma will certainly help a properly designed message stick, but all the charisma in the world won’t save a dense, unfocused speech.
The anxiety and irrationality that can emerge from excessive choice or ambiguous situations.
To beat decision paralysis, communicators have to do the hard work of finding the core.