The 6 Principles to Make Your Ideas Stick
Why do some ideas thrive while others die? And how do we improve the chances of worthy ideas? One of the most interesting books I read this year is Chip and Dan Heath’s “Made To Stick” — a fast-paced tour of idea success stories. As many of us struggle with how to communicate ideas effectively and how to get our ideas to make a difference, I want to share the principles of successful ideas at work that I got from reading this book.
Chip and Dan Heath offer us 6 qualities that make ideas sticky, all wrapped up in a clever acronym: Simple Unexpected Concrete Credible Emotional Stories (SUCCES).
- Simple: Simplicity is achieved when an idea is stripped down to its core, to the most essential elements that make it work. Simple does not have to mean short (but it helps); what is important is that the single most important thing be highlighted.
- Unexpected: The best ideas represent a break from the everyday, the ordinary, the status quo. Once our attention is grabbed, sticky ideas refuse to let go, holding our interest by creating in us a need to discover the outcome, to see how things work.
- Concrete: We must present our ideas in term of sensory information. This is where most of the business communication goes awry. Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea means the same thing to everyone in the audience.
- Credible: Sticky ideas give us a reason to believe they’re true (even when they’re not). Statistics are useful, though they suffer from a lack of concreteness. Another source of credibility is personal experience. Ideas that can be put to question are more reliable.
- Emotions: Give your audience a reason to care about your idea. Sticky ideas resonate with us on a level below our immediate consciousness. Sticky ideas appeal to our wishes, desires, and hopes, and interlock with our image of ourselves. We are wired to feel things for people not for abstractions.
- Stories: Stories foster our imagination to widen our horizon of dwelling into different thoughts and feelings. Besides satisfying a number of the other principles of stickiness — offering surprises, concrete details, and emotional resonance — stories act as simulation chambers, allowing us to come to their morals on our own terms.
Principle 1: Simplicity
If we are to succeed, the first step is this: Be simple. That doesn’t mean dumbing things down; it does mean finding the core of the idea. “Finding the core” means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence. To get to the core, we’ve got to weed out the superfluous elements, and also the important ideas that are really important, but just aren’t the most important. We need to master the art of exclusion.
In front of a judge, if a lawyer argues 10 points, then he might not remember them all. So, the lawyer needs to argue the most important point that will turn the case to his favor.
When people have too many choices, they tend to get paralyzed and find it difficult to make decisions. It often isn’t clear what is best. Core messages help people make choices by reminding them of what’s important, and enabling that to guide their decisions.
Perhaps the simplest of all sticky ideas is Einstein’s E = MC², which renders the complexity of the material universe and the mystery of relativity in 5 letters, numbers, and symbols.
Besides being core, simple messages also need to be compact. That probably seems obvious: we know that sentences are better than paragraphs, easy words are better than hard words, etc.
The hard part isn’t weeding out unimportant aspects, but it is in pruning the important, but not truly essential aspects — i.e., distilling to the most important idea at the core.
Principle 2: Unexpected
The first requirement of effective communication is getting attention, the second is keeping it.
Humans think in patterns, the key is to break these patterns. Humans adapt incredibly quickly to patterns. We often simply tune them out. Think of the hum of a fan, or traffic noise, or a familiar smell. We only become aware of them when something changes.
So, a good process for making ideas stickier is:
- Identify the central message you need to communicate — find the core;
- Figure out what is counter-intuitive about the message — i.e., what are the unexpected implications of your core message? Why isn’t it already happening naturally?
- Communicate your message in a way that breaks your audience’s guessing machines along the critical, counter-intuitive dimension. Then, once their guessing machines have failed, help them refine their machines.
Surprise jolts us to attention. It is triggered when our expectations fail, and it prepares us to understand why the failure occurred. Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because surprise makes us pay attention and think. The extra attention and thinking sears unexpected events into our memories.
Surprise doesn’t work well if it’s just gimmicky. To be surprising, an event can’t be predictable. Surprise is the opposite of predictability. But to be satisfying, surprise must be “post-dictable.” The twist makes sense after you think about it, but it’s not something you would have seen coming.
That kind of curiosity happens when we notice a gap in our knowledge. We feel a need to fill the gap. That need can make us finish a bad book, or watch a bad movie to the end, because we want to know what happens. The gap in our knowledge (curiosity) holds our attention.
Principle 3: Concrete
Of the 6 traits of “stickiness” described in this book, being concrete is the easiest to accept and implement.
The power of being concrete is illustrated by the longevity of Aesop’s fables. For some 2,500 years they have resonated and been remembered by human kind. They are a striking example of concreteness. For example, the story of the fox and the grape ends with the fox concluding that grapes out of his reach are likely sour — hence the phrase “sour grapes”, which appears in nearly every language. This provides a concrete image which lasts: Compare “sour grapes” to the conclusion “don’t be such a bitter jerk when you fail.” The latter has no staying power: It is naked fact.
Something becomes concrete when it can be described or detected by the human senses. A V-8 engine is concrete; “high-performance” is abstract. Concrete ideas are easy to remember. Experiments have shown that people remember concrete over abstract nouns: “bicycle” over “justice” or “personality.”
The main difference between an expert and novice is the ability of the expert to see things abstractly. For example, the difference in reaction between a judge and a jury: The jury sees all the concrete aspects of a trial — the lawyers’ clothing, manner, the specific procedures in a classroom; the judge sees all in terms of legal precedent and the lessons of the past. Novices perceive concrete detail as concrete detail; an expert sees concrete details as symbols of a pattern.
Concreteness also enables coordination by making targets clear. Even experts need clarity. Consider a software startup with the goal of building “the next great search engine.” Within the startup are two programmers with nearly identical skillsets working next to each other. To one “the next great search engine” means completeness, ensuring that the search engine returns everything on the web that could possibly be relevant. To the other it means speed, ensuring pretty good results very fast. Their efforts will not be fully aligned or coordinated until the goal is made concrete.
Principle 4: Credible
What makes people believe ideas? We base it on authorities — our parents, traditions, experts, etc. If one can bring in a true authority then the problem of credibility is easily solved, but what if we cannot? This chapter focuses on how to create credibility when you don’t have such authority figures.
There are several ways to do this: (1) Use an anti-authority, (2) Use concrete details, (3) Use statistics, (4) Use something called the Sinatra Test, and (5) Use testable credentials.
- Anti-authority: You can use a dying smoker to make the point that smoking isn’t good for you. Or, consider the scientist that could not get anyone to believe him that bacteria was causing ulcers: He swallowed the bacteria himself and demonstrated his theory to be correct.
- Details: We don’t always have an external authority who can vouch for our message; most of the time our message have to vouch for themselves. They must have “internal credibility.” A person’s knowledge of details is often a good proxy for expertise. For example, a study revealed that potential jurors were more likely to grant custody in a case where they had lots of details — even though irrelevant like the type of toothbrush a child used — than when they had scanty, but essential details.
- Statistics: This is a time-honored and standard way to make a point, but needs to be used correctly. Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than the number. Use them as input, not output.
- The Sinatra Test: Frank Sinatra song New York, New York has a line “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” The authors suggest this same idea applies to making ideas credible. They advocate looking for the one test case that make your idea completely credible.
- Testable Credentials: This challenges the consumer or receiver of the idea to test for themselves the idea. The prime example of this was the “Where’s the Beef” commercials in the 1980s from Wendy’s. The ads suggested that the hamburgers at Wendy’s were larger than other chains, and that the other chains had more bun than burger.
Principle 5: Emotions
So how do we make people care about our messages? The good news is that to make people care we don’t have to produce emotion from an absence of emotion. The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about; something that matters to them.
And what matters to people? People matter to themselves. It will come as no surprise that one reliable way of making people care is by invoking self-interest.
To make people care about ideas we get them to:
- Take off their Analytical Hats: We create empathy for specific individuals; or we show how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about, or we appeal to their self-interest, although we also appeal to their identities- not only to the people they are right now, but also to the people they would like to be.
- The Power of Associations: The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t care about and something they do. We all naturally practice the tactic of association.
- Self-Interest: Another way to make people care about ideas is to appeal to their self-interest. A common error is to emphasize features over benefits, e.g., tell people you have the “best seed”, instead of that it will give them the “best lawn”, which is what they truly care about. In general people selling an idea resist talking about self-interest: Yet an appeal with the word “you” throughout, instead of a generic “people” is always much more successful.
- Appealing to Identify: In defining self-interest it pays to not focus narrowly on money and other tangibles — often intangibles such as self-esteem or a sense of duty form an important motivator.
Often people make decision not in a rational way — write down all alternatives and look at pluses and minuses — but instead they make them based on identity. They ask questions like: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? And what do people like me to do in this type of situation?
Principle 6: Stories
It’s well-known that a good story is very sticky. The power of a good story is that it provides inspiration. It moves people to take action.
A key to making an idea sticky is to tell it as a story. Stories encourage a kind of mental simulation or reenactment on the part of the listener that burns the idea into the mind.
The hard part about using a story is creating it. The authors share the 3 major types of stories to look for.
- The Challenge Plot: This is the classic underdog, rags to riches, or sheer willpower triumphing over adversity. The key element of the Challenge plot is that the obstacles seem daunting to the protagonists.
- The Connection Plot: A story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap — racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise. All connection plots inspire us in social ways. They make us want to help others, but more tolerant of others, work with others, love others.
- The Creativity Plot: This involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way.
Here’s how a story helps rid one of the Curse of Knowledge. When explaining how to solve problems someone might say “Keep the lines of communication open.” They are hearing in their heads a song filled with passion and emotion.
They’re remembering the experience that taught them those lessons — the struggles, the political battles, the missteps, the pain. They need to share the story of their trials.
In fact, stories usually automatically meet other criteria for making ideas sticky: They are almost always concrete, they are often emotional and have unexpected elements. The real difficulty is to be sure they are simple enough.
Sticky ideas shared certain traits that made them more likely to succeed and be remembered by people. Here are the 6 principles again:
- Simple — unraveling the idea down to its core
- Unexpected — surprise always grabs attention of people
- Concrete — clear thoughts in form of sensory information are absorbed easily by human mind
- Credible — ideas which can be put to test are more credible and reliable
- Emotions — ideas must be wired around feelings to make people care about it
- Stories — ideas crafted in the form of stories act as theatre for the mind and they get effectively imbibed in the mind of the listeners
Apply these rules to make your own messages “stick” at your own pleasure.