Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

by Chip Heath, Dan Heath

A classic dissection of why some ideas stick in the minds of audiences and how to make your messages more memorable. Made To Stick presents 6 key principles that you can use to create or identify a winning idea that your audience will latch onto and act upon.  

Summary Notes

Keep Your Ideas Simple

“Our messages have to be compact, because we can learn and remember only so much information at once”

Why do good ideas have such a hard time sticking in people’s minds? For example, a CEO comes up with a great plan to boost productivity, informs his team about it, and is shocked to discover weeks later that employees are not putting the new ideas into action. The reality is that we live in a noisy and unpredictable world that makes it difficult for ideas to truly stick. If you want your idea to impact your audience’s thoughts and actions, it must be clearly understood, memorable and have a lasting impact. But how do you do this?

Every army spends a lot of time and energy creating a battle plan. Once the president gives the order to go to war, a plan is set in motion, and this plan gets increasingly complex and specific as it moves down the chain of command. Unfortunately, these elaborate plans rarely prove to be effective when ground troops finally enter the battlefield. The reason is that everything changes the moment you come into contact with enemy soldiers. Your enemy may pull a surprise move, the weather might change, or a key piece of equipment may be destroyed. Within minutes of a battle, the elaborate plan goes out the window and soldiers have to rely on their own instincts to survive. 

Due to this unpredictability, the army today relies on a concept called Commander’s Intent (CI). This is a simple statement that expresses the goal of the mission. The CI strips away all the non-essential elements of the plan and zooms in on its critical essence. This allows foot soldiers to improvise on the battlefield as long as they stick to the CI. By prioritizing your core message and getting rid of the fluff, you make it easier for your idea to stick in people’s minds.

Most people are paralyzed when presented with too many complex options. In fact, being overwhelmed by too many details can lead to irrational decision-making. Whether you’re a military general, a politician, a journalist or a school teacher, you want to make it as easy as possible for your audience to absorb your message and take the necessary action. By prioritizing and keeping things simple, you eliminate the uncertainty that comes with having too many choices.

Actions to take

Surprise Your Audience

“Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages. When messages sound like common sense, they float gently in one ear and out the other”

In a world full of distractions, it’s incredibly difficult to get people’s attention. If you have a message to share, sometimes you have to raise your voice just to gain attention. But you can’t always demand attention from others. You have to find a way to attract people’s attention, and the most basic way to do so is by breaking a pattern. You need to surprise your audience by saying or doing something unexpected.

For example, if you’re a frequent flier, you’re probably accustomed to the flight attendant’s safety announcement before the plane takes off.  Most passengers don’t care enough to listen to it. But if the flight attendant starts speaking in a robot voice while making robotic movements, then you’re sure to pay attention to the whole message. This is because she’s doing something that you wouldn’t have predicted. By doing something counterintuitive, your audience is more likely to listen to and remember your message for a long time.

Another reason why an audience pays attention and maintains interest is curiosity. People become curious when they feel there’s a gap in their knowledge. For example, how many times have you sat through a terrible movie just because you wanted to know how the story ends? Curiosity is why we read mystery novels, fill in crossword puzzles and watch sports competitions. We have an innate urge to close our knowledge gap by getting answers or finding information we’re missing.  

The reality is that the emotion of surprise triggers us to pay attention and think about what we’re seeing or hearing. It forces us to hunt for causes and potential solutions so that we can avoid future surprises that may create anxiety. Curiosity causes us to stay interested in something until we feel we have all the information we need. You can leverage the power of unexpectedness in many different ways to ensure that your message leaves a lasting impact on people’s minds.

Actions to take

Make your Ideas Clear

“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”

We’re all familiar with fables such as “The goose that laid the golden egg” or “The boy who cried wolf.” Such narratives exist in every culture around the world and have survived thousands of years because of one simple reason—they stimulate our imagination. By evoking images in our minds, fables are able to turn abstract ideas into simple yet profound truths. Therefore, if you want your audience to understand and remember your idea, you have to turn an abstraction into something concrete. But why do so many of us struggle to do this?

Most Westerners think that Asian students are better at math. The assumption is that Asian schools take a robotic approach with learners, with students being forced to memorize math problems for hours while under strict discipline. But this is not the case. Research shows that Asian schools use concrete and familiar things when explaining abstract concepts. For example, a Japanese teacher may place several balls on a table, take away some of them and then ask students how many balls are remaining. This way, students have a visual reference when it comes to understanding the concept of subtraction.

Concreteness is the foundation of all knowledge because simple words and images are easier to remember than abstract concepts. This is because the human mind stores and remembers memories in different ways. For example, the way you remember your childhood home is not the same way you remember the picture of the Mona Lisa. One memory carries sights, sounds, smells, and emotions while the other is only a visual image. Your memory works like Velcro, where many tiny hooks press into many tiny loops. Since your brain has innumerable loops, the more hooks an idea has, the better it sticks to your brain. A great communicator knows how to add more hooks into their idea so that the audience remembers it vividly even years later.    

If concreteness is such an effective tool, why do we still insist on making our ideas abstract? The problem lies in what is known as the Curse of Knowledge. When you’re an expert in something, you forget that others aren’t as knowledgeable or experienced as you. Therefore, you naturally communicate your ideas from a higher level of insight. However, if you want people to memorize and support your ideas, you have to speak to them using a language that’s clear and relatable.

Actions to take

Credibility is the Key to Believability

“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 the number”

In the 1980s, two Australian researchers discovered that ulcers were caused by the H. pylori bacteria and could therefore be treated using antibiotics. However, their claim was met with skepticism from fellow scientists and their research paper was rejected by every medical journal. It wasn’t until 1994 that their theory was accepted and they finally received a Nobel Prize in medicine in 2005. But why did it take a decade for scientists to believe them?

There are a number of reasons why you believe in some ideas and not others. These include family background, personal experiences, or religious faith. But you’re also likely to find an idea more credible if it’s coming from a trusted authority. The two Australian researchers lacked credibility among their peers because one was a staff pathologist while the other was an internist in training. It’s difficult to convince a skeptical audience to accept your idea if you aren’t considered a trusted authority. This is why we trust government officials, experts, and celebrities more than the average Joe.

However, there are people who gain credibility despite not having the status of authority figures. These “anti-authorities” are individuals who have personally experienced something and thus appear more trustworthy and honest to the audience. Think of an ex-smoker telling you about the dangers of smoking or a former homeless person asking you to support a homeless shelter.  

It’s also possible for a message to vouch for itself without relying on external authorities. A message can acquire internal credibility if it has a lot of vivid and truthful details. Sharing vivid details that are meaningful to the audience can make your idea more compelling and credible. You can also combine statistics with physical props to show your audience the sheer scale of a problem that needs immediate action. However, make sure that you present your statistics in a human context so that your message doesn’t come across as an abstraction.

Actions to take

Making People Care About Your Idea

“The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t care about and something they do care about”

We all know that there is mass suffering all over the world. We have a lot of statistics on war, hunger, poverty, and disease ravaging millions of people in different countries. But with all this knowledge, why don’t we take action? A study by Carnegie Mellon University revealed that people donate more money when the contribution is for an individual who’s hungry rather than a mass cause such as feeding millions of starving children. The study also showed that participants who received statistics about a charity case gave less money than those who received personal details about the person in need. So, what’s the reason for this?

When you’re overwhelmed by the scale of a problem, you may feel that your contribution will be like a drop in the ocean. But if it’s an individual case, then it’s easier to connect to their plight especially if you’re provided with their personal details. What this means is that you have to get people to emotionally attach to your idea if you want them to care about it. You need to find something they care about and then link it to your idea. Humans are driven by self-interest, so your message must clearly articulate how the audience will benefit from your idea.    

If you want people to care about something, you need to deliver your message in a way that leaves no doubt that you’re talking to every individual who’s hearing it. Use descriptive language that stimulates their imagination and puts them right in the center of the message. You should also ensure that whatever benefits you’re promising are tangible and reasonable so as to keep your message credible.

However, there are times when individual self-interest isn’t enough to convince people to care. When this happens, you may need to pander to their group identity. Affiliations based on political party, gender, race, religion, class, industry, or region can be powerful tools you can use to inspire people to care about a cause. Your message should trigger your audience to ask, “What would someone like me do in this scenario?” If you can identify the cords that bind your target audience, you can tailor your message to touch on the interests of that specific demographic.

Actions to take

The Power of Stories

“Stories illustrate causal relationships that people hadn’t recognized before and highlight unexpected, resourceful ways in which people have solved problems”

Why do we tell stories? Simply put, a story is an effective teaching tool that provides both knowledge as well as inspiration to everyone who hears it. A good story should also encourage the audience to take action. When you hear a dramatic story, you instinctively place yourself in it and visualize yourself as a character or observer in the story. You create a mental simulation instead of being a passive listener. This can be beneficial to you in many ways.

In a study, one group of college students was asked to think about a problem that they had in their lives. They were sent home for a week and asked to keep thinking of a solution. A 2nd group was asked to mentally simulate the cause of the problem and the details of every step that led to the problem. A 3rd group was told to visualize the problem as already resolved and the satisfaction they would feel at achieving a positive outcome. These two groups were sent home for a week and asked to repeat their simulations for 5 minutes daily. The study revealed that the group that had mentally simulated the details of their problem was better able to solve their problems and learn from the experience compared to the other 2 groups.  

This shows that mentally replaying a sequence of events is more effective for problem-solving than merely thinking about a solution to a problem. It’s also more effective than simply visualizing success. Mentally rehearsing the build-up to a situation enhances your emotional capacity and can even help improve skills such as playing an instrument or communicating effectively with others. 

When you mentally simulate a scenario, you are creating a detailed story that fills in the gaps that are usually missing from an abstract message. Therefore, if you want to inspire people to support your idea, you’re better off framing it inside a story. This way, when the time comes, they’re mentally, emotionally, and physically ready to take the right action.

Actions to take

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