What is it that makes an idea or story memorable? Why is it that some impact us harder, stay with us longer, and drive us to share them? What makes them stick?
These are the questions that brothers, Chip and Dan Heath, set out to answer in their 2007 Business Week Best-Seller, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
From urban legends and conspiracy theories, to iconic speeches and commercials, the brothers draw upon psychological studies of memory, motivation, and emotion to examine a variety of stories and determine why some are more successful in “sticking” with an audience than others.
However, this book isn’t just limited to marketers and business owners. Made to Stick acts as a practical guide for people of all professions to ensure that their ideas connect and are memorable to those they communicate with.
In this concise and entertaining read, they concluded that it all came down to these elements of “SUCCES”, being:
- Simple: How do you strip an idea down to its core without turning it into a silly sound bite?
- Unexpected: How do you capture people’s attention… and hold it?
- Concrete: How do you help people understand your idea and remember it much later?
- Credible: How do you get people to believe your idea?
- Emotional: How do you get people to care about your idea?
- Stories: How do you get people to act on your idea?
Let’s take a closer look at each of their points.
“To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentless prioritize. Saying something short is not the mission -- sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound. The Golden Rule is the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.” -- Chip & Dan Heath
What is the one thing you want people to remember? What is the one thing you want people to do?
That thing needs to be the core of your message.
The Heaths found that most sticky ideas are ones that are short and simple. The more there is to a thought, the more there is that can be forgotten.
The brothers use an analogy of a lead in journalism to illustrate this point. A lead is the summary of the entire news article. It’s clear and concise and it’s written first so a reader can know everything they need to about the news story without reading the entire thing.
What Can You Do?
The more there is to a thought, the more there is that can be forgotten. So, instead of overwhelming your audience, take you big idea and boil it down to a small chunk of information that is easy to understand and commit to memory.
Take Southwest Airlines and their core message: “We are THE low-fare airline.”
Every decision made at Southwest revolves around this core message. From allowing bags to fly for free to only serving peanuts instead of offering entrees on short flights -- Southwest has been successful by doing everything they can to keep costs low and pass on that savings to their customers.
Simplicity is more than just a short phrase or dumbed-down language. It’s about providing the most important information in the most easily understood way and nothing else.
Chip and Dan reflects on using metaphors and other mnemonic devices to aid in this goal.
For example, the movie, Speed, was pitched to Hollywood studios as a Die Hard on a bus, while Alien was pitched as Jaws on the spaceship. Using simple, known references like these help connect your idea to those that have already been ingrained in your audience, making them easier to recall and more likely to be remembered long term.
“We can use surprise -- an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and cause focus -- to grab people’s attention. But surprise doesn’t last. For our idea to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity. How do you keep students engaged during the forty-eighth history class of the year? We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically ‘opening gaps’ in their knowledge -- and then filling those gaps.” -- Chip & Dan Heath
Human beings are wired to think in patterns. In Made to Stick, the Heath Brothers found that an easy way to get your idea noticed and remembered is by breaking these patterns with something unexpected.
Take the Heaths example of a seat belt public service announcement (PSA).
When the PSA begins, it appears to be a commercial for the new Buick Enclave, with a voiceover describing all of the vehicle’s features as a happy family piles in and drive away, but then, wham. The minivan is struck by a speeding car and the audience learns that the ad was actually a call for seat-belt safety.
The ad works because it grabs the audience’s interest and piques their curiosity by going against established conventions and expectations. It was new, intriguing, and most importantly, it made sense.
Other strategies include:
- asking a thought-provoking question
- using an element of mystery
- or opening a knowledge gap that makes the person want to learn more.
A good example is how the book Freakonomics would ask questions such as “Why do so many drug dealers live with their mums?” to spark interest into reading the chapter to find out.
“Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions -- they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images -- ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors -- because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language: ‘A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.’ Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.” -- Chip & Dan Heath
Ideas that stick are also ones that people can realistically picture. They are vivid and tangible, like the PSA from above or as the Heaths explain, the idea of getting soft hands with the help of hand creme.
To make your idea memorable, avoid abstract concepts. Simplify it and tell it in sensory terms that will be easy for your audience to relate to and picture themselves in personally.
For instance, saying that a movie is sad is an acceptable description, but calling it a real tear-jerker gets the point across more effectively.
The more that you can involve the senses, the easier it is for people to visualize.
What Can You Do?
The best companies don’t sell products or services, they sell experiences. For your brand to stand out, your persona needs to imagine the experience they receive. People care much less about features and technical details than they do about their own feelings.
As the Heaths discuss, we remember urban legends like that of a young man waking up in a tub missing a kidney, because they paint vivid (and in this case, gruesome) mental pictures. The imagery and details in stories like these create such a realistic image in our minds that they stay with us as if they are our own memories.
To make your ideas stick in the same way, find a way to illustrate them to your audience in a way that will resonate with them long term and create a plausible scenario. Tell a realistic story.
“Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves -- a ‘try before you buy’ philosophy for the world of ideas. When we’re trying to build a case for something, most of us instinctively grasp for hard numbers. But in many cases this is exactly the wrong approach. In the sole U.S. presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: ‘Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.” -- Chip & Dan Heath
For an idea to be memorable, it must also be credible or proven. It must be data-backed so you can gain the trust, confidence, and belief of your audience.
The more believable your claims are, the more likely your audience will be to accept them as facts and repeat them (i.e. think of the impact of seeing a picture of lung of a smoker.)
A notable example is the famous Wendy’s campaign, “Where’s the beef?” This is a clever way of showing customers that their burgers offered more beef than their competitors by suggesting that customers start questioning portion sizes.
What Can You Do?
What can your business do to position itself as an authority or help lead people to draw a trustworthy conclusion about you?
One of the simplest and most common strategies is through testimonials and reviews. Another common example is having a featured in section on your website that shows where your brand has been featured in reputable media outlets.
Even if your company is just starting out and has not established its own authority, Made to Stick explains that you can still develop credibility in your ideas using:
- Anti-Authority (Acting on your own theory and proving it)
- Heavy Details
- The Sinatra Test (Proving your theory in the one place it shouldn’t work)
- Testable Credentials (Inviting your audience to test the theory themselves)
Social proof is a powerful element of trust that builds credibility. With this additional support, your audience is that much more likely to accept your ideas as truth and recall them down the line.
“Research shows that people are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions. Sometimes the hard part is finding the right emotion to harness. For instance, it’s difficult to get teenargers to quit smoking by instilling in them a fear of the consequences, but it’s easier to get them to quit by tapping into their resentment of the duplicity of Big Tobacco.” -- Chip & Dan Heath
Like the example of a smoker’s lung from above, ideas and stories that stick make an emotional impact. They go beyond the superficial to resonate in the minds of your audience on a more personal level.
To better illustrate this argument, think of your most vivid childhood memories. Chances are what comes to mind sticks out because you remember how you felt in that moment. Perhaps, you were scared or extremely happy; whatever the sentiment was, that moment stuck with you because of the emotion it evoked within you.
What Can You Do?
As a marketer or businessman, aim to have your ideas achieve the same effect. Connect to something your audience truly cares about (their values, goals, etc.) and they will be more likely to remember you in their everyday lives.
For example, think of the last time you saw a commercial asking you to sponsor a child living in poverty in Africa. Sure, we all notice the sad music and dramatic narration, but look closer.
Notice how they single out one child and tell you their name and the specific details about their situation. That’s how you turn an abstract, large idea, into a serious problem that another human just like you is going through.
Your brand needs to have emotional appeal and/or a human element like this to be sticky.
“Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by doing so they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations. Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.” -- Chip & Dan Heath
You’ve heard it time and time again, successful marketing today relies heavily on storytelling. Stories encompass all of the above elements to help manifest your ideas and values in a way that is easy to understand, relate to, and remember.
Think of it like cultural proverbs & parables; Even if the intended idea or moral itself is not entirely recalled, the story that portrays it is and often passed on.
One of the best examples is the story of Jared Fogle from Subway.(For the sake of discussion, let’s ignore recent events.) What better way to position your sandwiches as a healthy food choice than to share a story about a guy who lost a tremendous amount of weight by walking to your store and eating your sandwiches every day?
No athlete endorsement, surgeon’s approval, or any amount of organic logos could have as much influence as seeing a man hold up jeans that looked twice as large as his current size with pictures that prove his progress was real.
What Can You Do?
We love stories and we want to be part of great stories. If your company has an inspirational story, or you have helped create a great story for someone else -- it needs to be shared.
When it comes to your brand or organization, be on the look out for the real-life stories that align with your ideas (like that of Jared.) These stories are memorable, verifiable, and above all inspiring.
Identified by the Heath Brothers, here are the three most common story plotlines that you can use to get started with in your organization’s search for its “sticky” stories:
- The Challenge Plot: Someone overcoming adversity (i.e. Jared)
- The Connection Plot: People forming relationships despite challenges (i.e This video from Coke India)
- The Creativity Plot: People using their minds and skills to achieve their goals or cause change. (i.e. Asana)
All in all, in order to form a lasting idea, you need to find a way to go beyond superficial claims and give them deeper meaning for your audience. Whether that meaning is professional or personal, connecting with people on this level, will help ensure that your idea is made to stick.