Thursday, May 22, 2008

Six Principles of Sticky Ideas

How do you make an idea stick?  Mark Twain noted, "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on."  Meanwhile, people with important ideas, struggle to make their ideas stick. In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath write about six principles to make your ideas stick and help you get your point across.

Six Principles of Sticky Ideas
According to Chip and Dan, there's six principles that help you craft a sticky message:

  • Principle 1. Simplicity
  • Principle 2. Unexpectedness
  • Principle 3. Concreteness
  • Principle 4. Credibility
  • Principle 5. Emotions
  • Principle 6. Stories

Principle 1. Simplicity
Keep it simple and profound.  Chip and Dan write:

How do we find the essential core of our ideas?  A successful defense lawyer says, "If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room, they won't remember any."  To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion.  We must relentlessly 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 the individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.

Principle 2. Unexpectedness
Surprise your audience.  Chip and Dan write:

How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across?  We need to violate people's expectations.  We need to be counterintuitive.  A bag of popcorn is as unhealthy as a whole day's worth of fatty foods?  We can use surprise -- an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and cause focus -- to brag 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.

Principle 3. Concreteness
Use concrete images.  Chip and Dan write:

How do we make our ideas clear?  We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory informational.  This is where so much business communication goes awry.  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.

Principle 4. Credibility
Help people test your ideas for themselves.  Chip and Dan write:

How do we make people believe our ideas?  When the former surgeon general C. Everett Koop talks about a public-health issue, most people accept his ideas without skepticism.  But in most day-to-day situations we don't enjoy his authority.  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 graps 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."

Principle 5. Emotions
Tap into emotions to convey your point.  We're wired to feel things for people, not abstractions.  Chip and Dan write:

How do we get people to care about our ideas?  We make them feel something.  In the case of movie popcorn, we make them feel disgusted by its unhealthiness.  The statistics "37 grams" doesn't elicit any emotions.  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 teenagers to quite 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.

Principle 6. Stories
Tell stories to get people to act on your ideas.  Chip and Dan write:

How do we get people to act on our ideas?  We tell stories.  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 catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate response to those situations.  Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps up 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.

To help you remember the principles, Chip and Dan provide the acronym "SUCCESs"":

Simple ... Unexpected ... Concrete ... Credentialed ... Emotional ... Story

Key Take Aways
Here's my key take aways:

  • Be a master of exclusion. 
  • Relentlessly prioritize.
  • Create ideas that are both simple and profound.
  • Surprise your audience.  Violate people's expectations.
  • Create concrete images.
  • Create curiosity by systematically opening gaps in people's knowledge and then filling those gaps.
  • Tap into emotions to convey your point.
  • Help people test your ideas for themselves

I can definitely say that the six principles of sticky ideas resonate.  I see them in action at work.  I also remember how Ward Cunningham used stories, as a form of mental judo, to share ideas.  He also was good at getting people to tell their stories by asking them either "What did you learn that you didn't expect?"  ... or "What did you learn that surprised you?"

My Related Posts


Alik | said...

I love it!
This is fantastic recipe to the sticky message part of the tipping point. There are three factors to the tipping point to occur:
• The law of a few
• The stickiness factor
• The power of context

Now i have a recipe for the second one - the stickiness

J.D. Meier said...

Well good -- I'm expecting lots of sticky ideas from you from now on ;)