Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath

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This is a study of what makes ideas stick. They start it off by relating the kidney heist urban legend, a story that all of us have heard and can probably recount. Why has this story stuck in our memories so successfully? It has no advertising budget, nobody pushing it – it is a completely self-propagating meme. Companies would love to have an advertising scheme as successful as this urban legend. And Chip and Dan Heath set out to analyze how companies could do so.

They looked at different advertising campaigns, from the Jared diet at Subway to “Don’t Mess with Texas”, and tried to extract the common themes and elements that they saw. Their acronym for what makes an idea sticky is SUCCESs: Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Story. You have to have a core idea that can be expressed in a single sentence or phrase. If you can’t boil it down to something that simple, it will never stick. It has to be unexpected and surprising – our brains are “wired to remember the abnormal and outlandish because they break the routine patterns that we have learned”. It must be concrete, because humans each interpret abstractions differently – only by making an idea specific and concrete can you assure that it will be remembered and passed on unchanged. It must be credible – if it is not easily verifiable, it will be dismissed as outlandish. Emotions play a strong role in memory, so it’s not surprising that ideas that evoke emotions are more sticky. And my favorite topic, stories, make ideas sticky because we remember stories as exemplars of patterns that matter to us.

As an aside, my last post about stories and patterns captures many of these same ideas, as I tried to evaluate how to make a story stick with people. Dang! I really need to get organized about writing! Or at least come up with cute acronyms.

One of the thought-provoking things about this book was that it is possible to get people to pay attention to your idea even when they aren’t actively interested by using these principles. I often struggle with getting other people to change their behavior. Sometimes I give up and say “You can’t change somebody who doesn’t want to change”. But reading these stories inspired me to realize that if you frame your ideas correctly, sometimes you can change their minds even if they’re not looking to change.

For instance, one health organization was trying to convey how unhealthy movie popcorn popped in coconut oil was. It contained 37g of saturated fat, nearly double the recommended daily allowance. But movie-goers weren’t interested in statistics. So they did an ad where they said that the saturated fat content of the bag of popcorn “contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings – combined!” Illustrated with a picture of all of those meals together, the advertising campaign had a definitive impact.

Another idea that I really liked was the Curse of Knowledge:

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

This is something that I struggle with – I often assume other people can see the same connections that I do, so I don’t draw them out explicitly. At the same time, because I’m not an expert in most fields, I have a better chance of communicating to non-experts than do the true experts. Just being aware of the “Curse of Knowledge” gives me a chance to communicate better.

I liked this book a lot. It’s a quick read of a few hours, but there’s some good stuff in there, and lots of fun stories. Thumbs up.