In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, the authors explain why great ideas aren’t always successful. Often, even magnificent insights go unrewarded and wind up gathering dust in file cabinets. At the same time, far less worthy ideas like rumors and urban legends spread like wildfire.
The key message in this book is that every idea can be presented so that it sticks. Successful stories, advertising campaigns and ideas that stick generally share recognizable characteristics that can be summed up in the mnemonic SUCCESs.
• Simple – find the core of any idea
• Unexpected – grab people’s attention by surprising them
• Concrete – make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later
• Credible – give an idea believability
• Emotional – help people see the importance of an idea
• Story – empower people to use an idea through narrative
The formula for sticky ideas is SUCCESs.
To put it in action, consider why do some stories spread so quickly? And why are they so hard to stamp out? Quite simply, they share two key qualities: they are memorable and people are eager to pass them onward. By taking advantage of these two principles, any idea can be designed so that it’s sticky and popular.
It’s tempting to try to explain an idea as thoroughly as possible. But, when it comes to stickiness, too much detail is counterproductive. Instead, cut the idea down to just one simple statement; any more detail will be instantly forgotten, along with the key idea behind it all. A simple statement makes an idea easier to grasp and understand.
This doesn’t mean an idea should be dumbed down unnecessarily – the art of simplifying is to encapsulate the core idea in terms that anyone can understand, without changing the meaning. Although this can be surprisingly tricky, it makes for sticky ideas.
Journalists have to master this skill to come up with good headlines that grab readers’ attention and convey the meaning of an entire article in just a few words. Journalists know a bad headline can prevent a great article from getting the attention it deserves.
People tend to express themselves in an abstract manner. The more we know about a subject, the more we couch explanations in abstract terms. This is mainly because most people find it hard to put themselves in the listener’s shoes, or to ask themselves, “How does what I say sound to the other person?”
The same effect applies to verbal communication; abstract terms convey the message about as well as tapping on a table conveys a melody. Only by using concrete, understandable terms can we be sure that the message will be understood.
At the same time, it’s often helpful to give examples or use descriptive imagery to help convey a point. Concrete, visually-descriptive expressions aren’t just easier to understand, they stick.
Concreteness means avoiding unnecessary jargon when speaking about real people or events. The retail worker hasn’t just “delivered outstanding customer service”; they’ve given a customer a refund on a shirt even though it was bought at another branch of the store.
The fox hasn’t “altered his tastes to suit his means”; he’s convinced himself that the grapes he can’t reach are too sour. The more concrete and better described an idea is, the more likely it will stick and be passed on.
A story is like a flight simulator for the brain. It allows us to get inside the action and anticipate how we might react in the same situation. Often when trying to spread an idea, people make the crucial mistake of getting rid of the story behind it in favor of an empty slogan. While slogans can be useful at getting an idea to stick, they’re not very useful at inspiring people to take action. This is where stories and examples are most effective.
Almost all good stories follow one of a few recurring patterns. A typical example is the challenge, in which a “David” takes on a “Goliath”. Stories like these inspire a lot of people to take action, following “David’s” example. Another common pattern is reaching out, in which a “Good Samaritan” helps a complete stranger in need. This type of story is particularly good at inspiring better social behavior.
Stories about creativity, such as the apple falling on Newton’s head and inspiring his theory of gravity, encourage people to see the world from a new perspective or think outside the box.
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