Made to Stick

Break out your sunglasses and get ready for the orange neon book cover with a piece of duct tape stuck to it! - Simple yet extremely effective and “Sticky”. I did try to pull at the tape to see if it would come off and found it was part of the covers emboss. Chip and Dan Heath have written an instructional, fun and easy to read book to let everyone know how to create core messages that provide easy strategies to create “Sticky Ideas”. So you may be asking yourself…What is a “Sticky Idea”??

It is an idea that contains the author’s Six Principles which are:

1) Simplicity – How do you find the essential core of the idea? (If the idea can be stripped down to its core, the most important concepts should jump out and easily be recognized)

2) Unexpectedness – 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 idea across? (The idea must change paradigms to allow people to pause, think, and remember)

3) Concreteness – How do we make our ideas clear? (You need to avoid the numbers and use real-world analogies to clarify complex ideas)

4) Credibility – How do we make people believe our ideas? (You must be “Real” and trustworthy or your idea will be dismissed)

5) Emotions – How do we get people to care about our ideas? (Trigger the “Passion” of the audience and they will embrace the message)

6) Stories – How do we get people to act on our ideas? (Story telling, if done properly, captures the message and makes it easy to move from one person to another – people really remember a good story)

Now that we know what Sticky Ideas are, the book continues to explain why these are important. Both authors realized a few years ago that individually they had both been working on how to design an idea that sticks. Dan had co-founded a start-up publishing company called Thinkwell. Chip (a world class social psychologist) was a professor at Stanford University and had been working on why bad ideas sometimes won out in a social marketplace of ideas.

What they found was that there were common elements to naturally sticky ideas such as Urban Legends, Conspiracy Theories, Wartime Rumors, Proverbs and Jokes.  The oldest class of naturally sticky ideas are Proverbs, which are short & simple but contain a “Big Nugget” of wisdom that can be universally understood or transferred. Proverbs are the Holy-Grail of Simplicity. Take the engligh-launguage proverb of “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, which has a core message of giving up a sure thing for something speculative. It turns out that this has been universally translated to:

Sweden – “Rather one bird in the hand than ten in the woods”
Spain – “A bird in the hand is better than 100 flying birds”
Poland – “A sparrow in your hand is better than a pigeon on the roof”
Russia – “Better a titmouse in the hand than a crane in the sky”

All of these have a consistency to the theme and show how universal a message can be. The authors describe the John F. Kennedy speech about putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade as a perfect example of a sticky idea.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth”

This challenge contained all of the essential components and was delivered by a charismatic messenger. They feel that having a good idea is not enough; you must have a practical, tangible strategy for creating sticky ideas. The authors provide two dramatic examples to reinforce these concepts which are Subway’s Jared campaign and a Texas litter campaign.

Take a college student, named Jared Fogle, who had ballooned to over 400 lbs., with a 60 inch waist and a medically diagnosed edema…add a concerned Father who had to explain to his son the fact that he may not live past the age of thirty-five due to his condition and a “Subway Sandwich Diet” (a foot-long veggie for lunch and a 6-inch turkey sub for dinner).

What you end up with is three Hero’s! The first is Jared who lost almost 100 lbs. in 3 months to get down to 330 lbs. He then started walking to exercise when his weight dropped to a safe level and started walking to classes rather than riding the bus, walked up the stairs rather than taking department-store escalators, and finally we have the start of a “Sticky” story about someone who lost over 245 lbs on a diet he created himself. The next two Hero’s are a Subway franchise owner named Bob Ocweija and a Chicago ad agency man named Richard Coad. They took a small article written in the Indiana Daily Student, in April 1999, and crafted a message that Jared quoted: “Subway helped save my life and start over” into what turned into a national advertising campaign for Subway Sandwiches describing the “Subway Diet”. This lead to multiple articles being written by different magazines and a personal request for interviews by Oprah, USA Today, ABC and Fox news.  In 1999 Subway’s sales were flat, but in 2000 sales jumped 18%, and an additional 16% in 2001, plus it provided a good kick in the pants for those that have been struggling with losing that last 10 lbs.

The second example is on page 195, which is the effort to reduce roadside trash and litter in Texas. The state was spending $25-million dollars per year on cleanup and increasing 15% a year. The traditional efforts, to encourage better social behavior, weren't working because they weren't effective as appeals to emotion and the target audience was identified as a macho man in a pick-up truck.  So a television advertising campaign with key Texas athletes and musicians stating "Don't mess with Texas" was created. Willie Nelson even rewrote a popular song which goes…”Mammas tell all your babies, Don’t Mess with Texas”! As a visitor to Texas when working in Houston I can personally attest to the fact that there are signs everywhere stating “Don’t Mess with Texas”. As an outsider I was so captivated by the message and asked local residents what it meant, just to make sure it was not a macho state motto for “Don’t Mess with Us”. Either way the idea was clear and definitely “sticky” even for a non-Texan.

The message that the authors are conveying, quite passionately, is that for ideas to be successful they must be more than just words, they must be core messages that can be embraced and contain the six principles. There is a great reference to situations where “Business managers” who have clicked through a PowerPoint presentation and presented their conclusions think they have successfully communicated their ideas. What Dan and Chip explain is that "What they've done is share data", nothing more!

Each chapter has an example of an idea presented in an Idea Clinic format which breaks apart the message or messages from a series of example stories. It clearly dissects what is important, passionate and the problems which prevent an idea from being graded highly. The Scorecard has a checklist which allows the user to check for adherence to the six principles and is a great guide for anyone who needs to take innovation or creativity into the area of utility or implementation. They have provided hands-on, real world examples of ideas and stories presented throughout. One of the early sections of the book talks about stories of urban legends. One that was immediately known to me is the story of the man who ends up in a bathtub packed with ice missing his kidney. I have personally heard many variations of it and am amazed when it surfaces again with a new twist. The authors also point out what it is about persistent urban legends that keeps them going like these others:

Poisoned Halloween candy
The Kentucky Fried Rat
Coca-Cola rots your bones
The Great Wall of China is the only man made object that is visible from space
You only use 10% of your brain

The Heath brothers have an easy, clear writing style that is enjoyable to read. Imagine if you could create a “Sticky” message where everyone remembered what you had said and were engaged to act on it.  That opportunity exists every day. Simple messages are core & compact and avoid being gimmicky. Compactness is essential because there is a limit to the amount of information we can juggle at one time. Finally we need to recognize that good teachers use lots of schemas – the “What If?” adaption where you can merge or stretch an idea to solve complicated problems with true “Stickyness” to share a message, not just share data.