Making Messages Stick

Do you remember the last powerpoint presentation you looked through?

Thought not.

There’s an urban legend …

A man goes to bar, is chatted up by pretty girl, who buys him a drink, next thing he wakes up in a bath of ice with a sick feeling, the note says don’t move, call 911. The operator answers “don’t move, someone has stolen your kidney. we’ve had a spate of these recently”.

A powerful and memorable story isn’t it? But none of it true. It’s an urban legend that has been circulating since 1991 and online since 1997.

Why do some ideas stick around for millenia (eg. aesop’s fables: “boy who cried wolf”) and others barely register?

Unworthy or false ideas can often be made sticky, can we make worthy ideas more sticky?

That’s the premise of the excellent Made to Stick written by Chip & Dan Heath (it’s over a decade old, but in the era of fake news remains as relevant as ever.

There are predictable components to a sticky idea, these can help to spot potentially sticky ideas, or to refine messages to make them more sticky.
What are they?

1. Simple . An effective simple messages needs to be “core” and “compact”, ie it needs to be short enough to be conveyed quickly and snappily, and needs to encapsulate the core message. A useful technique is to make use of a “schema” (mental model) that we already have for something else by employing analogy to simplify a message. This simplifies the absorption of a new message by employing a shortcut. The boy who cried wolf is sticky because it compactly captures a fundamental insight on human nature.
2. Unexpected – so far so obvious, but things get sticky when we move from common to uncommon sense, we break the schema. People sit up and take notice.
3. Credible – make it believable through authority or “antiauthority”
4. Concrete – make it real, tangible, something the audience can relate to or easily imagine. try and avoid the abstract, avoid large statistics
5. Emotional – make the audience feel something, connect with the idea
6. Story – above all people remember stories. from birth it’s the way we learn and make sense of the world and studies show that stories tend to stick in the mind far more than statements. in the corporate world particularly so, it can be easily (through the curse of knowledge) to omit the story and focus on the moral. Indeed both story and moral are important but given a choice go for the story not the moral.

there are effectively three types of story narrative
Challenge narrative – David & Goliath, appeal to our perseverance and hard work. inspire us to work harder, take on new challenges and overcome obstacles.
Connection narrative – the good samaritan, Romeo & Juliet, Titanic. they inspire us in social ways. make us want to help and be more tolerant of others. the story of a relationship that bridges a divide
Creativity narrative – The apple on Newton’s head, a story of great genius. It appeals to our desire for a human moment of genius that can create something out of nothing.

There are three killers of sticky ideas
The curse of knowledge – if you know too much you talk in the abstract and jump straight to the morals (omitting the story) and this kills the stickiness of the idea – focus on the concrete and the story.
Decision paralysis – too many options, uncertainty, even irrelevant uncertainty can paralyze us.
Bury the lead – natural tendency to lead with factual information but bury the real kernel
Here’s to worthy & sticky ideas …


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