Made to Stick, ch. 1 to 5 - Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck
a book by Chip & Dan Heath, Paperback, 2008Buy it on Amazon • 1 minutes read
Table of Contents
If not communicated artfully, even the most insightful, revolutionary and brilliant idea might be ignored and forgotten. This book is a manual on how to make ideas “stick”, so that they are understood and have a lasting impact, changing the audience’s opinions and / or behaviour.
While traditional communication methods focus on improving the delivery of the message, structuring our presentation in certain ways and repeating the key message again and again, this book looks into what traits make ideas sticky.
Chapter 1 - Introduction
- The Curse of Knowledge makes sharing our ideas so hard: once we know something, it’s difficult to identify with people who don’t, so our ideas end up not connecting to our audience or misunderstood. To beat the Curse of Knowledge, we can apply the following steps:
- Find the core idea by weeding out superfluous and tangential elements.
- Communicate the core idea effectively making sure our message meets the following six principles:
- Simplicity: The core idea must be prominent, compactly expressed and, yet, so profound it could influence a lifetime of behaviour;
- Unexpectedness: We must generate interest and curiosity by violating people’s expectations and being counterintuitive;
- Concreteness: We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions and sensory information;
- Credibility: Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials, simple enough for the audience to test it themselves and believe it;
- Emotions: We must make people care by making them feel something by harnessing the right emotion;
- Stories: We must tell stories to get people to act on our ideas, preparing them to act quickly and effectively.
Chapter 2 - Simplicity
- Profound and compact ideas pack a lot of meaning into a small message. To do this we can tap into the existing memory schemas of our audience.
- Schemas are collections of generic properties of a concept or category. They consist of a lot of prerecorded information in our memories. By calling up schemas in our messages we can communicate concepts much faster than if we mechanically listed all the attributes of our ideas, improving on both their comprehension and the ability to recall them.
- Start with simple, stripped-down examples that can be easily understood with little context. Once the basic schema is established, we can stretch this schema along the desired dimensions.
- Using “schemas” and analogies might seem a slower path to “real truth” (i.e. communicating our message in its completeness and with perfect accuracy) but they help us communicate our ideas effectively, avoiding the Curse of Knowledge.
- Good examples of analogies are “generative”: they are platforms for novel thinking that generate “new perceptions, explanations, and inventions”.
Chapter 3 - Unexpected
- Mental schemas help us predict what will happen and make good decisions. When they fail and the unexplainable happens we are surprised: the event jolts our attention, we pause and reflect, so that we can repair our machines.
- Stickier ideas seize this power by breaking people’s mental schemas and then helping them repair them by providing insights related to their core message. The step by step process is:
- Identify the central messages;
- Figure out what’s counter-intuitive about the message;
- Communicate the message in a way that breaks the audience’s guessing machine along the counterintuitive dimension.
- Sticky ideas help us break the complacency of common sense and rewrite existing schemas in the mind of our audience. To make this work we need to know how people’s schema are defective, swift the rug from underneath them with surprise, and then provide them powerful insights to help make their mental models better.
- Curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge; to sustain attention, we must feed people’s curiosity with a steady stream of open questions: the desire to fill this gap in our knowledge will keep them interested. We need to shift our thinking from “What information do I need to convey?” to “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”.
- We should hence provide our audience with context, highlighting something they already know, and then point out gaps in their knowledge to convince them they need our message.
Chapter 4 - Concrete
- Abstraction is the luxury of the experts: when talking about their ideas, experts see the patterns and insights they have learned with years of practices. Yet, for novices these higher abstractions are out of reach, as the necessary foundations are missing.
- Presenting ideas in abstract ways makes them harder to remember and to coordinate with others, which might interpret the abstraction in other ways. Concreteness creates a shared “turf” on which people can collaborate, feeling comfortable they’re all tackling the same challenge, helping our idea be both understandable and memorable.
- What make something “concrete”? If it’s human-scale, meaning you can examine and understand it with your senses, it’s concrete. For example:
- Abstract distances we don’t have a sense for, like the one between the earth and the sun, are much less effective than comparing the distance between Paris and Rome, or the distance between two opposites of a football field;
- Abstract amounts and doses (e.g. the milligrams of a substance needed for healing an illness, or the desired size of an invention) is much less concrete than seeing these amounts in practices, or being able to touch them, as a prop;
- Comparing abstract percentages (e.g. 20% of employees) is much more concrete by presenting these in a practical setting (e.g. 2 out of 11 football players…);
- Teaching about abstract behaviours (e.g. discrimination) and skills (e.g. accounting) can be more effective by experiencing these first-hand.
- Concreteness is perhaps the easiest trait to add to our ideas; the barrier is simply forgetfulness: it’s easy to forget we’re talking like an expert, the curse of knowledge makes it feel unnatural to talk concretely about a topic we’ve known for years.
Chapter 5 - Credible
- What makes people believe ideas? We believe because of experiences, faith and authorities; this means that, when trying to make people believe a new idea, we’re fighting an uphill battle against a lifetime of convictions made by personal learning and social relationships.
- There are Four ways to weave credibility into our ideas:
- Use authorities, reliable sources that can back up our ideas:
- The first type of authority is an expert, the kind of person whose wall is covered in framed credentials.
- The second type are celebrities and aspirational figures: we trust these people whom we want to be like.
- When accessing the endorsement of the first two types is not viable, we can tap into the credibility of an anti-authority: sources that have a powerful connection to our core idea because of their personal story and, are having nothing to gain, are trusted because of their honesty and trustworthiness, not because of their status.
- Make tangible and concrete claims, so that they can vouch for themselves, for example by adding relevant details to make ideas seem more real and believable:
- Statistics work well, yet they are rarely helpful by themselves: statistics should be used to illustrate a relationship, as the relationship is more important to remember than the number, and to get our audience make up their mind on an issue; it’s the human-scale and the context that makes them so.
- Prove with a concrete example we are clearly (over-)qualified for the job (e.g. “if you’ve made it there, you can make it anywhere!”);
- Provide testable credentials, claims that can be immediately verified by your audience (e.g. “see for yourself!”).
- Use authorities, reliable sources that can back up our ideas:
- It’s not always obvious which of these approaches we should use, so the key here is perseverance: we should try to mix and match these approaches, knowing when it’s time to draw from a different well.
Another model: Contagiousness
A story is like a virus. It can’t exist on its own—it requires a host. In the case of story viruses, a human host. So the first prerequisite for a fit story is that it’s good at binding to its host. A virus can invade an animal, but if it can’t convert that animal into its long-term home, it won’t make it.
So that starts things off with a few necessary characteristics of a viable story virus:
Simplicity. The story has to be easily teachable and easily understandable.
Unfalsifiability. The story can’t be easy to disprove.
Conviction. For a story to take hold, its hosts can’t be wondering or hypothesizing or vaguely believing—the story needs to be specific and to posit itself as the absolute truth.
Contagiousness. Next, the story needs to spread. To be spreadable, a story needs to be contagious—something people feel deeply compelled to share and that applies equally to many people.
The story, once believed, needs to be able to drive the behavior of its host. So it should include:
Incentives. Promises of treats for behaving the right way, promises of electroshocks for behaving the wrong way.
Accountability. The claim that your behavior will be known by the arbiter of the incentives—even, in some cases, where no one is around to see it.
Comprehensiveness. The story can dictate what’s true and false, virtuous and immoral, valuable and worthless, important and irrelevant, covering the full spectrum of human belief.
If natural selection was calling for bigger, stronger, meaner giants, then the stories that enhanced that trajectory would be the fittest of them all. Our biological evolution made us tribal to help glue us together. The right story would be our superglue.
To make human superglue, you’ll need four ingredients to make a story so powerful it’ll alter the behavior of enough people via indoctrination, the believers will alter the behavior of the rest via intimidation.
This creates a loop that can keep a story, once implanted, can control a tribe for centuries.
Ingredient 1: Tribal Values
A superglue story also jacks up the Us > Them values, centering around something greater than individual people that all believers should serve.
Tribalism also generates peer pressure to conform and a fear of being labeled a secret member of Them and ostracized (or worse).
Ingredient 2: A Queen Bee
If you want people to act like ants or bees, give them a(n all powerful) queen. The queen bee can be a rightful ruler or a mythic figure or a natural wonder or a higher cause or a hallowed homeland. The important thing is that the queen bee is seen as more sacred than any form of primal fulfilment.
Tribes split when they get too big for everyone in the tribe to have an intimate relationship with everybody else—but there’s no limit to the number of people who can have their own intimate relationship with the queen bee.
Additionally, fear of the queen bee translates to censorship for any dissenters without a death wish.
Ingredient 3: Identity Attachment
A superglue story will almost always intertwine itself with the identity of its believers, giving otherwise total strangers a way to trust each other, which helped foster cooperation and trade.
You know a superglue story is linked to its believers’ identities when you hear them use the story as a noun to describe themselves—when they call themselves “a [story]an” or “a [story]ist” or something like that.
Identification with the story also causes people to protect the story like they’d protect their own children.
Ingredient 4: A Cudgel
A successful superglue story, usually be a jealous story that expressly forbids belief in other stories, with intolerance as a central value declaring that dissenters from within should be obliterated.
Just as important as the size of a tribe’s outward-facing cudgel (the giant’s “military”) is the size of the one it points inward at its own members (the giant’s “police force”). One fights external threats—the other fights cancer.
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