Why some ideas stick and others don't

On April 29, 1999, an article appeared in the Indiana Daily Student headlined "Indiana U. Senior Gains New Perspective on Life." You'll recognize the story. It profiled a 425-pound college kid who cut his weight in half by eating fast food. His name was Jared.

Part of the reason you know the story is that Subway – the place Jared got his veggie and turkey subs every day – turned it into an ad campaign that transformed Jared into an unlikely celebrity. (Possibly you can still picture him in his "after" version, stretching the 60-inch waist of his "before" pants between two widespread hands.)

But the Subway campaign alone doesn't explain the nearly viral phenomenon it triggered. There have been countless other ad campaigns since Jared's debuted, and none of them imprinted an unknown college student on the nation's memory the way Subway's did. Nor did many of them so swiftly and lastingly get their message across. ("Our food, though fast, is actually so healthy it can help you lose weight.")

Why not? What was it about Jared's message that made it – and him – stick?

Now, thanks to Made to Stick, we know. Coauthors (and brothers) Chip and Dan Heath – a Stanford Business School professor and an education entrepreneur respectively – spent a decade disassembling and trying to understand the inner workings of memorable, persuasive ideas, no matter what kind of packages they came in.

They studied political speeches, urban legends, news reports, management directives, and marketing messages like Subway's – not to mention culture-crossing proverbs, the various fables of Aesop, and the many soups of chicken (for the soul).

It didn't matter whether the ideas themselves were good or bad, just that they'd "stuck." (Not only is the Great Wall of China not the sole man-made structure visible from space; it isn't visible from space at all. And still...)

What the Heaths discovered was that the stickiest ideas, regardless of intrinsic merit, had a lot in common. Or, more accurately, the ways they were presented had a lot in common.

How to spell success

Each of these ideas, as conveyed, could be described using one or more of just these six à la carte attributes: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story-containing. Line up the first letters of those characteristics, add a lower-case "s" (poetic license), and you've got the handy acronym SUCCESs. (Well, whaddya know...)

If that sounds like typical pop-lecture hokum (and it does, as the authors admit), it's not. What the Heaths have produced, complete with mnemonic handle, is a powerfully useful checklist for understanding how connections can be wired between ideas and people – between your ideas and the people you hope will be struck by them.

Why expertise doesn't always appeal

In separate chapters for each of the six principal characteristics, "Made to Stick" explores in depth exactly how, say, concreteness provides more hooks for recall (the "Velcro theory of memory") and why abstraction is often what unintentionally results from expertise.

"This is the Curse of Knowledge," the Heaths write, describing what they consider the single biggest reason so many messages fail to stick. "Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. [It] becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind."

The expert "wants to talk about chess strategies, not about bishops moving diagonally."

It's the showing, not the telling

"Made to Stick" summons plenty of brain science, social history, and behavioral psychology to explain what makes an idea winning and memorable – and the Heaths do the telling with beautiful clarity.

But they've also learned their own most important lesson: They know that with ideas it's not the telling but the showing that counts, so they've filled their book with stories that illustrate their theories.

"Made to Stick" deconstructs President Kennedy's moon mission challenge, the act of a biologist who drank a jar of ulcer-causing bacteria so he could persuade skeptics of his cure, and the way that the profound simplicity of Southwest Airline's core purpose ("be the low-cost airline") helps "employees wring decisions out of ambiguous situations."

Much of what they say may seem obvious – and yet the simple principles they propound are routinely ignored even by many who consider themselves professional communicators.

The Heaths discuss, for instance, what they call "the gap theory" of curiosity. This is the notion that a gap in knowledge is painful – it's like having an itch that needs to be scratched. It's also the reason that murder mysteries, crossword puzzles, sport contests, and even Pokémon succeed in grabbing attention: An audience is challenged to predict an outcome and then left wondering, "What will happen?" and "Was I right?"

But to capitalize on this kind of natural situational interest, the Heaths point out, "we need to first open gaps before we close them. And yet, too often, the communicator's tendency is "to tell people the facts. First, though, they must realize that they need these facts."

Throughout "Made to Stick," the Heaths provide dozens of examples of sticky messages – and plenty of samples of ingloriously ineffective prose as well. They show how a badly articulated idea can be reexpressed.

An old-school self-help book?

That utility is what separates "Made to Stick" from the books it's indebted to – "The Tipping Point" and "Freakonomics" – books that proved the pop- crossover appeal of social psychology.

"Made to Stick," too, wants to unveil how people behave. Specifically, it wants to explicate what makes people care about the ideas they encounter. But then, unlike its forebears, it goes old-school. It emerges as a how-to book – very nearly a self-help book, whether for organizations or individuals – just like thousands before it, only far better. By mapping what makes others listen, it shows you how to make yourself heard.

I'm betting "Made to Stick" won't find as many readers as have its now-glamorous predecessors. But I'd also bet that the readers it does find will end up more profoundly changed by it.

Michael S. Hopkins is a contributing editor of Inc. magazine.

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