Made to Stick Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die ? Made to Stick Why Some Ideas Survive and Others

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    Made to Stick Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

    In April 1999, an article appeared in a small Indiana newspaper headlined "Indiana University Student Gains New Perspective on Life." You'll recognize the story. It profiled a 425 lb. college kid who dropped 200 lbs. by eating fast food.

    His name was Jared.

    Part of the reason you know this story is that Subway the place Jared got his veggie and turkey subs every day turned it into an ad campaign that transformed the young man into an overnight celebrity. (You can likely still picture Jared in his "after" version, stretching the 60-inch waist of his "before" pants between two widespread hands.) But Subway's massive marketing effort alone doesn't explain the nearly viral phenomenon it triggered. There have been countless other fast-food campaigns since Jared's debuted, and none of them have wormed their way into the nation's collective memory the way this one did.

    In Made to Stick, brothers Chip and Dan Heath attempt to explain this peculiar phenomenon, and others like it. They ask why is it that some ideas "stick," remaining vivid in our memories, whereas others just fade away? Is it in the nature of the ideas themselves, or could it have something to do with packaging?

    According Chip and Dan a Stanford Business School professor and an education entrepreneur respectively it's all about the packaging. To arrive at this conclusion, the Heaths spent a decade disassembling the inner workings of memorable, persuasive ideas. They reviewed countless political speeches, urban legends, news reports, management directives, and marketing messages (like Subway's). They also studied culture-crossing proverbs, including the enduring fables of Aesop. For the Heaths, it didn't matter whether the ideas themselves were good or bad (or even whether or not they were true), just that they'd "stuck."

    The Heath brothers adopted the "what sticks" terminology from one of America's favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. A few years ago, Gladwell wrote a brilliant book called The Tipping Point, which examined the forces that cause social phenomena to "tip," or make the leap from small groups to big groups. Those familiar with Gladwell's book will remember that The Tipping Point has three sections. The first addresses the importance of having the right people, and the third addresses the need for the right context. The middle section, "The Stickiness Factor," argues that innovations will only tip if they're "sticky."

    When The Tipping Point was first published, the Heaths realized that "stickiness" was the perfect word for the attribute that they were chasing with their research into the marketplace of ideas. So they borrowed his phrase (with due credit to Mr. Gladwell of course), and proceeded to build on it with a book of their own, drawing

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    from their own unique knowledge base as researchers and educators.

    Now, before you assume that Made to Stick must be geared towards those in advertising or public communications, think again. This book is for anyone who has a concept that they want to share. Yes, those in publicity can benefit from Made to Stick that's a given. But everyone has ideas. As scientists, teachers, businessmen, journalists, and even parents, we all want to impart our life's knowledge to those around us. Made to Stick can help us achieve those goals.

    Now, before we dive into an overview of their book, a little disclaimer is warranted: While the Heaths can certainly get us off to a good start in the kitchen, their book doesn't promise a foolproof recipe for cooking-up sticky new ideas. No matter how well we might learn and apply the Heath brothers' six basic principles of sticky ideas, some ideas may still be too sour for the tastebuds. No matter how much sugar we put on it, we're not likely to sell many people on the idea of resurrecting VHS video tapes anytime soon, for example. No, the Heaths aren't promising miracles. But they will show you how a little focused effort can make almost any idea stickier, and that may be just enough to make a difference.

    Six Principles of Sticky Ideas

    The authors argue that the same basic themes and attributes are found in virtually all successful ideas. That's not to say there's a pure, algorithmic "formula" for a sticky idea that would be overstating the case. But sticky ideas do draw from a common set of traits, which make them much more likely to succeed.

    It's like discussing the attributes of a great basketball player. You can be pretty sure that any great player is almost certain to have some subset of traits like height, speed, agility and court sense. Sure, you don't need all of these traits in order to be great: Some great guards are five feet ten and scrawny. But it's fair to say that if you're down at the neighborhood court, choosing your team from a bunch of strangers, you'll likely want to take a gamble on the seven-foot dude.

    According to the Heaths, great ideas work in much the same way. In their book, they show us how to spot ideas that have "natural talent," like the 7-foot stranger. And to take the basketball analogy even further: in the world of ideas, we can genetically engineer our players. We can create ideas with maximum stickiness.

    As the Heaths pored over hundreds of sticky ideas while researching their book, they saw, over and over, the same six principles at work. They discovered that almost all sticky ideas are: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and storytelling. If you then line up the first letters (and add a lower-case "s" to the end to make it memorable), you end up with the handy acronym SUCCESs.

    Let's explore these six principles in more detail:


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    Imagine for a moment you're a soldier in the Army. Every move you make on the battlefield is preceded by a staggering amount of planning, which can be traced all the way backward to an original order from the Commander-in-Chief. The plans are dizzyingly thorough, specifying what each unit will do, which equipment it will use, how it will replace munitions, and on, and on and on. The whole system is a marvel of planning. There's just one drawback: when the bullets start flying, more often than not, things break down and the plans turn out to be useless.

    What's the solution? Whether you're a four-star general or a divisional manager for a national furniture company, the answer is the same: Managers need to invest less time planning and far more time upfront simplifying their messages.

    "Coming up with a simple message is the hardest part of planning," say the Heaths. "It can be very time consuming to take a big idea and distill it down, over and over, gradually whittling away everything that's not essential."

    But it's worth the effort. One need only look at a successful company like Southwest Airlines to see what can happen when complex sales and marketing strategies are reduced to bite-sized chunks that everyone can swallow. One reason Southwest Airlines has enjoyed over 30 years of profitability, the authors contend, is its founders' willingness to winnow the company's mission down to a meaningful mantra: Southwest is "THE low-fare airline."

    When tempted to expand the business over the years marketing once suggested the airline should offer chicken salads on some flights co-founder Herb Kelleher responded by asking: "Would chicken salads help Southwest be THE low-fare airline?" The answer, of course, was no.

    There's beauty in simplicity.


    Sticky ideas start with simplicity, but that alone is rarely enough. To really grab and hold our attention, sometimes an idea also has to be a bit unexpected.

    According to the Heaths, the hackneyed old tradition telling a funny little joke before starting an important speech actually has a good deal of merit to it. It turns out that surprise really works. It puts listeners at ease and makes them more receptive to ideas. But even with an attention-grabbing introduction, sooner or later the meeting ends, workers go back to their desks, and chances are, the presentation is then forgotten.

    So how can managers make their entire presentation and not just their introductory jokes stand the test of time? One tried and true technique favored by the Heath brothers is to create a sort of "mini-mystery." This involves starting a presentation by planting little knowledge gaps in the heads of your listeners, just like network television does when it runs its laughably hyperbolic trailers for the evening news: "There's a new drug sweeping the teenage community and it

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    may be in your medicine cabinet! Find out at 11pm!" Of course, you'd then proceed to answer some of the questions, but not all. Make your listeners want to go back to their desks and do a little homework on their own.

    Chances are, peppering your messages with a little dollop of unexpectedness may enable you to hold onto your listeners' attention for longer. And if you've done your job well, some of that curiosity may linger beyond the end of your talk.

    The trick, say the Heaths, is to set up an ongoing knowledge gap or mystery but not make it so big as to seem insurmountable to your listeners. Your brain teasers should be fun and unexpected or even scary but never paralyzing.


    There is a reason so many managers can be so hard to understand. "We've just had it pounded into our heads that the way you seem smart is by using numbers and being abstract," explain the authors. Also, speaking in ethereal terms can also be a way of hedging one's bets: Before developing a new product, many managers tend to err on the side of vagueness, keeping their options open. This is unwise, say the Heaths. When managers speak in abstractions, workers may seem like they understand each other, but often they don't. If front-line employees don't get the concept, chances are the product won't launch on time.

    Coming up with concrete goals isn't always easy, especially in the early stages of product development when concepts may be far removed from reality. But when used properly, concrete language can lead to products and idea that last.

    To illustrate the importance of concrete thinking, the Heaths cite the example of the Boeing 727, one of the most commercially successful passenger planes ever produced. When executives at Boeing began working on the 727, their next-generation passenger plane during the 1960s, they faced the ultimate business challenge: How to get thousands of far-flung engineers moving in the same direction? "A typical business organization might have said, 'We're going to dominate the short-haul passenger market for jets,'" say the Heaths. But Boeing executives were far more specific with their employees. Their new plane, they said, not only would seat 131 passengers, but it would be able to fly nonstop from Miami to New York City and, most important, land on runway 4-22 at LaGuardia, which, at less than a mile long, was too short for large planes.

    By announcing concrete goals (131 passengers, landing on runway 4-22 at LaGuardia), Boeing executives left the engineers with flexibility to be creative, while keeping everyone in the sprawling organization on the same page.


    When the Surgeon General warns about the dangers of smoking, or a Supreme Court justice weighs in on the law, people tend to listen. Top experts never worry about their ideas being ignored. But what about the rest of us? Most of us don't

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    have a national profile. And while many businesses seek out the obvious solution i.e. finding someone famous to endorse their product there are only so many new pairs of basketball shoes Michael Jordan can't live without, or great new works of fiction that Oprah just can't seem to put down. No need to fret though. There are many other good ways to demonstrate credibility.

    One such way is what the Heaths refer to as "the Sinatra Test." They explain it this way: "In Frank Sinatra's classic New York, New York,' he sings about starting a new life in New York City, and the chorus declares, If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere. Similarly, an idea passes the Sinatra Test when the use of one simple example alone establishes credibility in a given domain. For instance, if your company was able to land the security contract for Fort Knox, you're now in the running for any security contract (even if you've got no other clients). Or, if you catered the White House once, you can compete for any catering contract. After all, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere!"

    And so, in communicating your ideas, your challenge is not to find new facts and statistics to connect with your audience. For instance, if you're running a courier company, no one really cares that 98% of your packages arrive on time. Your audience wants to hear that you "delivered a package containing the new Harry Potter manuscript, without compromising its contents." That spells credibility!


    Making an idea compelling is one thing. Getting someone to act on it is another. Once again though, too many managers blindly push their charts or graphs when making employees feel something is much more likely to inspire action. The Heaths point to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2002 that demonstrated just how much an emotional appeal could trump one based on hard facts. In the study, researchers looked at how more than 10,000 teenagers responded to two different anti-smoking television commercials: (1) An emotion-based "Truth" campaign, which featured somber-faced teens piling up body bags outside the offices of a Big Tobacco company; and (2) A dry, fact-based series of advertisements called "Think. Don't Smoke."

    The researchers weren't surprised to find that the emotional ads were more memorable. It was easy enough to predict that a larger number of teens would recall seeing the "Truth" commercials while fewer would remember the "Think" spots. But the researchers were astounded by how much more the emotional ads motivated teens to take action. After seeing the "Truth" ads, 66 percent of teenaged viewers self-reported that they were less likely to smoke. The "Think" teens, meanwhile, said they were only 36 percent more likely to smoke.

    There is a simple reason that politicians use emotional, negative campaign ads to destroy their opponents, and charities solicit donations by using heart-wrenching pictures of suffering children, say the Heaths: "Emotion sparks action."


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    If there is one fundamental piece of advice the Heath brothers have for managers struggling to breathe life into their ideas, it is this: Tell a story.

    Immediately prior to writing their book, Chip Heath had been running a simulation in a class at Stanford University called "Making Ideas Stick" that demonstrated how much the average business presentation fails to live up to a well-told story. After giving his class of MBA students detailed numbers on U.S. property crime rates, Chip asked them to make impromptu, 60-second speeches for or against tougher crime laws. Under pressure, the MBA students fell into the same trap most speakers do: The typical student jammed his or her one-minute lecture full of boring statistics. Only one in 10 actually told a story.

    Time and time again, Chip would then distract the class for a few minutes by showing a movie clip. When the clip was over, he'd ask the students what they remembered about the crime presentations. "There's this kind of nervous laughter that goes around the room," say the authors. Only 1 out of every 20 people in the class is able to recall any individual number from any of the presentations they heard. On the other hand, when a speaker had told a story about a personal experience with property crime, two or three students would remember details. "You can take the moral out of a story, but you can't reconstruct the story out of the moral," say the Heaths.

    In other words, anecdotes and stories may not fit neatly into a PowerPoint slide deck, but the more managers rely on narratives instead of charts and graphs to share their ideas, the less sleep the rest of us will be getting in their meetings.

    The Curse of Knowledge

    Having reviewed the six principles, you might now be thinking to yourself: "This all seems like common sense. But if it really is so easy to make an idea stick, why doesn't everybody get it? Why are we all such poor communicators?" The Heaths have an answer for that one too. It's called the Curse of Knowledge.

    In their analysis, far too many otherwise sensible strategies fail to drive action because executives formulate them in sweeping, general language. For example, try these three common slogans on for size: "Achieving customer delight! ... Becoming the most efficient manufacturer! ... Unlocking shareholder value!" On paper, these catch phrases may sound good. But what do they actually mean?

    The Curse of Knowledge theory elegantly explains why so many modern day executives are hopelessly in love with ineffective, vague strategy statements. Most top executives have had years of immersion in the logic and conventions of business. So when they speak abstractly as they often do they are simply summarizing the wealth of concrete knowledge and data in their heads. Unfortunately, however, their front-line employees (who usually aren't privy to the underlying meaning), hear only the opaque catch phrases. As a result, the ideas being touted by the executives don't stick, and the strategies are bound to fail.

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    In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the Curse of Knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: "finger tapper" or "listener." Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song (e.g. Happy Birthday) and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener's job, quite simply, was to guess the song.

    Over the course of Newton's experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. On average, the listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a measly success ratio of just 2.5%. Before they guessed, Newton had asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%, a gross overestimation as it turns out. Why were the tappers so overconfident?

    The explanation is simple: When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along in her head. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Clearly, there's a huge disconnect there.

    "The basic problem," explain the Heaths, "is that once most people have learned something say, the melody of a song they find it very hard to imagine not knowing it. The knowledge has cursed' them. They have difficulty sharing it with others, because they can't readily re-create their earlier (emptier) state of mind."

    In the business world, managers and employees not to mention marketers and their target customers all rely on ongoing communication but suffer from enormous information imbalances, just like Newton's tappers and listeners.

    Fortunately, we can use the Heath's SUCCESs principles to thwart the Curse of Knowledge by "translating" our strategies into more concrete language.

    Consider the case of Trader Joe's. For those not familiar with the company, Trader Joe's is a specialty food chain whose mission is to bring its customers "the best food at great values." Its aisles are full of inexpensive but exotic foodstuffs like Moroccan simmer sauce and red-pepper soup. Trader Joe's beats the Curse of Knowledge and pours meaning into its strategy by using concrete language in its training materials. For example, one training manual openly describes its target customer as an "unemployed college professor who drives a used Volvo." Obviously, the image is an oversimplification. But because it distills a complex reality, a description like that ensures that all employees have a common picture of their customers. Would the professor like the red-pepper soup? Yes.

    Stories also work particularly well in dodging the Curse of Knowledge, explain the Heaths, because they force us to use concrete language. For example, in internal FedEx training seminars, the company likes to use stories to reinforce its cornerstone guarantee that packages will "absolutely, positively" arrive overnight.

    One popular company story: in New York, a FedEx delivery truck broke down and the replacement van was running late. The driver initially delivered a few packages on foot; but then, despairing of finishing her route on time, she managed to persuade a competitor's driver to take her to her last few stops.

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    Even politicians can beat the Curse of Knowledge. If John F. Kennedy had been a modern-day politician or CEO, he'd probably have said: "Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity's future." Yuck!

    "That might have set a moonwalk back fifteen years," say the Heaths jokingly. Instead, JFK's famous 1961 call to the American people stuck to the SUCCESs principles: "We will put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade," he said. Simple? Yes. Unexpected? Yes. Concrete? Totally. Credible? Well, the goal may have seemed like science fiction but the source was very credible. Emotional? Spine tingling. A story? Yes, in a miniature.


    Mark Twain once commented, "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on." That clever observation still rings true today. Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus public-health scares circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas businessmen, educators, politicians and journalists routinely struggle to make their ideas stick.

    There is hope, however. Made to Stick is filled with examples of all kinds of people from presidents to high school teachers who accomplished amazing things simply by applying six basic principles to the ideas they were trying to communicate (even if they weren't aware they were doing it). Many of these people have since faded into obscurity, but their ideas live on. Their names may not have been sticky, but their stories were. And for Chip and Dan Heath, that really is the greatest thing about our wonderfully democratic world of ideas any of us, with the right tools and the right message, can make an idea stick.


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