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Book Discussion: Chip and Dan Heath’s “Made to Stick”

Book Discussion: Chip and Dan Heath’s “Made to Stick”
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

    Imagine: a teacher stands in front of a classroom filled with bored, listless students. As he repeatedly fills the board and erases it, fills the board and erases it, he drones out a list of names and dates, formulae and proofs, theories and evidence. His students drop one by one into a dazed stupor, drool puddling beneath their vacant faces, necks craning to catch quick glimpses of the clock, thumbs twiddling against phonepads beneath their desks. Neither teacher nor students are inspired; six months later, neither will remember what was said or done that day or, indeed, any day.

    Now imagine: A period later, a different teacher stands in front of a different group of students teaching her section of the same class. As she goes over the same material from the same book, her students buzz with excitement, falling over themselves to answer every question she poses to the class, their gazes riveted tightly to hers as she spins out ever-more-fascinating details. Years later, her students remember vividly the material from her class, and look back at their semester together as a crucial turning point in their lives.

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    Same material, same subject, very different outcomes. What is it that makes some teachers — along with some politicians, pundits, authors, scientists, novelists, corporate executives, advertisers, designers, engineers, and others — able to totally capture their audience’s attention while others communicate the same ideas an get ignored? What combination of strong ideas and strong presentation is necessary to get through to people, to be persuasive, memorable, and influential? Why do some ideas stick in the public’s consciousness while others — as good or even better — fade without a trace? What makes ideas “sticky” and how can we create “stickiness” in our own communications?

    These are the questions that Chip Heath and Dan Heath set out to answer in their new book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2007). Drawing on their backgrounds and research as a Stanford business professor and an educational publisher, the Brothers Heath explore the mechanics and psychology of the spread of ideas ranging from ad slogans to urban legends to political campaigns. What they find and relate to their readers is a handful (six, to be exact) of principles that characterize nearly all of the good ideas that “stick” — and whose absence plagues the ones that don’t.

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    What are Sticky Ideas?

    The world is full of ideas. Some are small: putting googly-eyes on a rock and selling it as a no-maintenance pet, for instance. Some are huge: consider the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Most are somewhere in between: a better way to slice bread, transport data over phone lines, get to work, or catch mice. History is littered with good ideas that failed to catch on, as well as bad ideas that, alas, didn’t.

    The ones that stay, that are passed from person to person and from generation to generation are the sticky ones. They’re not necessarily the best ideas, or even the right ones — people have been telling each other that Jews killed Christian children and cooked their blood into Passover matzoh since the Middle Ages, a pretty good run for an idea without a scrap of evidence outside of the fevered imaginations of the ignorant. The ideas that stick are the ones, good or bad, right or wrong, that sink hooks into people’s imaginations and stay there.

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    What Makes Ideas Stick

    What makes it hard to communicate our ideas in ways that make them sticky? The most important factor in the failure of ideas to stick is what the Heaths call “the Curse of Knowledge”, the difficulty we have as knowledgeable people imagining what it’s like for people who do not share our knowledge. I run into this a lot as a teacher and as a step-parent, when it occurs to me that even the simplest, most common-sense ideas have to be learned at some point — we have to learn even the most basic stuff, like “fire bad” and “mommy good”. Parents, whose job is essentially to make the whole of our culture’s knowledge and wisdom stick in their children’s heads, face this repeatedly, and often give up — which is why the number one reason most parents can give for why things have to be done a certain way is “because mommy (or daddy) said so”.

    Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge means keeping a few basic principles at the front of our minds as we shape our communications. Chip and Dan Heath offer us six qualities that make ideas sticky, all wrapped up in a clever (if a bit hokey) acronym: Simple Unexpected Concrete Credible Emotional Stories (SUCCESs).

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    • Simple: Simplicity is achieved when an idea is stripped down to its core, to the most essential elements that make it work. Perhaps the simplest of all sticky ideas is Einstein’s E=MC2, which renders the complexity of the material universe and the mystery of relativity in five letters, numbers, and symbols. Simple does not have to mean short (but it helps); what is important is that the single most important thing be highlighted.
    • Unexpected: The best ideas represent a break from the everyday, the ordinary, the status quo. They become sticky when they interject themselves into our established patterns, forcing us to sit up and take notice. Once our attention is grabbed, sticky ideas refuse to let go, holding our interest by creating in us a need to discover the outcome, to see how things work. Think of a mystery novel that simply refuses to leave our hands until the last page is turned and our curiosity fulfilled.
    • Concrete: Abstraction is the enemy of stickiness. Sticky ideas don’t promise better nourishment for untold millions, they put a chicken in every pot, a steak dinner on the table of Tom Everyman, or rice into the bowl of the wide-eyed African child whose name and life history are sent to you with a letter and photograph. Some of the stickiest ideas are fables, myths, and legends — the fox and the (sour) grapes, Moses and the golden calf, Robin Hood, and the friend of your friend’s uncle who found a lump on the back of his neck and one day it opened up and a million baby spiders crawled out. The piling on of specific details — who, what, where, when, why, in journalism-speak — makes ideas become realities and allows us to directly relate to them. They also make ideas more memorable — every fable has a patronizing moral attached to it, but it’s the image of the fox leaping to reach the sweet, ripe grapes that sticks with us.
    • Credible: Sticky ideas give us a reason to believe they’re true (even when they’re not). Some of us are just naturally credible — a physicist explaining the nature of the atom, for instance, or the Secretary of Education describing a new testing policy. The rest of us must construct our ideas so that they defend themselves. Statistics are useful, though they suffer from a lack of concreteness; sticky ideas make statistics accessible, bringing them too a human scale that makes their significance clear. Another source of credibility is personal experience, ideas that are clear to anyone who has come across a situation before. Comedians do this all the time, from Jerry Seinfeld’s “did you ever notice…” (of course you have!) to Chris Rock’s ruminations on the differences between black and white people.
    • Emotional: Give your audience a reason to care about your idea. Sticky ideas resonate with us on a level below our immediate consciousness — we can see this in stark clarity with the recent iPhone launch, where thousands stood in line for a product (a little bundle of ideas) that promised to make them cooler, more efficient, better informed, and more capable of dealing with whatever their lives threw at them. Sticky ideas appeal to our wishes, desires, and hopes, and interlock with our image of ourselves.
    • Stories: Why do we go to the trouble of telling fables and myths when we could just as easily tell people the moral? Beware of envy. Don’t worship false idols. Don’t go camping with your college buddies in the woods where that guy with the hockey mask killed those kids last summer. Beside satisfying a number of the other principles of stickiness — offering surprises, concrete details, and emotional resonance — stories act as simulation chambers, allowing us to come to their morals on our own terms. Stories are like the kid who learns that fire hurts by sticking his hand in the burner, only instead of sticking our hands in the burner, we experience somebody else doing so. In addition, stories provide us with a surplus of meaning, allowing us to extend ideas beyond their original domains — which only increases their stickiness.

    Over the next few weeks, I will revisit each of these principles, one at a time, to help show how they work and what they do. As far as I’m concerned, Made to Stick is essential reading for anyone who deals with ideas — marketers and business leaders, of course, but also teachers, knowledge workers, designers, parents, clergy, copy writers, journalists, activists, authors, and so on. If taken seriously, the ideas in Made to Stick will have as big an effect on readers as David Allen’s Getting Things Done has — it’s that powerful (and, like Allen’s book, told in a simple, homey voice that brings you along for the ride instead of preaching at you).

    I’d also like to hear from the Great Communicators out there — how do you make ideas stick? What works, and just as importantly, what doesn’t? Tell your stories in the comments, or visit our forums and start a thread there.

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    Last Updated on July 16, 2019

    7 Ways to Get Rid of Negative Energy and Become Positive

    7 Ways to Get Rid of Negative Energy and Become Positive

    Negativity affects ourselves and everyone around us. It limits our potential to become something great and live a fulfilling, purposeful life. Negativity has a tangible effect on our health, too. Research has shown that people who cultivate negative energy experience more stress, more sickness, and less opportunity over the course of their lives than those who choose to live positively.

    When we make a decision to become positive, and follow that decision up with action, we will begin to encounter situations and people that are also positive. The negative energy gets edged out by all positive experiences. It’s a snowball effect.

    Although negative and positive thoughts will always exist, the key to becoming positive is to limit the amount of negativity that we experience by filling ourselves up with more positivity.

    Here are some ways to get rid of negativity and become more positive.

    1. Become Grateful for Everything

    When life is all about us, it’s easy to believe that we deserve what we have. An attitude of entitlement puts us at the center of the universe and sets up the unrealistic expectation that others should cater to us, our needs, and our wants. This vain state of existence is a surefire way to set yourself up for an unfulfilled life of negativity.

    People living in this sort of entitlement are “energy suckers”–they are always searching for what they can get out of a situation. People that don’t appreciate the nuances of their lives live in a constant state of lacking. And it’s really difficult to live a positive life this way.

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    When we begin to be grateful and appreciate everything in our lives–from the small struggles that make us better, to the car that gets us from A to B every day–we shift our attitude from one of selfishness, to one of appreciation. This appreciation gets noticed by others, and a positive harmony begins to form in our relationships.

    We begin to receive more of that which we are grateful for, because we’ve opened ourselves up to the idea of receiving, instead of taking. This will make your life more fulfilling, and more positive.

    2. Laugh More, Especially at Yourself

    Life gets busy, our schedules fill up, we get into relationships, and work can feel task oriented and routine-driven at times. Being human can feel more like being a robot. But having this work-driven, serious attitude often results in negative and performance oriented thinking.

    Becoming positive means taking life less seriously and letting yourself off the hook. This is the only life that you get to live, why not lighten up your mood?

    Laughter helps us become positive by lightening our mood and reminding us not to take life so seriously. Are you sensitive to light sarcasm? Do you have trouble laughing at jokes? Usually, people who are stressed out and overly serious get most offended by sarcasm because their life is all work and no play.

    If we can learn to laugh at ourselves and our mistakes, life will become more of an experiment in finding out what makes us happy. And finding happiness means finding positivity.

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    3. Help Others

    Negativity goes hand in hand with selfishness. People that live only for themselves have no higher purpose in their lives. If the whole point of this world is only to take care of yourself and no one else, the road to a long-term fulfillment and purpose is going to be a long one.

    Positivity accompanies purpose. The most basic way to create purpose and positivity in your life is to begin doing things for others. Start small; open the door for the person in front of you at Starbucks or ask someone how their day was before telling them about yours.

    Helping others will give you an intangible sense of value that will translate into positivity. And people might just appreciate you in the process.

    4. Change Your Thinking

    We can either be our best coach or our best enemy. Change starts from within. If you want to become more positive, change the wording of your thoughts. We are the hardest on ourselves, and a stream of negative self talk is corrosive to a positive life.

    The next time you have a negative thought, write it down and rephrase it with a positive spin. For example, change a thought like, “I can’t believe I did so horribly on the test–I suck.” to “I didn’t do as well as I hoped to on this test. But I know I’m capable and I’ll do better next time.”

    Changing our self-talk is powerful.

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    5. Surround Yourself with Positive People

    We become most like the people that we surround ourselves with. If our friend group is full of negative energy-suckers and drama queens, we will emulate that behavior and become like them. It is very difficult to become more positive when the people around us don’t support or demonstrate positive behavior.

    As you become more positive, you’ll find that your existing friends will either appreciate the new you or they will become resistant to your positive changes. This is a natural response.

    Change is scary; but cutting out the negative people in your life is a huge step to becoming more positive. Positive people reflect and bounce their perspectives onto one another. Positivity is a step-by-step process when you do it solo, but a positive group of friends can be an escalator.

    6. Get into Action

    Negative thoughts can be overwhelming and challenging to navigate. Negativity is usually accompanied by a “freak-out” response, especially when tied to relationships, people and to worrying about the future. This is debilitating to becoming positive and usually snowballs into more worry, more stress and more freak-outs.

    Turn the negative stress into positive action. The next time you’re in one of these situations, walk away and take a break. With your eyes closed, take a few deep breaths. Once you’re calm, approach the situation or problem with a pen and pad of paper. Write out four or five actions or solutions to begin solving the problem.

    Taking yourself out of the emotionally charged negative by moving into the action-oriented positive will help you solve more problems rationally and live in positivity

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    7. Take Full Responsibility, Stop Being the Victim

    You are responsible for your thoughts.

    People that consistently believe that things happen to them handicap themselves to a victim mentality. This is a subtle and deceptive negative thought pattern. Phrases like “I have to work” or “I can’t believe he did that to me” are indicators of a victim mentality. Blaming circumstances and blaming others only handicaps our decision to change something negative into something positive.

    Taking full responsibility for your life, your thoughts and your actions is one of the biggest steps in creating a more positive life. We have unlimited potential within to create our own reality, change our life, and change our thoughts. When we begin to really internalize this, we discover that no one can make us feel or do anything. We choose our emotional and behavioral response to people and circumstances.

    Make positive choices in favor of yourself.

    “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny” ― Lao Tzu

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    Featured photo credit: Brooke Cagle via unsplash.com

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