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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 February 11, 2021

    Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

    Easily Misunderstood by Others? 6 Barriers You Should Overcome to Make Communication Less Frustrating

    How often have you said something simple, only to have the person who you said this to misunderstand it or twist the meaning completely around? Nodding your head in affirmative? Then this means that you are being unclear in your communication.

    Communication should be simple, right? It’s all about two people or more talking and explaining something to the other. The problem lies in the talking itself, somehow we end up being unclear, and our words, attitude or even the way of talking becomes a barrier in communication, most of the times unknowingly. We give you six common barriers to communication, and how to get past them; for you to actually say what you mean, and or the other person to understand it as well…

    The 6 Walls You Need to Break Down to Make Communication Effective

    Think about it this way, a simple phrase like “what do you mean” can be said in many different ways and each different way would end up “communicating” something else entirely. Scream it at the other person, and the perception would be anger. Whisper this is someone’s ear and others may take it as if you were plotting something. Say it in another language, and no one gets what you mean at all, if they don’t speak it… This is what we mean when we say that talking or saying something that’s clear in your head, many not mean that you have successfully communicated it across to your intended audience – thus what you say and how, where and why you said it – at times become barriers to communication.[1]

    Perceptual Barrier

    The moment you say something in a confrontational, sarcastic, angry or emotional tone, you have set up perceptual barriers to communication. The other person or people to whom you are trying to communicate your point get the message that you are disinterested in what you are saying and sort of turn a deaf ear. In effect, you are yelling your point across to person who might as well be deaf![2]

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    The problem: When you have a tone that’s not particularly positive, a body language that denotes your own disinterest in the situation and let your own stereotypes and misgivings enter the conversation via the way you talk and gesture, the other person perceives what you saying an entirely different manner than say if you said the same while smiling and catching their gaze.

    The solution: Start the conversation on a positive note, and don’t let what you think color your tone, gestures of body language. Maintain eye contact with your audience, and smile openly and wholeheartedly…

    Attitudinal Barrier

    Some people, if you would excuse the language, are simply badass and in general are unable to form relationships or even a common point of communication with others, due to their habit of thinking to highly or too lowly of them. They basically have an attitude problem – since they hold themselves in high esteem, they are unable to form genuine lines of communication with anyone. The same is true if they think too little of themselves as well.[3]

    The problem: If anyone at work, or even in your family, tends to roam around with a superior air – anything they say is likely to be taken by you and the others with a pinch, or even a bag of salt. Simply because whenever they talk, the first thing to come out of it is their condescending attitude. And in case there’s someone with an inferiority complex, their incessant self-pity forms barriers to communication.

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    The solution: Use simple words and an encouraging smile to communicate effectively – and stick to constructive criticism, and not criticism because you are a perfectionist. If you see someone doing a good job, let them know, and disregard the thought that you could have done it better. It’s their job so measure them by industry standards and not your own.

    Language Barrier

    This is perhaps the commonest and the most inadvertent of barriers to communication. Using big words, too much of technical jargon or even using just the wrong language at the incorrect or inopportune time can lead to a loss or misinterpretation of communication. It may have sounded right in your head and to your ears as well, but if sounded gobbledygook to the others, the purpose is lost.

    The problem: Say you are trying to explain a process to the newbies and end up using every technical word and industry jargon that you knew – your communication has failed if the newbie understood zilch. You have to, without sounding patronizing, explain things to someone in the simplest language they understand instead of the most complex that you do.

    The solution: Simplify things for the other person to understand you, and understand it well. Think about it this way: if you are trying to explain something scientific to a child, you tone it down to their thinking capacity, without “dumbing” anything down in the process.[4]

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    Emotional Barrier

    Sometimes, we hesitate in opening our mouths, for fear of putting our foot in it! Other times, our emotional state is so fragile that we keep it and our lips zipped tightly together lest we explode. This is the time that our emotions become barriers to communication.[5]

    The problem: Say you had a fight at home and are on a slow boil, muttering, in your head, about the injustice of it all. At this time, you have to give someone a dressing down over their work performance. You are likely to transfer at least part of your angst to the conversation then, and talk about unfairness in general, leaving the other person stymied about what you actually meant!

    The solution: Remove your emotions and feelings to a personal space, and talk to the other person as you normally would. Treat any phobias or fears that you have and nip them in the bud so that they don’t become a problem. And remember, no one is perfect.

    Cultural Barrier

    Sometimes, being in an ever-shrinking world means that inadvertently, rules can make cultures clash and cultural clashes can turn into barriers to communication. The idea is to make your point across without hurting anyone’s cultural or religious sentiments.

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    The problem: There are so many ways culture clashes can happen during communication and with cultural clashes; it’s not always about ethnicity. A non-smoker may have problems with smokers taking breaks; an older boss may have issues with younger staff using the Internet too much.

    The solution: Communicate only what is necessary to get the point across – and eave your personal sentiments or feelings out of it. Try to be accommodative of the other’s viewpoint, and in case you still need to work it out, do it one to one, to avoid making a spectacle of the other person’s beliefs.[6]

    Gender Barrier

    Finally, it’s about Men from Mars and Women from Venus. Sometimes, men don’t understand women and women don’t get men – and this gender gap throws barriers in communication. Women tend to take conflict to their graves, literally, while men can move on instantly. Women rely on intuition, men on logic – so inherently, gender becomes a big block in successful communication.[7]

    The problem: A male boss may inadvertently rub his female subordinates the wrong way with anti-feminism innuendoes, or even have problems with women taking too many family leaves. Similarly, women sometimes let their emotions get the better of them, something a male audience can’t relate to.

    The solution: Talk to people like people – don’t think or classify them into genders and then talk accordingly. Don’t make comments or innuendos that are gender biased – you don’t have to come across as an MCP or as a bra-burning feminist either. Keep gender out of it.

    And remember, the key to successful communication is simply being open, making eye contact and smiling intermittently. The battle is usually half won when you say what you mean in simple, straightforward words and keep your emotions out of it.

    Reference

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