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Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 1): Simple

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 1): Simple
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

“Just Do It.” Those words make up perhaps the stickiest marketing slogan of the past couple decades. In three words, only eight letters, Nike manages to say everything they want you to think, feel, believe about their brand. Three words to sum up the competitive edge Nike shoes and sports equipment promises, the can-do attitude that Americans so strongly believe, the strength, control, and optimism that Nike relies on to sell shoes.

“Just do it” is, in a word, simple. It’s everything Nike is (or wants us to think it is) boiled down to its absolute essence. Certainly Nike could rattle off a dozen reasons its shoes are superior to its competitors (and surely its competitors could rattle off the same number of reasons that they’re superior to Nike) but they don’t. “Just do it” speaks for itself.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

In Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick (“M2S” hereafter), simplicity is the first principle of stickiness. Most of us shy away from simplicity — simple is seen as less than, inferior, dumb. Simple is seen as the opposite of complex (better, more, superior, smart), when the reality couldn’t be more different.

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Simple is not the opposite of complex. Consider the example I gave in my introduction to M2S, Einstein’s formula E=MC2, which wrestles the vastness and mystery of the universe into a bite-size slogan that practically everyone knows (even if few understand it). Einsteinian relativity certainly doesn’t lack for complexity, yet it can be grasped, at least in part, in the simplicity of an elegant mathematical formula.

Simple is opposed to not complexity but complication, the “clutter” that stands between us and an idea. Think of the average person at the camera counter at Best Buy — each camera sits above a card listing specifications like shutter delay time, built-in memory, megapixels, the size of the CCD, and the f-stop range of the lens. Most of which means nothing to the average consumer; all they want to know is which camera is the best for them. Standing there, assailed by facts and figures — even if we allow that the specs are accurate — they literally have no idea.

What is wanted is someone to cut through the clutter and say “this is the camera that’s right for you”, and if you’re a communicator (whether you write, lecture, give presentation, podcast, produce commercials, or whatever) you could do worse than setting as your goal to be the one who sweeps the choices aside and says “this is the one you want”.

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Eliminate Choices

In today’s relentlessly Darwinian free market philosophy, choice is supposed to be the best thing since freeze-dried ice cream. But your job as a communicator is not to celebrate the free market, it’s to inspire action in your audience — to get them to do what you want, whether that’s buying your product, voting for your candidate, funding your proposal, or accepting you into a graduate program.

In M2S, the Heath’s discuss a research program studying the psychology of choices in college students. One group of students were told that a prominent speaker whose work they’re interested in would be on campus that night, and asked whether they would prefer to see the presentation or stay in and study. As you can expect, a large percentage of students chose to see the speaker. Another group was told the same thing, but they were also told that there was a foreign film they’d wanted to see showing in the campus theater at the same time as the presentation. In this group, something odd happened — the largest group of students chose to go neither to the presentation nor to the foreign film; the majority chose to stay in and study!

This study demonstrates something psychologists call “decision paralysis”. As it happens, our brains simply don’t handle choice all that well. Given a choice between two equally good options, we seize up, riddled with anxiety over making the wrong choice or, in choosing, giving up an opportunity, so we retreat to the tried and true.

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So to make an idea sticky, we have to eliminate competing choices, to strip our ideas down to the core. There may be ten good reasons why someone should vote for you, buy from you, or promote you, but nobody can hold ten thoughts, even ten good thoughts, in their mind at once. Instead of offering the ten good reasons to do something, you offer the one best reason.

Communicating the Core?

Sticky ideas are more than just the pared-down essence of more complex ideas, though. Finding the core of your message is the first step; figuring out how to get it across is the next. Ideas need to be more than just good, or even great, they need to resonate with your audience, to hit ’em where it hurts.

One way to do this is to take advantage of the ideas that your audience is already carrying around with them. Returning yet again to Einstein (who apparently knew what he was doing!), when Einstein wanted to explain what it meant that motion is relative, he turned to an experience that everyone of his generation would have been familiar with: riding on a train. Imagine, he said, someone walking backwards on a moving train at the same speed the train was moving forward; to the observer beside the tracks, it would look as if he were not moving at all, while to an observer on the train. it would appear he was moving quite fast indeed. Relativity, Einstein assured us, was like that.

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The use of analogy relates something we have never experienced to something we are already familiar with, making it that much easier to understand and accept. If we’re really good at it, we can even tap into all the positive feelings people hold for the thing we’re using to explain our idea. The Heaths highlight a particularly good example of this, done by people who are especially talented at manipulating feelings: the Hollywood high concept pitch.

As you can imagine, most Hollywood people are busy, busy, busy — and have to wade through a lot of crap to find the handful of movies worth spending money to make and distribute (consider that — the movies in the cineplex right now are what was left after the worst stuff was thrown out). So Hollywood has developed a kind of shorthand for pitching movies, the high concept, which sums up the proposed movie by comparing it to movies everyone wishes they had made. Speed‘s high concept is well-known: Die Hard on bus. Everyone wants to produce a movie as successful as Die Hard, so this pitch appeals directly to the primal urges that drive Hollywood filmmakers.

Guided by the Core

When ideas are presented simply enough, they become guides to further action. The Heaths call this “generative analogy”, a decidedly un-sticky phrase, which simply means that the ideas tell us what to do. They use the example of Disney’s park employees, who are referred to as “cast members”; when they’re working, they’re “onstage”. By comparing employees to the cast of a theatrical production, Disney is providing them with a model for their actions that guides them even when no explicit rule or script tells them what to do. Should you scream at a kid who’s being rude? Would an actor stop in mid-scene to chastise a rude child in the audience? Then you’d better grin and bear it, Disney boy!

Compare the associations and meanings wrapped up in the idea of “cast members” with the kind of label your name-tag might have borne at your first job: maybe you were something like “customer relations associate”. Maybe you don’t remember — most of them aren’t too sticky. How does a customer relations associate act when someone is rude to them? Can a customer relations associate take her break in front of the store? (“Cast members” know the answer — absolutely not. You wouldn’t step off-stage and have a seat in the audience, would you?)

The key to simplicity lies in finding the core of your idea and presenting it in a powerful way. In some cases, simplicity itself is enough to make an idea sticky, but most of the time, simplicity works in tandem with the Heath’s other five principles. Next time, we attack the unexpected (or does it attack us?!). Until then, though, share your own ideas about simplicity in the forum.

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Last Updated on February 25, 2020

5 Rules for Overcoming Adversity and Emotional Pain

5 Rules for Overcoming Adversity and Emotional Pain

“Some people choose to see the ugliness in this world, the disarray. I choose to see the beauty. To believe there is an order to our days. A purpose.” – from the popular show, “Westworld”

It’s different for us all. My personal quest for purpose began with five stages of grief and one startling realization that everything’s endlessly fragile. Adversity, as it happens by rule, found me terribly unprepared, so I decided to take my time. Today, I can honestly say that I’ve grown.

Ugliness and beauty, good and evil, pain and laughter – everything in the universe consists of two forces that are opposing but complementary. In the face of difficulty, that is the only mantra you need.

Here’s how I learned it and why you should too, with five simple rules.

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1. Embrace the Complexity

Quite insidiously, adversities come in all shapes and sizes. Paralyzing physical disabilities, mind-wracking mental problems, ruthless emotional havocs, all leading to the same painful acknowledgement: all the beauty in the world cannot possibly make up for the ugliness that surrounds us. Shattered to pieces, helpless and bare naked, we sit in our therapy chairs, apologizing for being so negative.

Eventually, what it all comes down to is the nature of negative emotion. Our positives overshadow our negatives, thus wrongly teaching us that the road to well-being is paved with nothing but positive feelings and thoughts. How utterly wrong!

“If you’re not failing every now and then, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything innovative”, Woody Allen said.

It’s a classic “learn from your mistakes” rule, but in this case, it implies growing from negative experiences. Make peace with your negativities and embrace beauty and ugliness alike! Accepting this marvellously complex world just as it is will allow you to find purpose in adversity and meaning in misery.

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2. Find Balance, Regain Control

Still, accepting adversity is only the first step toward eventual victory. One can endure only so much trauma in life; if we’re not prepared to deal with difficulties in a productive way, even the minor setbacks can get us off track. Our strengths come from learning, and the best way to learn is through a series of trials and errors. Just like phases of grief or stages of drug addiction, adversities suggest a disabling loss of control, so find your way to regain it.

Some call it the coping mechanism; for others, it’s a spiritual will. However you choose to name yours, know that not all supporting systems are equally beneficial, though each is effective in its own way. Escapism was mine, but it only helped me retain the illusion of beauty. It wasn’t until I opened up toward the ugliness and accepted the naked truth that I was finally free. Whether you choose to dwell in art, religion and spiritualism, thus feeding your resilience from within or to reach out to others for help, choose wisely.

Whatever the means, the second rule is a golden one: find your inner balance and stick to it. Eventually, it will lead you out of the vicious circle.

3. Fight with Patience

My bargaining turned in depression with a single touch. Fearless and free, my dance instructor timidly put her hands on my shoulders and I realized, for the first time, just how tense, stiff and cloistered I was. And just like that, I started letting go. Adversities have their sneaky ways, but in my experience, becoming aware is what hurts the worst. It took me a year to recover from this little moment of self-discovery, and I know remember it as the edge of the rabbit hole.

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Some sufferings are impossible to console; I know that now. The only way to get through is to, well, get through. Depression and despair are only the beginning of the excruciatingly unnerving process that ravages the mind and shrivels the soul, and once they strike, there is no easy way back. So, fight them with patience. When your head starts spinning and your feet lose ground, go to your happy place. Over there, you’ll be reminded that nothing is forever, not even our little existential psychosis.

Take a deep breath and say “om”. When things cannot be combated, they have to be endured, so practice patience and learn to let go. Finally, keep repeating to yourself that this too shall pass.

4. Keep Swimming

Nothing is impossible, in the end. Your negative thoughts will gently pour into your positive ones, just as two streams come together to become a river. In the event of the inevitable disaster, one can only be as calm as still water. Suffering teaches patience, and the latter gives rise to flexibility. Ultimately, what is life than a series of unfortunate events and a handful of bright moments in between? If adversities are impossible to avoid, than learn to glide through as smoothly and patiently as water does with rocks.

Even if spirituality isn’t exactly your cup of tea, you have to admit that this is one solid metaphor. Staying adaptable in the face of change will soothe your panic attacks and keep you sane and sober-blooded. Even if you fail, you’ll know exactly how to breathe and face what’s in front of you once it eventually strikes again. Stay calm and visualize a better tomorrow; if anything else, it will give you strength to dive deep and weather the storm. And, in case there’s somebody’s hand to reach out to, grab it firmly and don’t let go.

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Being flexible against adversities takes a lot of learning, just as staying brave demands a lot of courage. It’s a long, arduous step-by-step routine, and you can reach the end only by swimming on. Persist, even when you fall.

5. Never Stop Searching for Inspiration

And, if it’s a guidance you need, where else to seek it than in experiences of others? Find it in art, in people around you, in chance encounters. The pure beauty of perseverance can be discovered where you expect it the least, so never stop searching for inspiration. If self-help literature soothes your pains and clears your mind, don’t let cynics discourage you. Your path toward reconciliation is nobody’s but yours to choose.

Ever heard of Nick Vujicic? Or Nando Parado? Inspiring people sound their yawps over the roofs of the world, sometimes voiceless, sometimes limbless, sometimes both. Born without arms, Jessica Cox became the most unusual certified pilot in the world, and you can rarely see her without a smile on her face. If you’ve already ripped all of your bucket lists and said goodbye to your dreams and plans, meet Sean Swarner, who’s officially became the first cancer survivor to climb Mount Everest. The stories just go on.

Make your own guidebook! Pen down your positive thoughts, cover your walls with quotes and devise your personal mantras. Whenever things get hard, they’ll be there to remind you of what you need to do. It’s the simplest of all life hacks, and one of the most effective ones.

Find beauty in the world, but never stay blind for its ugliness. However daunting, adversities and emotional pain challenge our inner strength, thus making us resilient and allowing us to grow. As soon as you recognize them as the wind in your sails instead of the devastating storm, the purpose will become simple and clear.

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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