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Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 3): Concrete

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 3): Concrete
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

    Remember Mikey, the kid from those Life cereal commercials in the ’70s? “Hey Mikey, he likes it!” In 1983, the actor who played Mikey was at a birthday party where he ate six bags of Pop Rocks, that fizzy candy, and also drank an entire six-pack of Pepsi. The pressure from the reaction of the two in his stomach caused his stomach to explode and he died! That’s why they stopped making Pop Rocks in the mid-’80s!

    As part of their research into what makes ideas stick, Chip and Dan Heath studied reams of urban legends, likely including the one about poor Mikey above. Urban legends are almost never true — the one above certainly isn’t — and yet they prove to be remarkably sticky: I heard about the dangers of Pop Rocks and Pepsi as a child in the early ’80s, and the idea was still alive in 1998, when the movie Urban Legends mentioned “that kid in the cereal commercial” in a scene where a professor tries to convince a student to down a can of Pepsi and a bag of Pop Rocks. According to snopes.com, the candy’s manufacturers sent letters to 50,000 school principals, put full-page ads in 45 major publications, and even sent the product’s inventors on the road in a vain attempt to counteract rumors that were already widespread in 1979.

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    The Pepsi/Pop Rocks story doesn’t even accord well with common sense — we’re all pretty well aware that our bodies have two very effective release mechanisms for the release of excess gas in the digestive tract. So why do stories like this one continue to circulate after almost 30 years, when far more important information can barely get traction in the popular mind?

    What’s Sticky About Pop Rocks?

    According to the Heaths, one of the reasons urban legends stick so well is that they are so very concrete. For folklorists, urban legends express underlying anxieties and concerns shared in the culture at large; in the case of Mikey’s tale, we might read it as a reflection of concerns over the popularity of “foods” like Pop Rocks and Pepsi that owe more to the chemist’s lab than to Mom’s kitchen. It is probably also significant that “Mikey” was at a birthday party, that is, among strangers (or at least non-family members); these are the same years that saw the first (always false) rumors of Halloween candy poisonings. But these are abstract concerns, the stuff of academic papers and graduate seminars; people don’t sit around talking about how worried they are about food manufacturing processes or the unfamiliar sources of their kids’ nourishment — they talk about KFC serving rats, McDonald’s serving worms, and, of course, Pop Rocks making kids explode.

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    These rich details make urban legends compelling for a number of reasons. First of all, they add credibility by telling of real dangers that affected real people — we could, if we wanted, verify the stories at a local library or, these days, the Internet. Not that we do, of course, but the idea that we could seems to be more than enough to make us believe. Second, urban legends — though they don’t explicitly lay out a moral — provide us with a do-able, meaningful course of action: don’t eat Pop Rocks while drinking Pepsi. A story about “some foods” that might be dangerous isn’t all that compelling (think of the US Dept. of Agriculture’s “food pyramid”, with it’s admonishment to “limit the intake of added sugars”); one that tells you, implicitly, that you’ll be safe if you avoid a particular product, brand, or chain is reassuring, even as it frightens us.

    The Concrete Brain

    Stories with lots of concrete detail also seem to resonate well with the way our brains work. Concrete details allow us to imagine a scene and, crucially, imagine ourselves in it. As some recent psychological research shows, imagining ourselves doing an activity can often have the same effect on us as actually doing it — this has been especially useful in sports psychology, where visualization of exercise processes has been shown to actually stimulate muscle development.

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    The Heaths use an interesting metaphor to describe the way concreteness engages the brain. Imagine, they ask us, that the brain is like the loop side of a piece of Velcro, and our ideas are like the hook side. The more “hooks” your idea has, the more “loops” it will catch in the brain, making its “grip” that much tighter. (Aside: note how using a metaphor makes the abstractness of neuropsychology much more concrete and graspable!) Careful use of detail, then, provides ideas with more and more hooks: more imagery, more emotional resonance, more personal relevance. It’s not just some kid that got killed, it’s Mikey (or, since fewer and fewer people alive today were around when the commercials originally aired, it might be a friend’s uncle’s boss’s son or a neighbor’s sister’s boyfriend’s little brother, or whomever). We know Mikey, he’s a reminder of our own childhoods; he evokes a rich stew of nostalgia, childhood innocence, and recognition. Further, it’s not just any candy, it’s Pop Rocks; it’s not just soda, it’s Pepsi — both of whose makers have invested plenty in making their brands a part of our individual identity.

    Concrete Begats Concrete

    It’s not enough, of course, to simply pile on detail after detail to create sticky ideas — if it were, “purple prose” would be the highest compliment, not a dismissive insult. Concreteness relies not so much on the amount of detail, but on providing the right detail for the intended audience. Urban legends work well because they relate to experiences we’ve all had — drinking soda, eating at a fast food outlet, staying in a hotel. The detail is drawn from our everyday experience, and helps to create a vivid, living impression in our minds.

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    To know what level of detail will work in our ideas’ favor, it is necessary to know who our audience is — to have a concrete image in mind of who our reader, viewer, or buyer is. Many writers, for example, imagine an “ideal reader” whose imagined responses to their work actually guides them in the creation of the work. Marketing companies often do the same thing, developing detailed profiles of their ideal or typical user, and then trying to figure out what this imagined character’s response to a new product or ad campaign would be.

    Ideas aren’t just “out there”; to be effective, ideas need to inspire action, whether that’s buying a product, following a leader, voting for a candidate, or accepting an offer. Concrete detail, done well, puts us — at least metaphorically — into situations that demand we take the action desired. By providing the brain with plenty to hold onto, concreteness greatly increases the stickiness of ideas. Do you have any tips to share with other lifehack.org readers about making ideas concrete, or tailoring detail to fit an audience? Share your thoughts in our forums!

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    Last Updated on January 24, 2021

    How to Say No When You Know You Say Yes Too Often

    How to Say No When You Know You Say Yes Too Often

    Do you say yes so often that you no longer feel that your own needs are being met? Are you wondering how to say no to people?

    For years, I was a serial people pleaser[1]. Known as someone who would step up, I would gladly make time, especially when it came to volunteering for certain causes. I proudly carried this role all through grade school, college, even through law school. For years, I thought saying “no” meant I would disappoint a good friend or someone I respected.

    But somewhere along the way, I noticed I wasn’t quite living my life. Instead, I seem to have created a schedule that was a strange combination of meeting the expectations of others, what I thought I should be doing, and some of what I actually wanted to do. The result? I had a packed schedule that left me overwhelmed and unfulfilled.

    It took a long while, but I learned the art of saying no. Saying no meant I no longer catered fully to everyone else’s needs and could make more room for what I really wanted to do. Instead of cramming too much in, I chose to pursue what really mattered. When that happened, I became a lot happier.

    And guess what? I hardly disappointed anyone.

    The Importance of Saying No

    When you learn the art of saying no, you begin to look at the world differently. Rather than seeing all of the things you could or should be doing (and aren’t doing), you start to look at how to say yes to what’s important.

    In other words, you aren’t just reacting to what life throws at you. You seek the opportunities that move you to where you want to be.

    Successful people aren’t afraid to say no. Oprah Winfrey, considered one of the most successful women in the world, confessed that it was much later in life when she learned how to say no. Even after she had become internationally famous, she felt she had to say yes to virtually everything.

    Being able to say no also helps you manage your time better.

    Warren Buffett views “no” as essential to his success. He said:

    “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

    When I made “no” a part of my toolbox, I drove more of my own success, focusing on fewer things and doing them well.

    How We Are Pressured to Say Yes

    It’s no wonder a lot of us find it hard to say no.

    From an early age, we are conditioned to say yes. We said yes probably hundreds of times in order to graduate from high school and then get into college. We said yes to find work, to get a promotion, to find love and then yes again to stay in a relationship. We said yes to find and keep friends.

    We say yes because we feel good when we help someone, because it can seem like the right thing to do, because we think that is key to success, and because the request might come from someone who is hard to resist.

    And that’s not all. The pressure to say yes doesn’t just come from others. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves.

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    At work, we say yes because we compare ourselves to others who seem to be doing more than we are. Outside of work, we say yes because we are feeling bad that we aren’t doing enough to spend time with family or friends.

    The message, no matter where we turn, is nearly always, “You really could be doing more.” The result? When people ask us for our time, we are heavily conditioned to say yes.

    How Do You Say No Without Feeling Guilty?

    Deciding to add the word “no” to your toolbox is no small thing. Perhaps you already say no, but not as much as you would like. Maybe you have an instinct that if you were to learn the art of no that you could finally create more time for things you care about.

    But let’s be honest, using the word “no” doesn’t come easily for many people.

    3 Rules of Thumbs for Saying No

    1. You Need to Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

    Let’s face it. It is hard to say no. Setting boundaries around your time, especially you haven’t done it much in the past, will feel awkward. Your comfort zone is “yes,” so it’s time to challenge that and step outside that.

    If you need help getting out of your comfort zone, check out this article.

    2. You Are the Air Traffic Controller of Your Time

    When you want to learn how to say no, remember that you are the only one who understands the demands for your time. Think about it: who else knows about all of the demands in your life? No one.

    Only you are at the center of all of these requests. You are the only one that understands what time you really have.

    3. Saying No Means Saying Yes to Something That Matters

    When we decide not to do something, it means we can say yes to something else that we may care more about. You have a unique opportunity to decide how you spend your precious time.

    6 Ways to Start Saying No

    Incorporating that little word “no” into your life can be transformational. Turning some things down will mean you can open doors to what really matters. Here are some essential tips to learn the art of no:

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    1. Check in With Your Obligation Meter

    One of the biggest challenges to saying no is a feeling of obligation. Do you feel you have a responsibility to say yes and worry that saying no will reflect poorly on you?

    Ask yourself whether you truly have the duty to say yes. Check your assumptions or beliefs about whether you carry the responsibility to say yes. Turn it around and instead ask what duty you owe to yourself.

    2. Resist the Fear of Missing out (FOMO)

    Do you have a fear of missing out (FOMO)? FOMO can follow us around in so many ways. At work, we volunteer our time because we fear we won’t move ahead. In our personal lives, we agree to join the crowd because of FOMO, even while we ourselves aren’t enjoying the fun.

    Check in with yourself. Are you saying yes because of FOMO or because you really want to say yes? More often than not, running after fear doesn’t make us feel better[2].

    3. Check Your Assumptions About What It Means to Say No

    Do you dread the reaction you will get if you say no? Often, we say yes because we worry about how others will respond or because of the consequences. We may be afraid to disappoint others or think we will lose their respect. We often forget how much we are disappointing ourselves along the way.

    Keep in mind that saying no can be exactly what is needed to send the right message that you have limited time. In the tips below, you will see how to communicate your no in a gentle and loving way.

    You might disappoint someone initially, but drawing a boundary can bring you the freedom you need so that you can give freely of yourself when you truly want to. And it will often help others have more respect for you and your boundaries, not less.

    4. When the Request Comes in, Sit on It

    Sometimes, when we are in the moment, we instinctively agree. The request might make sense at first. Or we typically have said yes to this request in the past.

    Give yourself a little time to reflect on whether you really have the time or can do the task properly. You may decide the best option is to say no. There is no harm in giving yourself the time to decide.

    5. Communicate Your “No” with Transparency and Kindness

    When you are ready to tell someone no, communicate your decision clearly. The message can be open and honest[3] to ensure the recipient that your reasons have to do with your limited time.

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    How do you say no? 9 Healthy Ways to Say “No”

      Resist the temptation not to respond or communicate all. But do not feel obligated to provide a lengthy account about why you are saying no.

      Clear communication with a short explanation is all that is needed. I have found it useful to tell people that I have many demands and need to be careful with how I allocate my time. I will sometimes say I really appreciate that they came to me and for them to check in again if the opportunity arises another time.

      6. Consider How to Use a Modified No

      If you are under pressure to say yes but want to say no, you may want to consider downgrading a “yes” to a “yes but…” as this will give you an opportunity to condition your agreement to what works best for you.

      Sometimes, the condition can be to do the task, but not in the time frame that was originally requested. Or perhaps you can do part of what has been asked.

      Final Thoughts

      Beginning right now, you can change how you respond to requests for your time. When the request comes in, take yourself off autopilot where you might normally say yes.

      Use the request as a way to draw a healthy boundary around your time. Pay particular attention to when you place certain demands on yourself.

      Try it now. Say no to a friend who continues to take advantage of your goodwill. Or, draw the line with a workaholic colleague and tell them you will complete the project, but not by working all weekend. You’ll find yourself much happier.

      More Tips on How to Say No

      Featured photo credit: Chris Ainsworth via unsplash.com

      Reference

      [1] Science of People: 11 Expert Tips to Stop Being a People Pleaser and Start Doing You
      [2] Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Tips to Get Over Your FOMO, or Fear of Missing Out
      [3] Cooks Hill Counseling: 9 Healthy Ways to Say “No”

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