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Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 5): Emotional

Sticky Ideas Workshop (Part 5): Emotional
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

    If you want to connect — I mean, really connect — with an audience, you have to hit ’em square in their emotions. Movie makers know this, and exploit it to the fullest, making us laugh, cry, punch the air in triumph, jump out of our seats in terror, and even swell with love for all humanity — almost on demand.

    A lot of times this is pretty cheap, and leaves us feeling manipulated and used. This is because the movie (or novel, or TV show, or commercial, or whatever) seems to play on our emotions for no other reason than because they can. The emotional response is triggered without satisfying any real need.

    But the emotions roused by the greatest works of art — whether in film, paint, words, or stone — do satisfy a need, and it is for that reason that we return films like Casablanca or paintings like Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring after decades and even centuries.

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    Enlightened Self-Interest

    Chip and Dan Heath refer to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” to explain why some emotional appeals fall flat, and others not only succeed but can even change lives. Abraham Maslow, a mid-20th century psychologist, theorized that human behavior is driven by a number of innate needs. What’s more, these needs are hierarchical; that is, the most basic needs (food, water, sleep, sex, etc.) had to be met before higher needs (friendship, family, self-esteem, and ultimately “self-actualization”, where we turn our attentions to the needs of our society and its members). Maslow represented his idea with a pyramid (itself a pretty sticky idea) placing the basic needs at the bottom and the higher levels built on top of them. Although few psychologists today still hold to the hierarchical nature of needs — recognizing, for instance, that seeing to the common good is often necessary to assure that more “basic” needs are met — Maslow’s schema is still useful as a rubric to measure our ideas and their presentation against.

    For example, let’s say you are offering a recipe for a super-healthy cookie. Yes, a cookie meets a basic need — the need for food. Notice, though, that you rarely see commercials for cookies with the tagline “You can eat this” or “it’s a kind of food!” Instead, ads for cookies or articles on cooking try to appeal to the higher stretches of Maslow’s pyramid. They might appeal to mothers’ need to provide for their family (like the peanut butter commercial: “Choosy moms choose Jif!”) or to our need to protect our environment (“these cookies are made with 100% organic ingredients”) or to our need to feel independent and self-reliant (“don’t eat store-bought cookies — stick it to the Man by making your own!”).

    In these examples, we are looking for ways of engaging our audience’s self-interest — their need to fulfill their needs — in ways that allow them to be the kind of people they want to be: better parents, better eaters, and better citizens. Instead of offering something to eat, we offer self-fulfillment. Not bad for a cookie!

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    Who Am I, Anyway?

    In order to be effective, emotional appeals need to engage with individuals’ identities in a profound way (which is why the horror gross-out, while momentarily effective, is rarely remembered longer than a few sleepless nights). As the Heaths point out, people make decisions based on their identities, so emotional appeals have to confront them with their own selves. The best ask us to consider who we are — and more, what do people like us do in situations like this?

    Consider those late-night famine relief commercials, the ones with the swollen-bellied children staring into the camera with huge, liquid eyes and Sally Struthers begging us to help. These commercials are pretty effective — effective enough to have been run most of my life, anyway — because they force viewers to either act or face an uncomfortable disconnect between the kind of person they think they are and the kind of person they are acting like. If it’s important to you to be the kind of person that helps those in need, then it’s going to be hard not to do so when given the opportunity to contribute.

    What this means in practical terms is that you have to really know not just who your audience is but who your audience thinks it is. It also means that we have to be especially on guard against the Curse of Knowledge. We may be blinded by the brilliance of our own ideas — which always seem innately useful — so that we don’t consider the ways our ideas meet our audience’s actual needs. Or, for that matter, that our ideas may well meet needs that are far different from the needs they meet for us.

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    Caring is Sharing

    No idea gets picked up and passed around unless it meets somebody’s needs. They have to care, and it’s your job to make them care. When people care about an idea, they become its greatest advocates; in marketing terms, this is called “going viral” (which is, of course, deeply offensive to people who deal with actual viral transmission and its often horrific consequences).

    In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point (the book the Heaths credit with inspiring them to write Made to Stick), one of the phenomena the author returns to again and again is the sudden revival of Hush Puppies, the somewhat dorky shoes popular in the ’70s among white-bread middle-class American moms. In the ’90s, a handful of East Village hipsters started sporting Hush Puppies and, in the blink of an eye, sales suddenly boomed, bringing the brand back from the brink of obscurity.

    The company that makes Hush Puppies had little to do with this revival; they’d failed for years to make Hush Puppies relevant again. Instead, it was a handful of people who found something in these goofy shoes to care about — likely a way to distinguish themselves from the rest of their scene and show off their sense of irony and nostalgia. These trendsetters, in turn, managed to make others around them care as they did, setting off a ripple effect that eventually reached the malls of Middle America and put the Hush Puppies brand back on the map.

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    Ideas don’t have to spread like wildfire to be effective (though it doesn’t hurt!) but they do have to spread, and ideas don’t spread unless people care enough about them to a) integrate them into their own lives and b) sharing them with others. In one way, this makes our job easier — if we can figure out who the trendsetters are, we can focus our energies on crafting an appeal specifically to their sensitivities and let them do much of the legwork. At the same time, though, it means that ideas have to be over-loaded with emotional resonance — they have to meet a number of different needs to spread widely enough to take off on their own.

    It should be clear that “emotional” doesn’t mean that our goal should be to make our audience weep, necessarily, but rather to grab them where they live, wherever that is. This is probably the hardest part of making ideas stick. Let us know how you do it in the comments or kick off the conversation in the forum.

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    Last Updated on September 20, 2018

    7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

    7 Powerful Questions To Find Out What You Want To Do With Your Life

    What do I want to do with my life? It’s a question all of us think about at one point or another.

    For some, the answer comes easily. For others, it takes a lifetime to figure out.

    It’s easy to just go through the motions and continue to do what’s comfortable and familiar. But for those of you who seek fulfillment, who want to do more, these questions will help you paint a clearer picture of what you want to do with your life.

    1. What are the things I’m most passionate about?

    The first step to living a more fulfilling life is to think about the things that you’re passionate about.

    What do you love? What fulfills you? What “work” do you do that doesn’t feel like work? Maybe you enjoy writing, maybe you love working with animals or maybe you have a knack for photography.

    The point is, figure out what you love doing, then do more of it.

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    2. What are my greatest accomplishments in life so far?

    Think about your past experiences and the things in your life you’re most proud of.

    How did those accomplishments make you feel? Pretty darn good, right? So why not try and emulate those experiences and feelings?

    If you ran a marathon once and loved the feeling you had afterwards, start training for another one. If your child grew up to be a star athlete or musician because of your teachings, then be a coach or mentor for other kids.

    Continue to do the things that have been most fulfilling for you.

    3. If my life had absolutely no limits, what would I choose to have and what would I choose to do?

    Here’s a cool exercise: Think about what you would do if you had no limits.

    If you had all the money and time in the world, where would you go? What would you do? Who would you spend time with?

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    These answers can help you figure out what you want to do with your life. It doesn’t mean you need millions of dollars to be happy though.

    What it does mean is answering these questions will help you set goals to reach certain milestones and create a path toward happiness and fulfillment. Which leads to our next question …

    4. What are my goals in life?

    Goals are a necessary component to set you up for a happy future. So answer these questions:

    Once you figure out the answers to each of these, you’ll have a much better idea of what you should do with your life.

    5. Whom do I admire most in the world?

    Following the path of successful people can set you up for success.

    Think about the people you respect and admire most. What are their best qualities? Why do you respect them? What can you learn from them?

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    You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.[1] So don’t waste your time with people who hold you back from achieving your dreams.

    Spend more time with happy, successful, optimistic people and you’ll become one of them.

    6. What do I not like to do?

    An important part of figuring out what you want to do with your life is honestly assessing what you don’t want to do.

    What are the things you despise? What bugs you the most about your current job?

    Maybe you hate meetings even though you sit through 6 hours of them every day. If that’s the case, find a job where you can work more independently.

    The point is, if you want something to change in your life, you need to take action. Which leads to our final question …

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    7. How hard am I willing to work to get what I want?

    Great accomplishments never come easy. If you want to do great things with your life, you’re going to have to make a great effort. That will probably mean putting in more hours the average person, getting outside your comfort zone and learning as much as you can to achieve as much as you can.

    But here’s the cool part: it’s often the journey that is the most fulfilling part. It’s during these seemingly small, insignificant moments that you’ll often find that “aha” moments that helps you answer the question,

    “What do I want to do with my life?”

    So take the first step toward improving your life. You won’t regret it.

    Featured photo credit: Andrew Ly via unsplash.com

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