“Made to stick”: how to create and communicate memorable ideas?
Why do some ideas gain traction easily while others sink into oblivion? Preposterous urban legends, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories linger on in the collective memory despite the lack of any evidence to support their veracity, while many valuable, truthful ideas are lost to the public almost as soon as they surface.
In their book “Made to stick”, business professors and researchers Chip and Dan Heath dissect the anatomy of ideas that “stick”, giving advice on how to construct memorable and effective messages.
This book is a must-read for marketers, entrepreneurs and anyone who wants to communicate more effectively. Its premise it that – once they get the hand of it – anyone can become a creative generator of sticky ideas.
So, what does such an idea consist of? The authors analysed hundreds of urban legends, wartime rumours, proverbs, conspiracy theories, and jokes, to come up with a list of six basic components.
The first component is simplicity. Imagine proverbs: a short phrase so stacked full of world knowledge that a person could spend a lifetime pondering over it. A sticky idea is simple yet profound.
To ensure simplicity, communicators need to learn to prioritise their content. Take the principle of the inverted pyramid structure as an inspiration. Journalists always place the most important information, which is often the conclusion, before anything else (bottom of the pyramid).
Yet, people find it hard to prioritise content for simplicity’s sake. This is why sometimes forced prioritisation is crucial: we need to decide in advance what is the most important message to communicate, and make sure we are willing to give up everything else that is less important.
A poignant example for the lack of simplicity is a phenomenon called feature creep, or the constant addition of new features in a product, especially in computer software and technology. Instead of making the product better and more competitive, as is the initial idea, the addition of too many extra features eventually starts to cripple the original user experience.
Breaking the routine
The first problem of communication is getting somebody’s attention.
To do that, you need to do something unexpected to break the routine. The element of surprise is crucial for any story; it focuses attention, generates interest and curiosity. Take any conspiracy theory, urban legend, or internet hoax out there, surprise or shock are always present.
Surprise shakes up a cocktail of naturally induced chemicals in our brain. It makes our pupils dilate, our bodies freeze, our jaws drop. For a moment, it makes us speechless: this is exactly the state you want to induce in your audience for them pay attention to what you have to say.
Psychologists call this the Von Restorff effect: when a series of similar stimuli is presented, the stimulus that differs from the rest is more likely to be remembered. In brief, you need to break the routine.
Naturally sticky ideas abound in concrete images. “Bananas” or “bicycles” are words that create vivid mental pictures: words like “influence” or “efficiency” carry no visual meaning.
Sadly, concrete language is exactly what business or political communication campaigns are most likely to fall short of. The abstract language of mission statements or press releases is often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless, making those ideas difficult to remember.
Abstraction is the luxury of experts: if you want to teach an idea to a group of people who know little or nothing about your field, you have to choose concrete language.
In this sense, Aesop’s fables are amongst the world’s stickiest ideas: their messages persist because they are dressed in concrete images (we all remember the fox and those sour grapes!).
The fourth element of a sticky idea is its credibility: what you say must be plausible, relatable, and easy-to-test by the target audience.
What makes us believe an idea? We believe because our parents, our friends, the people we look up to, or society as a whole believes.
Quoting authorities or celebrities as reference points is one way to ensure the credibility of our ideas. That’s how advertising works. If people like someone, they are also likely to be interested in the restaurant s/he dines in or the brands of clothes that s/he wears.
Next come emotions. How do we get people to care about our ideas? By making them feel something.
However, in order to communicate effectively, you need to be able to tap into the emotions that would best resonate with your specific audience: for example, it’s no use instilling the fear of death in teenagers if your aim is to induce them to quit smoking. The distant possibility of one’s future demise is about the last thing on the mind of a young person! However, stories about the evil exploitative Big Tobacco corporations have a higher chance to influence the opinion of teenage smokers.
Strong words evoke strong emotions: language often puts a lens on our perceptions of the world. A common practice in marketing and journalism is to use sensationalist language to attract audiences. However, over time and with constant repetition any word in our vocabulary can become so overused that it no longer carries the same emotional connotation that it used to have.
This is what the Heaths’ book refers to as semantic stretch: due to the gradual attrition of meaning, certain terms would eventually need to be modified in order to carry the same emotional weight from before. The book gives the example of the synonyms “unusual” and “unique”, both loved by journalists: the latter term has been gaining popularity over the past 20 years, while the former has been on a decline, because it no longer produces the same effect on readers.
Similarly, at some point, the word “cool” will become “very cool” in order to retain the same semantic weight (only to eventually be replaced by “super cool” and then “ultra cool”).
Something to think about is whether our language needs to be so sensation laden.
Everyone trying to communicate will at some point have to fight semantic stretch when an idea, a metaphor or a mental image has been overused so many times that it no longer means anything.
Last and most importantly, stories. The human brain works at its finest when it processes plots.
This is precisely what makes urban legends so popular: such stories contain all the five above-mentioned principles, which makes them impossible to forget.
Take the Babysitter tale as an example. A girl is babysitting alone while the children under her care are sleeping in their bedroomds on the upper floor. The principles in play here are simplicity and credibility: it’s a simple, mundane story that most people – parents, children, or babysitters — can relate to. As the night progresses, the girl starts getting phone calls from a stranger who continually asks her to “check the children” (here comes the concrete image of a ringing phone). The stalker turns out to be actually in the house and eventually kills the children. The element of surprise in the story is that the call is coming from inside the house; the emotions evoked are gradually increasing fear, then panic.
The curse of knowledge
So, what hampers marketers to create “sticky” stories like this one (apart from the moral hesitation about scaring the hell out of their target audience)? Theoretically, anyone could weave the six principles into a communication product or idea that they want to promote. Yet, one tedious psychological factor seems to get in the way.
The major obstacle towards effectively communicating our ideas is a cognitive bias called the curse of knowledge.
When we know something, it becomes impossible for us to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. It becomes difficult to share the knowledge with others because we cannot re-create their state of mind.
An experiment done by Stanford psychologist Elizabeth Newton is a classic example of what the curse of knowledge feels like for both parties, the knowledgeable and those wanting to receive the knowledge.
Newton developed a simple musical game in which all participants were assigned the roles of either “tapper” or “listener”. The tappers were asked to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song (such as “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”) on a table. The listeners were asked to guess the song.
120 songs were tapped out in total, but only three of them (2.5%) were guessed correctly. Interestingly, before the experiment all tappers insisted that the listeners would have no difficulty guessing the melody: some predicted that successful guesses would happen 50% of the time.
The experiment is a great metaphor for the knowledge that sometimes remains locked in our heads while we are using ill-equipped tools to pass it on to others.
According to the Heaths’ book, using stories is the most effective principles to defeat the curse of knowledge and make ideas stickier.
Stories incorporate all the five other principles of stickiness: they are concrete, evoke emotions and contain a plot of unexpected elements. The challenge of using stories effectively is to make them both simple and credible, so that people can relate to them and remember them easier.