Making our ideas sticky
Simple and profound
Many ideas we encounter are truthful and interesting in the moment, but not memorable. Why do most ideas fade quickly and others stick with us? This post suggests how every idea can be presented in a sticky way, i.e. understood and remembered. I draw upon the framework shared in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. They suggest that ideas are sticky when simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and presented as a story. These are the SUCCESs factors.
Sticky SUCCESs factors
There are 6 SUCCESs factors for sticky ideas:
Simple: Boil the idea down to its core essence; make it profound.
Unexpected: Grab and keep attention by being counter-intuitive.
Concrete: Use relatable imagery and language.
Credible: Backed by credible evidence or authority.
Emotional: Get people to care by evoking an emotional response.
Story: We love hearing and passing on stories. We can play out situations in our minds.
What’s the core of the idea? If we try to make multiple points then the likelihood is that none will be remembered; our audience does not know where to focus and gets confused. Our challenge and opportunity is to strip away all that is not essential and condense the message down. The aim is for simple, not simplistic - see my Simplicity in 8 steps post. We are striving for ideas that are both simple and profound. The use of proverbs is ideal, e.g. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The ultimate model of simplicity is to come up with a single sentence that is so profound that people could spend a life time learning from it.
A great example of a simple, sticky idea was JFK’s call to Put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.
Effective communication gets attention and keeps it. We need to break expected patterns and present something which is counterintuitive. A Southwest flight attendant managed to get passenger attention by mixing up her safety announcement. She said, “There may be 50 ways to leave your lover, but on this aircraft there are 4 exits…”
Surprise gets attention, but for longer term engagement we need to generate interest and curiosity. We need to open up gaps in people’s knowledge then fill them. A good mystery story uses a hook which is a question or a situation that is opened up and then closed. Reader attention is maintained - they want to know more.
For ideas to be clear they need to be expressed in terms of human actions and the five senses. Much business communication fails here. Mission statements, strategies and visions are often generic and ambiguous. Sticky ideas use concrete imagery which we can relate to and remember, e.g. an apple falling on Isaac Newton’s head. Speaking in concrete terms helps ensure our idea means the same thing to everyone. In addition to physical objects, “Concrete” can refer to abstract concepts, e.g. justice or personality.
Aesop's fables illustrate the importance of concreteness in stories and messages. They are easy to remember, universally understood and have lasted centuries.
We are inclined to believe an idea if it comes from a source we respect and trust, e.g. teachers, parents and experts. When such authorities do not exist we can use the following approaches to establish credibility:
Demonstrate rather than tell.
Include internally consistent, specific and relevant details.
Statistically summarise relevant studies or research.
Use a high-profile, public project or situation where your idea could be put to the test.
If we want someone to care about our idea then we need them to feel something. We are wired to care about people, not for abstractions. People are far more likely to make a charitable donation to help an individual than a starving region. The following approaches can be effective:
Form associations between your idea and things that people already care about. Teenagers are far more likely to give up smoking if we tap into their resentment of uncaring business executives, rather than pointing out health consequences.
Focus on the benefits the idea provides, rather than features. Car adverts focus on how people will feel, not technical specifications.
Appeal to identity. People make decisions based on how they see themselves. If we see someone we respect using something then we want to do the same.
If we want people to act on our ideas and share them with others then framing them as a story works well. Firefighters naturally share stories with each other after attending emergencies. This builds up a catalog of experience that helps individuals better respond when they face particular circumstances. Hearing stories helps us mentally rehearse a situation, enabling us to respond more effectively when needed.
Stories can take many forms, including ones which:
Provide a familiar framework for understanding a new concept. This is often used in business to explain complex ideas.
Illustrate a point you are trying to make with a concrete example.
Explain how one event leads to another.
Making Scarper sticky
Scarper is my grid based mobile game and here’s how I plan to make it sticky:
Simple: Tetris meets Candy Crush.
Unexpected: The tiles are alive and gravity switches.
Concrete: Coloured tiles arranged in a beautiful grid.
Credible: Candy Crush with a gravitational twist.
Emotional: Scarper tiles are lovable and cheeky when bored.
Story: Tiles are trying to survive and have fun along the way. They scarper off to find new hiding places.
Make to Stick Summary by Engineer Guy
The Tipping Point book by Malcolm Gladwell
Hooking Users post by Phil Martin
This post provides a framework for making any idea sticky. Until next Sunday, see if you can come up with a way to make an idea of yours simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and presented as a story.