Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Random House, 2007)
Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?
Everyone who speaks wants his ideas to get across, be memorable, and have the desired impact on the listener. But more often than not we thrash around like a baby in the throes of learning to crawl: lots of action, no progress.
Before Switch, the Heath brothers wrote Made to Stick. Like its successor, there is too much in this book to apprehend adequately in one reading. At least for me: I read as cows eat, and often need a second go-round to get full benefit from a book. I found Switch more eye-opening and more immediately applicable, but Made to Stick is at least as important. Even if you don't think you need any help communicating your ideas, you need to be aware of the techniques other people are using to get you to accept and remember theirs. You can bet this book is must reading for anyone in the advertising business! And even those with more laudable goals in mind than persuading you to buy their products have been known to use these techniques to promote ideas that are not necessarily correct or helpful.
You can read the first chapter on the authors' website. Here's an excerpt that covers the basic premises, followed by a few passages that particularly struck me.
PRINCIPLE 1: SIMPLICITY
How do we find the essential core of our ideas? A successful defense lawyer says, "If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won't remember any." To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentlessly prioritize. Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the ideal. Proverbs are the ideal. We must create ideas that are both simple and profound. The Golden Rule is the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.
PRINCIPLE 2: UNEXPECTEDNESS
How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across? We need to violate people's expectations. We need to be counterintuitive. A bag of popcorn is as unhealthy as a whole day's worth of fatty foods! We can use surprise—an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and cause focus—to grab people's attention. But surprise doesn't last. For our idea to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity. How do you keep students engaged during the forty-eighth history class of the year? We can engage people's curiosity over a long period of time by systematically "opening gaps" in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.
PRINCIPLE 3: CONCRETENESS
How do we make our ideas clear? We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information. This is where so much business communication goes awry. Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions—they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images—ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors—because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language: "A bird in hand is worth two in the bush." Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.
PRINCIPLE 4: CREDIBILITY
How do we make people believe our ideas? When the former surgeon general C. Everett Koop talks about a public-health issue, most people accept his ideas without skepticism. But in most day-to-day situations we don't enjoy this authority. Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials. We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves—a "try before you buy" philosophy for the world of ideas. When we're trying to build a case for something, most of us instinctively grasp for hard numbers. But in many cases this is exactly the wrong approach. In the sole U.S. presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy. Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves: "Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago."
PRINCIPLE 5: EMOTIONS
How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something. In the case of movie popcorn, we make them feel disgusted by its unhealthiness. The statistic "37 grams" doesn't elicit any emotions. Research shows that people are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions. Sometimes the hard part is finding the right emotion to harness. For instance, it's difficult to get teenagers to quit smoking by instilling in them a fear of the consequences, but it's easier to get them to quit by tapping into their resentment of the duplicity of Big Tobacco.
PRINCIPLE 6: STORIES
How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories. Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by doing so they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations. Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.
[The Curse of Knowledge:] Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind.
[We must] fight the temptation to do too much. When you say three things, you say nothing. When your remote control has fifty buttons, you can't change the channel anymore.
[T]o make a profound idea compact you've got to pack a lot of meaning into a little bit of messaging. And how do you do that? ... You tap the existing memory terrain of your audience. You use what's already there.
For example, describing a pomelo as a "supersized grapefruit" then describing the differences, rather than starting your description from scratch. This use of schemas is strikingly similar to Richard Feynman's depiction of his approach to solving problems: beginning with something concrete that he know well that shared the properties of whatever obscure physics system he was trying to understand. (That's not in Made to Stick; I remember it from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!)
People are tempted to tell you everything, with perfect accuracy, right up front, when they should be giving you just enough info to be useful, then a little more, then a little more.
Treasure maps, as shown in the movies, are vague. They show a few key landmarks and a big X where the treasure is. Usually the adventurer knows just enough to find the first landmark, which becomes the first step in a long journey toward the treasure. If treasure maps were produced on MapQuest.com, with door-to-door directions, it would kill the adventure-movie genre. There is value in sequencing information—not dumping a stack of information on someone at once but dropping a clue, then another clue, then another.
Memory ... is not like a single filing cabinet. It is more like Velcro. ... Your brain hosts a truly staggering number of loops. The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory. Your childhood home has a gazillion hooks in your brain. A new credit card number has one, if it's lucky. Great teachers have a knack for multiplying the hooks in a particular idea.
Statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves. Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It's more important for people to remember the relationship than the number.
Ethically challenged people with lots of analytical smarts can, with enough contortions, make almost any case from a given set of statistics. Of course, let's also remember that it's easier to lie without statistics than with them. Data enforces boundaries. Unless people are unethical enough to make up data, the reality of the data constrains them. That's a good thing, but it still leave a lot of wiggle room.
This excerpt is long, and is only an illustration of one of the authors' points, not the point itself. But it's too good to pass up.
In 1993, [environmentalist Bill McDonough] and a chemist, Michael Braungart, were hired by the Swiss textile manufacturer Rohner Textil, which produces the fabrics for Steelcase chairs. Their mission was one that most people in the textile industry considered impossible: Create a manufacturing process without using toxic chemicals.
The textile industry routinely deals with hazardous chemicals. Most dye colors contain toxic elements. In fact, the trimmings from Rohner Textil's factory—the excess not used on the chairs—contained so many questionable chemicals that the Swiss government classified them as hazardous waste. Furthermore, the trimmings couldn't be buried or burned in Switzerland—to comply with government regulations, they had to be exported—shipped to a country with laxer regulations, such as Spain. ... McDonough said, "If your trimmings are declared hazardous waste but you can sell what's in the middle, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to know you're selling hazardous waste."
To tackle this problem—eliminating toxic chemicals from the furniture-manufacturing process—McDonough needed to find a willing partner in the chemical industry. He had to provide Rohner Textil with a source for clean chemicals that would fit the company's production needs. So he and Braungart started approaching executives in the chemical industry. They said, "We'd like to see all products in the future be as safe as pediatric pharmaceuticals. We'd like our babies to be able to suck on them and get health and not sickness."
They asked chemical factories to open their books and talk about how the chemicals were manufactured. McDonough told the companies, "Don't tell us 'it's proprietary and legal.' If we don't know what it is, we're not using it." Sixty chemical companies turned them down. Finally, the chairman of one firm, Ciba-Geigy, said okay.
McDonough and Braungart studied 8,000 chemicals commonly used in the textile industry. They measured each chemical against a list of safety criteria. Of the chemicals they tested, 7,962 failed. They were left with 38 chemicals—but those 38 were "safe enough to eat," according to McDonough.
Amazingly, using just those 38 chemicals, they were able to create a complete line of fabrics, containing every color but black. The fabric they chose was made from natural materials—wool and a plant fiber called ramie. When the production process went online, inspectors from the Swiss government came to check the water flowing out of the plant to make sure chemical emissions were within legal limits. "At first, the inspectors thought their equipment had broken," McDonough says. The instruments were detecting nothing in the water. Then the inspectors tested the water flowing into the factory, which was Swiss drinking water, and found that the equipment was fine. McDonough says, "The fabrics during the production process were further filtering the water.
McDonough's new process wasn't just safer, it was cheaper. Manufacturing costs shrank 20 percent. The savings came, in part, from the reduced hassle and expense of dealing with toxic chemicals. Workers no longer had to wear protective clothing. And the scraps—instead of being shipped off to Spain for burial—were converted into felt, which was sold to Swiss farmers and gardeners for crop insulation.
Here's another one I chose from a story in the book, rather than from a specific point the authors were making. There are a lot of great stories in the book—the Heath Brothers follow their own prescription.
The availability bias is a natural tendency that causes us, when estimating the probability of a particular event, to judge the event's probability by its availability in our memory. We intuitively think that events are more likely when they are easier to remember. But often the things we remember are not an accurate summary of the world.
We may remember things better because they evoke more emotion, not because they are more frequent. We may remember things better because the media spend more time covering them (perhaps because they provide more vivid images), not because they are more common. The availability bias may lead our intuition astray, prompting us to treat unusual things as common and unlikely things as probable.
Hence our disproportionate fear of terrorists, child kidnappings, SIDS, criminal assault, death-by-tornado, and plane crashes. They happen, they're horrible—but they're a lot rarer than our gut instincts think, which leads to bad risk/benefit decisions.
Not all of the book's examples make sense. There's a very interesting section on what influences our charitable giving, but it's skewed by the assumption that someone who responds to a random appeal for money is more "charitable" than someone who does not, when in fact the non-giver may be the more generous in the rest of his life, giving methodically and rationally to causes he has determined are a good investment.
From the chapter, "Stories":
Three psychologists interested in how people come to understand stories created a few for their study participants to read. ... The first group read a story in which a critical object was associated with the main character in the story—for instance, "John put on his sweatshirt before he went jogging." The second group read a story in which the same critical object was separated from the main character: "John took off his sweatshirt before jogging."
Two sentences later, the story threw in a reference to the sweatshirt, and the computer was able to tack how long it took people to read that sentence. ... The people who thought John had taken off his sweatshirt before the jog took more time to read the sentence than the people who thought John had it on.
This result ... implies that we create a kind of geographic simulation of the stories we hear. It's one thing to say "Reading stories makes us see pictures in our head." ... It's quite another thing to say that when John left his sweatshirt behind, he left it back at the house in a more remote place in our heads. For that to be true, we cannot simply visualize the story on a movie screen in our heads; we must somehow simulate it. ... These studies suggest that there's no such thing as a passive audience. ... When we hear a story, we simulate it.
And some people still think watching porn is an innocent and harmless pastime?
A group of UCLA students were asked to think about a current problem in their lives, one that was "stressing them out" but was potentially solvable in the future, such as a problem with schoolwork or with a relationship.
[The control group of students were told to think about the problem and take steps to deal with it. A second group, the "event-simulators," were asked to mentally retrace the steps that led to the problem, visualizing what happened, what they did, where they were, and who was around. The final group, the "outcome-simulators," were told to visualize a positive outcome, and the resulting relief, satisfaction and self-confidence attained. The non-control groups were asked to spend about five minutes each day engaged in these mental simulations, and return to the lab in a week.]
The event-simulation group did better on almost every dimension. Simulating past events is much more helpful than simulating future outcomes. In fact, the gap between the groups opened up immediately after the first session in the lab. By the first night, the event-simulation people were already experiencing a positive mood boost compared with the other two groups.
When the groups returned a week later, the event simulators' advantage had grown wider. They were more likely to have taken specific action to solve their problems. They were more likely to have sought advice and support from others. They were more likely to report that they had learned something and grown.
You may find these results a bit counterintuitive, because the pop-psychology literature is full of gurus urging you to visualize success. It turns out that a positive mental attitude isn't quite enough to get the job done. Maybe financial gurus shouldn't be telling us to imagine that we're filthy rich; instead, they should be telling us to replay the steps that led to us being poor.
Why does mental simulation work? It works because we can't imagine events or sequences without evoking the same modules of the brain that are evoked in real physical activity.
[Mental simulations can help us manage emotions, overcome phobias, solve problems, and anticipate appropriate responses to future situations.]
Perhaps most surprisingly [but not news to musicians], mental simulation can also build skills. A review of thirty-five studies featuring 3,214 participants showed that mental practice alone—sitting quietly, without moving, and picturing yourself performing a task successfully from start to finish—improves performance significantly. The results were borne out over a large number of tasks: Mental simulation helped people weld better and throw darts better. Trombonists improved their playing, and competitive figure skaters improved their skating. ... Overall, mental practice alone produced about two thirds of the benefits of actual physical practice.
The takeaway is simple: Mental simulation is not as good as actually doing something, but it's the next best thing.
And, I will add, this highlights the importance of taking responsibility for the content of our mental rehearsals. Guarding our thoughts might just make the difference between success at kicking a bad habit—or acquiring a good one—and failure.
It's a clear thumbs up for Made to Stick. We need to know how to get our ideas across in the best way, and just as much we need to know how to recognize when we are being swayed by something other than the plain truth of someone else's ideas. I'm beginning to think that a course in advertisers' tricks should be required for high school graduation. Maybe kindergarten graduation.