A few years ago Chip and Dan Heath asked themselves a question: Why do some ideas succeed while others fail? As they analyzed hundreds of sticky ideas they saw, over and over, the same six principles at work. They described these six principles in the bestselling book Made to Stick. No special expertise is needed to apply these principles. Moreover, many of the principles have a commonsense ring to them: Didn’t most of us already have the intuition that we should “be simple” or “be concrete” or “use stories”? Here are the six principles, as described by Chip and Dan in their book.
PRINCIPLE 1: SIMPLICITY
How can you find the essential core of your 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 pro- found that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.
PRINCIPLE 2: UNEXPECTEDNESS
How do you get your audience to pay attention to your ideas, and how do you maintain their interest when you need time to get the ideas across? You need to violate people’s expectations. You need to be counterintuitive. You 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 you make your ideas clear? You must explain your 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 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 can you make people believe your 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 you get people to care about your ideas? You need to make them feel something. 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 you get people to act on your ideas? 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.
Those are the six principles of successful ideas. To summarize, here’s a checklist for creating a successful idea: a Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credentialed Emotional Story. A clever observer will note that this sentence can be compacted into the acronym SUCCESs. Will it be a coincidence?
Adapted from “Made to stick” by Chip and Dan Heath, Random House