Category Archives: Messaging

Made to Stick

Here’s a little story I made up, distilled from my 10+ years in a sales organization:

“Yes, indeed, there is such a thing as a free lunch!” thought Joe as he piled the chicken salad onto a plate. These free presentations were his little indulgence — a welcome break from endless project meetings, impatient users and temperamental servers. The presenter wore a red power-tie. His words were carefully chosen like cut and polished diamonds that sparkled and mesmerized everyone in the room. The 3D animations distilled the concepts into simple metaphors, and video clips of credible people proved the truth of the message. The speaker was a master. The crowd seemed happy as it left. Back at the office, Joe ran into Jenny: “So, how was the seminar?” Joe replied, “Oh, very well done; great speaker.” Jenny asked: “Cool, what was it about, anyway?” Tom replied, “It was all about their software, I think… there was a lot to digest. Its hard to explain exactly… Hmmm, I can’t seem to remember what it actually does. Its probably too expensive for us anyway.”

Effective presentations are more than just slick graphics, good food and expert speakers. What you need is for your ideas to “stick”. You want to create that moment of insight that causes your audience to see a new truth, and thereby change the way they think and act.

Made to Stick is a book that explores the characteristics of “sticky ideas”, and explains why some ideas survive while others die out. What is a “sticky idea”? The authors start out with one of the most successful urban legends ever: the kidney heist. Do you remember the main points? The drugged drink? The bathtub full of ice? The cell phone and instructions to call 911? Most people do. A gruesome, but sticky, idea.

With lots of examples and stories, the authors identify 6 characteristics of sticky ideas:

  1. Simplicity: The idea must be stripped to its bare essence; if you try to say too many things, you say nothing. Also, “don’t bury the lead”, in other words, start out with the most important concepts first.
  2. Unexpectedness: The idea must tear-down resistance and preconceptions, readying people to accept a new paradigm.
  3. Concreteness: You must avoid corporate-speak and domain-specific jargon and bring in real examples, real people, even props to help people understand the idea in a visceral way.
  4. Credibility: Provide a reference point for believability: an expert or someone who has been through an experience, or someone who represents the viewpoint of the audience.
  5. Emotional: Information makes people think, but emotion makes them act. Appeal to emotional needs, sometimes even way up on Maslow’s hierarchy.
  6. Stores: There is something in the way our brains are wired that allows us to remember a story, and forget facts and figures.

All throughout, the authors use stories to drive home their points, and even do several message makeovers that show how to take an inaccessible message and make it stickier. Beyond business, this book applies to education, religion, charitable causes, and any area where people need to communicate ideas. And, the authors do a good job of practicing what they preach: for each of the 6 characteristics, I can remember at least one story from the book that illustrates the point. The end of the book contains a summary of all the principles for those of us too lazy to take notes. All-in-all, one of the best books I’ve read in a while.