Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

As I noted last week in my first post about this wonderful little book (1), I was using principles noted in the book without knowing that I was doing so. In my case, what caught my students’ attention and turned what should have been a boring and uninteresting lecture (to them, that is!) was an unexpected outcome; that when one searched for “Brain CT” in Pubmed, one found only 5 links rather than the hundreds students expected. In this book, the authors found that there were 6 themes that seemed common to “sticky” ideas (ideas that stay with people), and I would like to list them here.

Simplicity: The authors argue that you need to find the core of your idea; that if you give people 10 good points, they will not remember any of them. You need to be a master of exclusion, and create something that is both simple and profound. As an example, the authors cite the Golden Rule- a single sentence that is profound, with lifelong ramifications.

Unexpectedness: what we want is for people to pay attention to our ideas, which becomes a challenge when you need time to get ideas across to them. They suggest that we violate people’s expectations, be counter-intuitive, use surprise. But they caution that just using surprise is not enough; we must generate interest and curiosity. This is what my “Brain CT” example does- it demonstrates an unexpected gap in their knowledge, which is combined with my simple comment that “Google is not Pubmed.”

Concreteness: In order to make our ideas clear, we need to explain them in terms of human actions and sensory information. The authors state that this is where so many mission statements and strategies go wrong, because they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. By being concrete, we ensure that our idea means the same thing to everyone in the audience: Palmer College is, for example, “The trusted leader in chiropractic education.”

Credibility: This relates to how we make people believe our ideas. Sticky ideas need to carry their own credentials. People need to test our ideas for themselves. The authors recommend not relying on hard numbers (where they would work), and use the example of political discussion to make this point. Do we relate to statistics that are presented to us by our political leaders? No, we do not; they do not carry meaning to us. But what of Ronald Reagan’s question back when he was running against Jimmy Carter” Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”

Emotions: In order to get people to care about our ideas, we should make them feel something. This is well known in the charitable society world; research has shown we are more likely to donate to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region. We feel for people, not for abstractions. The authors note that this is not always easy. They use an example that it can be easier to get a teenager to quit smoking not by citing hard facts about cancer but by appealing to their anti-corporate beliefs about Big Tobacco.

Stories: One of the best ways to get people to act on our ideas is by telling stories, and we teachers are natural storytellers. When we do, we multiply our experiences and make it easier for others to use that experience when there is a need to do so. Stories act to help us respond more quickly and effectively.

These are the six principles of successful ideas, and this book then goes on to amplify each one of these, applying them to both business and to teaching. This is a wonderful book, well worth having.

1. Heath C, Heath D. Made to stick: why some ideas survive and others die. New York City, NY; Random House, 2008

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