[notes] Made to Stick

 Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

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NOTE: Bewarned, these notes are un-edited, un-revised, and un-styled. I plan on cleaning them up eventually, but until then, I apologize.

 Introduction: What Sticks?

“So not every idea is stick-worthy. When we ask people how often they need to make an idea stick, they tell us that the need arises between once a month and once a week, twelve to fifty-two times per year.”

“The broad question, then, is how do you design an idea that sticks?”

“We adopted the “what sticks” terminology from one of our favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. In 2000, Gladwell wrote a brilliant book called The Tipping Point, which examined the forces that cause social phenomena to “tip,” or make the leap from small groups to big groups, the way contagious diseases spread rapidly once they infect a certain critical mass of people.”

“This book is a complement to The Tipping Point in the sense that we will identify the traits that make ideas sticky, a subject that was beyond the scope of Gladwell’s book.”

“As we pored over hundreds of sticky ideas, we saw, over and over, the same six principles at work.”

  1. Simplicity
    • “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.”
  2. Unexpectedness
    • “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.”
    • “We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically “opening gaps” in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.”
  3. Concreteness
    • “How do we make our ideas clear? We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information.”
    • “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.”
  4. Credibility
    • “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.”
  5. Emotions
    • “How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something.”
    • “We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.”
  6. Stories
    • “How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories.”

“Sadly, there is a villain in our story. The villain is a natural psychological tendency that consistently confounds our ability to create ideas using these principles. It’s called the Curse of Knowledge.”

 Systematic Creativity

“There’s no question that some people are more creative than others.”

“In 1999, an Israeli research team assembled a group of 200 highly regarded ads—ads that were finalists and award winners in the top advertising competitions. They found that 89 percent of the award-winning ads could be classified into six basic categories, or templates. That’s remarkable. We might expect great creative concepts to be highly idiosyncratic—emerging from the whims of born creative types. It turns out that six simple templates go a long way.”

“The surprising lesson of this story: Highly creative ads are more predictable than uncreative ones.”

“It appears that there are indeed systematic ways to produce creative ideas.”

 Chapter 1: Simple

“The Army invests enormous energy in its planning, and its processes have been refined over many years. The system is a marvel of communication. There’s just one drawback: The plans often turn out to be useless. “The trite expression we always use is ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy,'” says Colonel Tom Kolditz, the head of the behavioral sciences division at West Point.”

“But as for the plans themselves, Kolditz says, “They just don’t work on the battlefield.” So, in the 1980s the Army adapted its planning process, inventing a concept called Commander’s Intent (CI). CI is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation.”

“The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events.”

“The French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once offered a definition of engineering elegance: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.””

 Burying the Lead

“News reporters are taught to start their stories with the most important information. The first sentence, called the lead, contains the most essential elements of the story.”

“After the lead, information is presented in decreasing order of importance. Journalists call this the “inverted pyramid” structure—the most important info (the widest part of the pyramid) is at the top.”

“The process of writing a lead—and avoiding the temptation to bury it—is a helpful metaphor for the process of finding the core. Finding the core and writing the lead both involve forced prioritization.”

 Simple = Core + Compact

“Cervantes’s definition of “proverbs” echoes our definition of Simple ideas: short sentences (compact) drawn from long experience (core).”

“We’ve seen that compact ideas are stickier, but that compact ideas alone aren’t valuable—only ideas with profound compactness are valuable. So, to 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 use flags. You tap the existing memory terrain of your audience. You use what’s already there.”

 Utilizing Schemas

“Psychologists define schema as a collection of generic properties
of a concept or category. Schemas consist of lots of prerecorded information stored in our memories.”

“Good teachers intuitively use lots of schemas.” (because they are an efficient way to communicate information)

 Generative Analogies

“Some analogies are so useful that they don’t merely shed light on a concept, they actually become platforms for novel thinking. For example, the metaphor of the brain as a computer has been central to the insights generated by cognitive psychologists during the past fifty years.”

“Good metaphors are “generative.””

 Chapter 2: Unexpected

“The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern. Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. We become consciously aware of things only when something changes.”

“Our brain is designed to be keenly aware of changes. Smart product designers are well aware of this tendency. They make sure that, when products require users to pay attention, something changes.”

“Surprise gets our attention.”

“Interest keeps our attention.”

“So, a good process for making your ideas stickier is: (1) Identify the central message you need to communicate—find the core; (2) Figure out what is counterintuitive about the message—i.e., What are the unexpected implications of your core message? Why isn’t it already happening naturally? (3) Communicate your message in a way that breaks your audience’s guessing machines along the critical, counterintuitive dimension. Then, once their guessing machines have failed, help them refine their machines.”

“Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages. When messages sound like common sense, they float gently in one ear and out the other. And why shouldn’t they? If I already intuitively “get” what you’re trying to tell me, why should I obsess about remembering it? The danger, of course, is that what sounds like common sense often isn’t.”

 The “Gap Theory” of Curiosity

“In 1994, George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon University, provided the most comprehensive account of situational interest. It is surprisingly simple. Curiosity, he says, happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge.”

“One important implication of the gap theory is that we need to open gaps before we close them.”

“If curiosity arises from knowledge gaps, we might assume that when we know more, we’ll become less curious because there are fewer gaps in our knowledge. But Loewenstein argues that the opposite is true. He says that as we gain information we are more and more likely to focus on what we don’t know.”

 Chapter 3: Concrete

“Language is often abstract, but life is not abstract.”

“Abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and to remember it. It also makes it harder to coordinate our activities with others, who may interpret the abstraction in very different ways. Concreteness helps us avoid these problems.”

“Abstraction demands some concrete foundation. Trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air.”

“The difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly.”

“The moral of the story is to find a “universal language,” one that everyone speaks fluently. Inevitably, that universal language will be concrete.”

“Concreteness makes targets transparent. Even experts need transparency.”

 Chapter 4: Credible

“The takeaway is that it can be the honesty and trustworthiness of our sources, not their status, that allows them to act as authorities. Sometimes antiauthorities are even better than authorities.”

 The Power of Details

“A person’s knowledge of details is often a good proxy for her expertise.”

 The Human-Scale Principle (Statistics)

“Statistics aren’t inherently helpful; it’s the scale and context that make them so.”

“Statistics are a good source of internal credibility when they are used to illustrate relationships.”

 The Sinatra Test (Examples)

“An example passes the Sinatra Test when one example alone is enough to establish credibility in a given domain.”

 Testable Credentials

“Testable credentials can provide an enormous credibility boost, since they essentially allow your audience members to “try before they buy.””

 Chapter 5: Emotional

“Mother Teresa once said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.””

“An old advertising maxim says you’ve got to spell out the benefit of the benefit. In other words, people don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures.”


Research found that people falsely thought that they were most motivated by desires higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy, but others were most motivated by desires lower of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

 Chapter 6: Stories

“The right stories make people act.”

“There’s no such thing as a passive audience. When we hear a story, we simulate it.”

“Overall, mental practice alone produced about two thirds of the benefits of actual physical practice.”

“We don’t always have to create sticky ideas. Spotting them is often easier and more useful.”

“There are three basic plots: the Challenge plot, the Connection plot, and the Creativity plot.”

 The Challenge Plot

“The key element of a Challenge plot is that the obstacles seem daunting to the protagonist.”

“Challenge plots inspire people to take on challenges and work harder.”

 The Connection Plot

“A Connection Plot is about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap—racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise.”

 The Creativity Plot

“The Creativity plot involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way.”

“Creativity plots make us want to do something different, to be creative, to experiment with new approaches.”

 Epilogue: What Sticks

“Getting a message across has two stages: the Answer stage and the Telling Others stage. In the Answer stage, you use your expertise to arrive at the idea that you want to share. Here’s the rub: The same factors that worked to your advantage in the Answer stage will backfire on you during the Telling Others stage. To get the Answer, you need expertise, but you can’t dissociate expertise from the Curse of Knowledge.”

“For an idea to stick, for it to be useful and lasting, it’s got to make the audience:”

  1. Pay attention (Unexpected)
  2. Understand and remember it (Concrete)
  3. Agree/Believe (Credible)
  4. Care (Emotional)
  5. Be able to act on it (Story)

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