[review] Made to Stick (raw)
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
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Since the redeeming qualities of this book are predominately captured in my notes, this review will focus on my issues with this book.
Issue 1: Hypocritical Style
Oftentimes I felt this book did not follow it’s own advice. For example, in the first chapter:
“In fact, we’ll follow our own advice and strip this book down to its core. Here it is: There are two steps in making your ideas sticky— Step 1 is to find the core, and Step 2 is to translate the core using the SUCCESs checklist. That’s it.”
That’s not following your own advice. Your advice was to relentlessly prioritize, not to be tricky and try to pass off six steps as two steps.
Hypocrisy also runs abound in the examples this books cites, which are often contradictory when analyzed at anything more than a cursory depth. For example, if Southwest is “THE low-fair airline”, then why do they serve drinks? That seems like a contradiction of their core message. Another example comes from the Avoid Gimmickry section in chapter two, which describes a failed super bowl ad where wolves devour a marching band. How is this different from Apple’s classic 1985 ad? Instead of cursory and contradicting analysis of many examples, I would have preferred more in-depth analysis of fewer examples.
Issue 2: Useless Examples
Many of the examples in this book confuse cleverness with application of the principle. For example in chapter three, the book uses the example of a teacher that gives her classroom a taste of real-life racism by segregating them by eye color. This example muddles the principle (concreteness) with the particularly clever application of concreteness. So was the teacher’s message sticky because of the concreteness, or because of the cleverness? Examples like these cause me to lose faith in the principles, because the success of the examples of these principles seems supplemented by the cleverness of the people behind them. In other words, what about all the times the principle doesn’t work because it is applied by less clever people?
Furthermore, these examples don’t help teach me how to apply the principles (which also weakens the claim of Chapter 6, which claims that stories are “actionable”). For example, in chapter two, the book recounts a story where a journalism teacher builds a lesson around leads by using the example: “The lead to the story is ‘There will be no school next Thursday.’” Yes, the teacher in this story does use unexpectedness to make their lesson memorable, but they do so in a domain-specific way. Since I don’t understand the how of this unexpectedness, I don’t know how to apply this story in my own life.
Issue 3: Just Wrong
This book purports several viewpoints that I disagree with.
In Chapter Two, the book seems to suggest sacrificing the integrity of your content in order to simulate unexpectedness. For example, airline safety regulations aren’t meant to be funny. They’re actually rather serious. Turning them into jokes might make more people pay attention, but I question whether that attention comes in a form that would help people in an actual accident.
Also, from Chapter Two: “Unexpected ideas, by opening a knowledge gap, tease and flirt.” Just personally, and specifically with respects to school, I hate “flirtation.” It’s so inefficient. Tell me what I need to know, and tell it to me straight. Save the “flirting” for my time off.
From Chapter Three:
“The moral of this story is not to “dumb things down.” The manufacturing people faced complex problems and they needed smart answers. Rather, the moral of the story is to find a “universal language,” one that everyone speaks fluently. Inevitably, that universal language will be concrete.”
Just to be clear here, the moral of the story is exactly to dumb things down. The manufacturing people faced problems, and you’re suggesting that the engineers dumb down their answers so that manufacturing people can understand them. I fundamentally disagree with this. When we’re young we are taught not to fight but rather to use our words. Yes, punching someone is more “universal”, but that certainly doesn’t mean we should communicate that way.
In the example above, the authors suggest that instead of the engineers providing the manufacturing people with abstract blueprints, they should go down to the factory and show the manufacturing people what they mean literally. Yes, clearly this company could have hired engineers to do the work of manufacturing people, but that wasn’t the point. The company is trying to save money by hiring engineers to do higher level work, and manufacturing people to do lower level work. Having the engineers do lower level work completely disregards this fact.
In general, the point of abstraction is to convey information more efficiently. It’s obvious that information can also be conveyed less efficiently, but doing so won’t help a company survive in a competitive environment. Instead of suggesting that the engineers communicate on a lower level, the authors suggestions should be to educate the manufacturing people to communicate on a higher level.
In Chapter Six, this book seems to suggest prioritizing seemingly arbitrary stories instead of explicit recommendations from experts. This seems like an incredibly dangerous precedent to set. Yes, stories are more memorable than explicitly stated recommendations, but experts spend excess time and energy crafting explicitly stated recommendations, which are meant to summarize and abstract the learnings from multiple stories. By turning the conference into a set of arbitrarily chosen stories, recorded out of context, the conference goer in this example is disregarding the wisdom of experts and instead passing on her own set of conclusions. She, however, is not an expert, and personally I’d rather trust the experts.