Made to Stick : Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

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Made to stick One of the most important roles we can play as entrepreneurs is to inspire and motivate, evangelizing our ideas to recruit partners, employees, customers and capital.  It’s a 24/7 job and mastering the skill is vital.  Yet I, like most entrepreneurs, have a healthy skepticism for much that passes as lessons in marketing communications or ‘Marcom’.  Advice is often based on ‘spin management’ and lacks concrete, actionable recommendations.

This is why this book is so wonderful: it provides a concrete formula for making your messages stick and spread.  There is a formula for being a master at evangelizing great ideas and the Heath brothers have captured it.   If you remember nothing else remember this – the reason you are not doing as well as you could in your communication is that you know too much.  Amazing but true – read on.

The authors have developed a formula to rate any message or presentation on exactly how memorable and effective you are likely to be in your call to action. Even better, the formula can be tested and also shows you how to improve.  The model was developed based on analysis of a broad range of proven and effective messages ranging from famous speeches like Aesop’s fables, to sports quotes, successful lesson plans and advertising messages. It also combines a splash of neuroscience to support why the brain needs these elements to hold on to an idea.  The resulting formula can be used to significantly improve your ability to define the core message. Use it to get people’s attention, get them to believe you, get them to care and then finally – get them to take action.  And the best part is that the Heath brothers practice what they preach so there are lots of interesting stories with surprising turns, that demonstrate the power of their advice.

Why should we listen to the authors? Chip Heath is Professor of Organizational Behavior professor at Stanford Business School, teaches on the subject and has spent 10 years researching it.  His brother is a researcher at Harvard Business School, works in the new media textbook market and has also spent years researching how to most effectively communicate ideas to students to make them stick.  The two teamed up to distill the lessons they have learned into this handy guide.

The Big Ideas:
The Curse of Knowledge – This is the prime culprit in non-inspirational communication.  The more you know the worse you are at spreading the word. There are several reasons for this:

First it is very difficult to think like a novice when you are an expert, yet most messages are targeted at those who know less about your subject than you do.  You cannot solve the problem by trying to imagine that you are not an expert because ‘you can’t get there from here’.   You need to use techniques (like those provided in the book) that force you to speak their language.

Second, the more you know about a subject, the more your brain shifts into abstract thinking. Subject experts can process ideas at a higher level (it happens without you realizing).   This is exactly the opposite of how novices think: they need concrete information and influence to understand, believe, get engaged and take action.   The curse of knowledge blinds us (Great Concept!).  Get your executives to try the tapping exercise to drive this message home.

S.U.C.C.E.S – The authors have a simple acronym for their checklist:  Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Stories.  They may seem self-explanatory, but the Heath brothers have and share great insights to make them happen.  You don’t need all, but the higher you score on each, the greater the impact.  You can also use this checklist to ‘score’ any message that gets put in front of you.  Here are some of the highlights:

  1. Simple – get to the core of your message and make it compact so it’s memorable. What single word or words define your message? For Southwest, it is that it is THE low cost airline – a defining principal. If people have this insight, will they know what to do? Sharing this requires compactness. Palm founder Jeff Hawkins walked around with a wooden block the size of the product around his neck to communicate his goal. A great tactic is to hijack a well defined idea: for a movie think Jaws on a spaceship = Aliens. This allows you to quickly tap a rich map of defining characteristics and associate them with your concept. Analogies work well here also.
  2. Unexpected – You need to get people’s attention in a relevant way. Our brains are brilliant pattern-recognition engines designed to filter out and forget the expected. You need to create unexpected insights relevant to your message to get engaged. A great story is how Masaru Ibuka, Sony’s co-founder, inspired the company to build its first breakthrough product – the pocket radio – at a time when radios were furniture. The shock of the challenge captivated 1000 engineers through an innovation breakthrough and put the company on the map with their first consumer product.
  3. Concrete – This is critical to understand and one of the best tools for overcoming the curse of knowledge. Concrete is the common language of novices and experts. The Velcro theory of memory is also a great insight – the more hooks your idea has into the mind, the more it sticks. How do you build those hooks? The answer is that a concrete object focuses and mobilizes the brain. Jerry Kaplan, founder of GO Computer, raised his start up capital from Kleiner Perkins in a few days with the use of a leather notebook to focus their minds.
  4. Credible – There are multiple strategies for building credibility and the authors share some great ideas such as statistics. Often poorly used, you need to make statistics accessible. One idea is to use metaphors that people can relate to. For example: About 1000 people die due to hospital mistakes per month: ‘if hospitals were 747’s, pilot error would be accountable for 2 plane crashes a month’. Validate your idea by the best. The Frank Sinatra credibility test is a great insight – market leader validation – ‘if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.’
  5. Emotional – Emotion gives people the power to care to take action. To quote Mother Teresa : “If I look at the mass will never act, if I look at the one I will.” Appeal to people’s higher needs and aspirations, often these are more empowering than base instincts like money. What is the benefit of the benefit? The authors make an interesting point on the power of people’s self identity: Voters often vote against their own self interest in favour of the interests of a group with whom they identify.
  6. Stories motivate action. They are the best way to get people to act. They communicate lessons and simulate action. They are also easy to retell, spreading your ideas. The best stories aren’t created – they occur naturally, are spotted and then retold. There is a great example of Jared from the famous Subway ad campaign – this powerful story and successful campaign was spotted and initiated by a franchisee and was developed despite the lack of support from the company’s marketing department (curse of knowledge – they hadn’t read this book!)

The book captures key lessons that I have used for years to help fellow founders communicate their ideas.  Different components are useful in different areas.  As an example, when we speak about the ability to use bootstrapping to create a market leader we don’t quote statistics: we ask ‘What do Microsoft, Dell, Cisco, Ebay and Siebel all have in common?   Answer: They were all bootstrap-financed to between $5 and $60M in revenue.’   This message is unexpected and on point.  My favorite use of these principals is story-spotting.  I love hearing about how other entrepreneurs started and built their businesses.  To me these stories are inspirational – particularly those that did it with modest sums of capital, relying on their own abilities.  They are empowering.  As an example, here is a link to a great story about how Mark Leslie started VERITAS and built it to a $1.5 billion business on primarily a $4M capital investment.

When I get ready to talk to people, I spend two thirds of the time thinking what they want to hear and one third thinking about what I want to say. Abraham Lincoln


From the author:

Hi Javier,

Thanks for reviewing Made to Stick.  I love the Microsoft, Dell, et al, example of the power of bootstrapping.  It’s a perfect example of a situation where a lot of people use statistics (“83.2% of entrepreneurial ventures are bootstrapped, blah, blah…”) but there’s nothing more Concrete and Emotional than that Hall of Fame list of companies—something to inspire every entrepreneur whereas the statistic wouldn’t.

Best wishes,


Authors: Chip and Dan Heath

Who should read it: Entrepreneurs, Marketers, Managers, Educators, Parents

Note: An abridged version of this review originally appeared on Venturebeat’s Entrepreneur Corner.

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