Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick shows us that if you want your message to be memorable, keep it simple, says William Leith
Made to Stick: How Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck
by Chip and Dan Heath
304pp, Random House, £12.99
This is a book about what makes some ideas more effective than others. It explains what it is that makes you notice them, understand them, care about them, remember them, and act on them. And the simple answer is: presentation. Spin is crucial. Of course, substance is important, too. But the message of this smart, lively book is that if your spin is bad, you’re nowhere.
As the authors say: “Good ideas often have a hard time succeeding in the world. Yet the ridiculous kidney heist tale keeps circulating, with no resources whatsoever to support it.”
Kidney heist tale? That’s right. The authors, Chip and Dan Heath, brothers from California, tell us the story of a guy who goes into a bar in an unfamiliar city and orders a drink, after which an attractive woman approaches him and asks him if he’d like another. And that’s the last thing he remembers, until he wakes up the next morning in a bathtub full of ice. He has a wound in his back with a tube sticking out. He calls the emergency services. The operator says, “Sir, don’t panic, but one of your kidneys has been harvested.”
Next, the authors give us an example of something unmemorable. I won’t quote it in full, but to give you an idea: “Comprehensive community building naturally lends itself to a return-on-investment rationale that can be modelled …” We are asked to imagine what would happen if we closed the book and tried to tell someone about the kidney heist and the jargon. We’d be able to remember the heist. We’d have forgotten the jargon. The authors ask us: “Which sounds closer to the communications you encounter at work?”
This is a self-help book for ideas. Like a diet book, it tells you to slim your ideas down. Simplicity is the key. Dan, an educational publisher, studied teachers and what made them effective. Chip, a social science professor at Stanford, spent time researching the concept “How could a false idea displace a true one?” Both brothers were impressed by the concept of “stickiness”, as explained by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point – some ideas stick in the mind, while others don’t. “We want to pay tribute to Gladwell for the word ‘stickiness’,” they say. “It stuck.”
There are various things, according to the Heaths, that make ideas memorable. Apart from simplicity, it helps if ideas are unexpected. You need to grab people’s attention. They describe an advertising spot in which the viewer sees a happy family getting into a minivan and cruising blandly through suburban streets. Then, apparently out of nowhere – bang! An appalling crash. The idea: “Buckle up.” The reason that the ad was effective: “It violates our schema of real-life neighbourhood trips.”
Other things that make ideas stick: adding concrete details, dumping complicated statistics, connecting with people’s emotions and telling stories. We hear about an anti-nuclear campaigner who wanted to give people the idea that the world was full of dangerous nuclear warheads – 5,000, in fact. Expressed as a number, he realised, this was not a particularly sticky idea. So he gave lectures, taking along a metal bucket and thousands of BB pellets. He dropped one pellet into the bucket and told his audience: “This is the Hiroshima bomb.” Later, he poured 5,000 pellets into the bucket. This was the world’s current nuclear capability. His audience was stunned into silence.
This is one of many examples that make this book such fun to read. We learn about good communicators, which is inspiring. How do you get people to unlearn an idea which is sticky but false, such as the notion that lots of people are attacked by sharks? Not by telling people the actual numbers, but by asking them whether they are more likely to be killed by a shark or a deer. Of course, the deer is more dangerous. This is something you’re likely to remember. It’s funny. It’s something you’ll want to tell people.
So why is this book scary? For one thing, it gives you an insight into the power of bad ideas – simple, concrete, emotive, story-based ideas will stick in spite of being wrong. For another, it makes you think of the world of ideas as a kind of arms race. Everybody is trying to seduce you, using concepts that, over time, are more and more fiendishly sticky. Sometimes, someone on the side of good will find a way of getting you to think about road safety or nuclear warheads. But who owns most of the sticky ideas? Surely it’s the big corporations, who can afford to employ people who know how to keep their messages crisp and memorable.
When I finished this book, I wondered what it had taught me. It has taught me a simple thing about communication: keep it simple. And an unexpected thing: that, to be clever, you have to avoid being complex. And a statistical thing: forget about numbers. And an emotional thing: he who spins, wins, which is sad. And which is why it’s worth reading this book. In the right hands, it will help.
· William Leith’s The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict is published by Bloomsbury.
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