In our hyper-connected society, important messages often fail to gain traction, while bad ideas and falsehoods, such as urban legends, go viral and seem to stick around forever. Made to Stick by brothers Chip and Dan Heath explores what makes some messages “stick” in the public’s consciousness while others go unremembered and explains how to create an idea that sticks.
Based on a wide-ranging examination of psychology research, popular culture, and news headlines, they identify six criteria that anyone can apply for shaping a message so it resonates: Make it simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and make it a story.
1-Page Summary of Made to Stick
In our overstimulated and distracted society, great ideas and important messages often fail to gain traction, while bad ideas and falsehoods, such as urban legends, go viral and seem to stick around forever.
Made to Stick by brothers Chip and Dan Heath explores what makes some messages “stick” in the public’s consciousness while others go unheard or unremembered and explains how to create an idea that sticks. Based on a wide-ranging examination of psychology research, popular culture, and news headlines, they identify six criteria for shaping your message so it resonates.
You don’t have to be a great speaker to communicate your idea effectively—the authors show you what to do through numerous examples of messages that have succeeded and others that have bombed. Rather than sweating over an original presentation, you can follow their “stickiness” template or even emulate someone else’s idea that worked.
Ideas or messages that stick are those that are understandable, memorable, and have a lasting impact. An example of a story that succeeds on all three levels is the perennial Halloween candy tampering scare.
Poisoned candy rumors originated in the 1960s, followed later by stories about sick people putting sharp objects into apples at Halloween. Parents searched their kids’ candy, schools and fire departments offered “safe” Halloween events, and hospitals offered to X-ray kids’ treat bags. But it was largely false. The story was understandable and memorable, and it had a lasting impact: it changed people’s behavior, even to today.
With all of the ideas, especially false ones, competing for people’s attention, getting important messages across is daunting. We all have messages and ideas we need to deliver. For instance, teachers must explain mitosis or introduce algebra to students, and managers have to get employees to implement company initiatives. But any idea can be designed in a way that makes it memorable by following a simple formula—SUCCESs: Make it Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, and make it a Story.
Making a message simple means distilling it to its central point or essence by cutting away nonessential information, like getting to the core of an apple. In addition to being simple, a distilled message must be meaningful. Proverbs are a good example of simple, profound messages, as is the Golden Rule.
- Focus on one thing. Don’t include multiple things in your message. For example, Southwest’s message is focused on the single idea that it’s “the low-fare airline.”
- Communicate your key point in memorable terms. For example, Bill Clinton was elected on his slogan, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” The last word made it memorable.
A sticky message gets people’s attention by defying expectations. For example, an airline flight attendant got passengers’ attention with her flight safety lecture by turning it into a comedy routine: “As the song goes, there might be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only six ways to leave this aircraft.”
- Avoid the gimmicky surprise. Gimmicks that aren’t relevant to your core message leave your listeners feeling puzzled or cheated.
- After getting people’s attention with the unexpected, sustain it by creating a mystery. Mysteries sustain interest because people want closure.
Ideas must be concrete in order to stick. For example, the idea of apples with razor blades in them is concrete. In contrast, many messages in business are ambiguous and no one interprets them the same way. The abstract must be made concrete so that it means the same thing to everyone, like the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
- Be specific: The words “high performance” are abstract while “V-8 engine” is concrete. A company’s strategy is abstract, but its software is concrete. Find ways to make abstract concepts more concrete.
To be believable, sticky ideas must have external credibility (an authoritative spokesperson or source) and internal credibility, which means they’re supported by details, data, or a compelling example that clinches the argument. For example, a series of anti-smoking ads in the 1990s was credible because the ads had an authoritative spokeswoman: Pam Laffin, a 29-year-old mother who suffered devastating effects from smoking.
- Concrete, vivid details make a message believable. For instance, urban legends, particularly horror stories, seem credible when localized details, such as street names and familiar landmarks, are used.
- One standout example can be your ultimate credential. For instance, if your company provided security for Fort Knox, that fact alone would say more about the value of your security services than any numbers you could quote.
To get an idea to stick, you need to get people to care about it. To make them care, you arouse emotions—you make them feel. The Halloween candy tampering message generated fear. Nonprofit organizations seeking donations generate emotions by showing you people—here’s a starving child named Rokia—rather than presenting abstractions such as statistics. The trick is determining what emotion you want to generate.
- Appeal to their self-interest: tell them how they personally will benefit from acting on your message. Advertising offers many examples.
- Appeal to group identity, which can take precedence at times over self-interest. Group affiliations include religion, political party, gender, and occupation.
Telling stories is the best way to make a message memorable and get people to act on it. Stories motivate people to act through inspiration. But more importantly, they tell people how to act—stories are simulations in which listeners think through what they’d do in the same situation. They’re mental flight simulators. For instance, firefighters and medical personnel can learn how to respond to crises from the stories of colleagues.
- The best inspirational stories follow one of three common plots: 1) challenge—people overcome obstacles, 2) connection—people develop relationships across gaps, or 3) creativity—people solve problems and inspire new ways of thinking.
The Curse of Expertise
Anyone can apply these six principles to craft a sticky message—they’re mostly common sense—yet a majority of people produce opaque, mind-numbing prose instead. The reason people don’t take simple steps to make their messages compelling is that they’re blinded by a cognitive bias known as “the curse of knowledge.” Instead of keeping their message simple and concrete, they lapse into abstractions because they assume their listeners have the same level of knowledge or expertise as they do.
A Sticky Success Story
Here’s how one potentially dull message was shaped and communicated effectively.
In 1992, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest analyzed the ingredients of movie theater popcorn. A medium-sized serving had 37 grams of saturated fat, compared to the USDA’s recommendation that people consume no more than 20 grams a day. CSPI’s challenge was to put the numbers into a meaningful context—to make the message stick that movie popcorn is very unhealthy.
The organization called a press conference at which they displayed a serving of movie popcorn juxtaposed with three meals: a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac-and-fries lunch, and a complete steak dinner. The message: One serving of movie popcorn has more saturated fat than a day’s worth of high-fat meals. The story caught the attention of the major television networks and newspapers as well as late-night comedians.
CSPI had an important message, they communicated it so that people would hear and care about it, and the message stuck. They did it despite lacking a sensational topic, a multimillion-dollar budget, or a staff of professional marketers. You can craft equally effective messages.
Full Summary of Made to Stick
In our overstimulated and distracted society, **great ideas and important messages often fail to gain traction, while bad ideas and falsehoods such as urban legends go viral **and seem to stick around forever.
Made to Stick by brothers Chip and Dan Heath explores what makes some messages “stick” in the public’s consciousness while others go unheard or unremembered and explains how to create an idea that sticks. Chip is a professor at Stanford and Dan is senior fellow at Duke University. Based on a wide-ranging examination of psychology research, popular culture, and news headlines, they id…
Read the rest of the “Made to Stick” summary at my new book summary product, Shortform.
Here’s what you’ll find in the full Made to Stick summary:
- Chapter 1: S—Simple
- Exercise: What’s the Point?
- Chapter 2: U—Unexpected
- Exercise: Getting Their Attention
- Chapter 3: C—Concrete
- Exercise: What’s the Goal?
- Chapter 4: C—Credible
- Exercise: Is It Credible?
- Chapter 5: E—Emotional
- Chapter 6: S—Stories
- Exercise: Spotting a Story
- Epilogue: Practical Challenges
I’ve been building Shortform for the past year. It’s the book summary product I always wanted for myself. I was never satisfied with the summaries from what was on the market, and so I built Shortform for myself and readers like you. If you like my book summaries, you’ll love Shortform.
Shortform has the world’s best summaries of nonfiction books and articles. Even better, it helps you remember what you read, so you can make your life better. What’s special about Shortform:
- The world’s highest quality book summaries—comprehensive, concise, and everything you need to know
- Broad library: 1000+ books and articles across 21 genres
- Interactive exercises that teach you to apply what you’ve learned
- Audio narrations so you can learn on the go
- Discussion communities—get the best advice from other readers
Sound like what you’ve been looking for? Sign up for a 5-day free trial here.