The Heath's Stick to Communication

heath_review_09072016Chip and Dan Heath.[1] 2008. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House, Inc.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When you write and speak so distinctly that—your words enter the dictionary; children grow up repeating your phrases; songwriters plagiarize your work; competing products leave the market; and everyone knows your name—you know that you have reached the Holy Grail of communication…the few, the chosen, the MarinesI had it my wayhave it your wayjlo…where entertainers and advertisers and politicians and marketing types all come together.

In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath write:

“We wrote this book to help you make your ideas stick. By ‘stick”, we mean that your ideas are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact—they change your audience’s opinions or behavior.” (8)

Catch the action words here—understand, remember, and change. Every therapist, teacher, and pastor holds these objectives, but seldom attains them. If you don’t believe me, pick up a pen and write down the main points of the last sermon that you heard—what? You can’t? The point here is that sticky is good.

Sticky is also hard.

The Heaths cite 6 principles of sticky ideas: they are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, [stimulate] Emotions, and [tell a] Story (14-18) which form acronym: SUCCESs. The core chapters of the Heath’s book concentrate on these 6 principles so let me briefly describe each in turn.

Simple. The Heath’s write:

“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.” (16)

Simple means that the core idea is obvious. The core idea could be the “commander’s intent”, if you are in the military, (26) or “the lead”, if you are a journalist, (30) or a memorable phrase like “It’s the economy, stupid”, if you are Bill Clinton running for president (33-34). The Heath’s write: “Core messages help people avoid bad choices by reminding them of what’s important.” (37) They expand saying: “Simple messages are core and compact” (46) which implies that simple messages need to remind you of something basic that you can remember—a metaphor (60). Think: “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” (Not a metaphor, but a simile but the idea is the same). Simple communicates because it is simple.

Unexpected. The Heath’s write:

“We need to violate people’s expectations. We need to be counterintuitive…For our idea to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity.” (16)

Surprise gets our attention; interest keeps it (65). The Heath’s advice sticky artists: “to break someone’s guessing machine and then fix it.” (71) Or, alternatively, to “open gaps” in people’s knowledge and then to “close them” (85). Gaps create curiosity, but only in learning new things are we able to close the gap.

Concrete. The Heath’s write:

“How do we make our ideas clear? We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information…Our brains are wired to remember concrete data.” (17)

They elaborate:

“…concreteness boils down to specific people doing specific things…World class customer service is abstract. A Nordie [Nordstrum’s employee] ironing a customer’s shirt is concrete.” (104) The concept of a Nordie doing outrageously good things for customers communicates customer service is a priority in a manner like an urban legend.

Credible. The Heath’s write: “Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials.” (17) Think: lots of gritty details.

Credibility is in the eye of the beholder. Still, we tend to believe our “family, personal experience, faith”, authorities with a “wall [which] is covered with framed credentials”, “celebrities and other aspirational figures”, and “anti-authorities” like the common person on the street (133-134). A Nordie is an anti-hero.

Emotions. The Heath’s write: “We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.” (18) They elaborate: “…the goal of making messages ‘emotional’ is to make people care. Feelings inspire people to act.” (169)

Story. The Heath’s write:

“How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories…mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment. Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulation, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.” (18)

They elaborate: “The story’s power, then, is twofold: It provides simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act).” (206)

Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick, communicates in mental pictures and stories what communicates—becomes an urban legend—and what only informs is relegated quickly to the circular file. One of my first applications of Made to Stick was borrow the story of tappers and listeners (tap out the beats to a song and have a friend try to guess the song; 19-20) as a warm-up exercise for a high school group. Anyone interested in communicating effectively will want to pay attention to this book. It is also great reading.



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