Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Book Review: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

By Stephen Northcutt

As you read below you will get a pretty good idea of why some ideas stick and how to improve the odds, but I am wondering why some books stick in terms of book reviews. This one picked up a lot of blog interest, some of the best points are shown below.

Here is a sample story from the book's web site illustrating stickiness; a researcher named Silverman discovered movie popcorn was really bad for you, the coconut oil had way too much fat. However, no one listened, so he got sticky:

CSPI called a press conference on September 27, 1992. Here's the message it presented: "A medium-sized 'butter' popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined!"

The folks at CSPI didn't neglect the visuals — they laid out the full buffet of greasy food for the television cameras. An entire day's worth of unhealthy eating, displayed on a table. All that saturated fat stuffed into a single bag of popcorn.

The story was an immediate sensation, featured on CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN. It made the front pages of USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post's Style section. Leno and Letterman cracked jokes about fat-soaked popcorn, and headline writers trotted out some doozies: "Popcorn Gets an 'R' Rating," "Lights, Action, Cholesterol!" "Theater Popcorn is Double Feature of Fat."

The idea stuck. Moviegoers, repulsed by these findings, avoided popcorn in droves. Sales plunged. The service staff at movie houses grew accustomed to fielding questions about whether the popcorn was popped in the "bad" oil. Soon after, most of the nation's biggest theater chains - including United Artists, AMC, and Loews - announced that they would stop using coconut oil.[1]

The formula for stickiness: Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Stories (SUCCES).
  • Simplicity: “It’s hard to make ideas stick in a noisy, unpredictable, chaotic environment. If we’re to succeed, the first step is this: Be simple. Not simple in terms of ‘dumbing down’ or ‘sound bites.’ What we mean by ‘simple’ is finding the core of the idea. ‘Finding the core’ means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence.”[2]
  • Unexpectedness: Use surprising statistics to wake up a meeting and then generate interest and curiosity.
  • Concreteness: Explain ideas in terms of human actions and speak in concrete language. An example of abstract thought in concrete language is “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Use terms that will mean the same thing to everyone in the audience.
  • Credibility: Ideas have to carry their own credentials. Instead of simply presenting hard numbers, make data accessible and understandable. [3]
  • Emotions: We are wired to feel things for people, not abstractions. Make people care about the idea by appealing to their emotions. Urban legends specialize in creating emotion. In research conducted with Chris Bell and Emily Sternberg at Duke University, we studied a sample of more than 100 legends that we selected because they had emotional content. When we measured the emotional impact of the legends, it turned out people wanted to retell the stories that were more emotion-provoking. When we altered the legends to make them more emotional, people became more willing to tell them. And when we measured the distribution of the legends on the Internet, legends that provoked more emotion were the most widely distributed. The emotional quotient is key to helping ideas propagate and survive.[4]
  • Stories: People respond to narrative tales. Putting an idea into the context of a story will draw in the listener and help him remember the idea.[3]

Four things to avoid when trying to create sticky communications:
  1. Getting lost in the information or data and losing sight of the core idea – or burying the lead.
  2. Focusing on the presentation rather than on the message – style over substance.
  3. Feeling trapped by too many choices or ambiguous situations – decision paralysis
  4. The curse of knowledge[5]"
"This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path."[6]

"It’s why engineers design products ultimately useful only to other engineers. It’s why managers have trouble convincing the rank and file to adopt new processes. And it’s why the advertising world struggles to convey commercial messages to consumers “I HAVE a DVD remote control with 52 buttons on it, and every one of them is there because some engineer along the line knew how to use that button and believed I would want to use it, too,” Mr. Heath says. “People who design products are experts cursed by their knowledge, and they can’t imagine what it’s like to be as ignorant as the rest of us.”[6]

Two powerful takeaways:

  • There is a difference between understanding and caring. You may be great at helping people understand, but you need to make them care in order to really engage them. To do this, appeal to a person's identity and self-interest. Consider the question: What's In It For Me? (WIIFM).
  • Use the power of idea spotting. You don't have to create sticky ideas, you just need to be able to spot one when it comes along and share it. Use your "Core Idea Glasses" to filter the world down to what ideas match with your core message.[7]

The power of urban legends

Urban legends do not have a budget, they are usually not written by someone with a marketing degree and, yet, they can have as much impact as organization messages with major budgets. Imagine what happens when you have a commercial message that adheres to the sticky concepts.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, the tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating came under attack. Rumors circulated about Halloween sadists who put razor blades in apples and booby-trapped pieces of candy. The rumors affected the Halloween tradition nationwide. Parents carefully examined their children’s candy bags. Schools opened their doors at night so that kids could trick-or-treat in a safe environment. Hospitals volunteered to X-ray candy bags.

In 1985, an ABC News poll showed that 60 percent of parents worried that their children might be victimized. To this day, many parents warn their children not to eat any snacks that aren’t prepackaged. This is a sad story: a family holiday sullied by bad people who, inexplicably, wish to harm children. But in 1985 the story took a strange twist. Researchers discovered something shocking about the candy-tampering epidemic: It was a myth.

The researchers, sociologists Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi, studied every reported Halloween incident since 1958. They found no instances where strangers caused children life-threatening harm on Halloween by tampering with their candy.

Two children did die on Halloween, but their deaths weren’t caused by strangers. A five-year-old boy found his uncle’s heroin stash and overdosed. His relatives initially tried to cover their tracks by sprinkling heroin on his candy. In another case, a father, hoping to collect on an insurance settlement, caused the death of his own son by contaminating his candy with cyanide.

In other words, the best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly okay. It’s your family you should worry about.

The candy-tampering story has changed the behavior of millions of parents over the past thirty years. Sadly, it has made neighbors suspicious of neighbors. It has even changed the laws of this country: Both California and New Jersey passed laws that carry special penalties for candy-tamperers. Why was this idea so successful?"[8]

Be alert to the difference between abstract and concrete communication
Abstract language refers to things that cannot be perceived by the senses, truth, justice and the American way. Concrete communications are things you can touch, see, smell and taste [bitter, sweet, greasy].[9]

During December 2007, the Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) passed a major milestone: they passed the 20,000 mark in awarding certifications. The simple concept is that GIAC can no longer be considered boutique, it needs to be considered a signficant computer security certification. It is also a surprising fact. A number of articles have been written on computer security certification that neglect to mention GIAC or barely mention GIAC. So, a simple and surprising statement might be:

"Join the 20,000 GIAC certified security professionals" or even "GIAC, over twenty thousand strong"

How can we weave concrete in to this fact? What senses can we use?
"When I recevied my newly minted business cards and opened the top of the box and saw the GIAC logo I was touched, I knew I was a part of a community of twenty thousand security professionals."

What can we do to make add the credibility factor?

"When I arrived at the job interview, I handed the hiring manager my resume with my business card paper clipped to it. When he saw the GIAC logo he nodded, he knew I was a part of a community of twenty thousand security professionals that had proven they could get the job done. Needless to say, I was offered a position."

Emotion? Can we make it more like a story?

"The company I was working for ended up having massive layoffs as part of the subprime mortgage fallout. I had just gotten married and we had bought a house, so I needed to find a new job quickly. When I arrived at the job interview, I handed the hiring manager my resume with my business card paper clipped to it. When he saw the GIAC logo he smiled and quietly said, "I have my GIAC GCIA, that was back when they still had the practical requirement." From that moment on there was a link between us; he knew I was a part of a community of twenty thousand security professionals that had proven they could get the job done. Needless to say, I was offered a position."

All URLs visited December 31, 2007