A True Story…
After a long day facilitating a successful strategic planning meeting at a New Orleans non-profit organization last month, I celebrated with a cold pint at the hotel bar at 5:30 p.m. The next thing that I remembered was waking up shivering cold at midnight in the ice-cube filled tub in my brightly lit hotel bathroom. Chances are you know the rest of the story in vivid detail. If you don’t know it, the urban legend de-bunking website Snopes can enlighten.
What Do The Ice-Filled Bathtub and Subway Sandwich Jared Have In Common?
It’s frustrating that most of us can remember lurid urban legends quite easily even years later, but can’t recall much from the power point presentation we sat through last week. After opening the book with their version of the oft-told ice-filled bathtub tale, authors Chip and Dan Heath spend the remainder of the book breaking down the formula for communication “stickiness.” Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die explains with statistics and stories why some ideas ideas and memes are so likely to spread like a virus, (whether good or bad; true or untrue). Cue up concepts like Jared losing weight with Subway sandwiches, Nordstrom’s renowned first-class customer service, and any number of parables and proverbs peppered throughout. Surprisingly, the “stickiness” of an idea may have less to do with the smooth speaking or writing skills of the communicator and more to do with avoiding pitfalls such as the “Curse of Knowledge.”
The Curse of Knowledge
You’ve been working on a project for a month, and finally give a polished summary presentation, yet nobody seems to really get it. You feel frustrated and can’t understand why. Shouldn’t your point have been obvious? The Heath brothers explain that our expertise and enthusiasm can often be a hindrance to sharing ideas effectively. The “Curse of Knowledge” makes communicators overestimate how much of the story connects with the listener.
Try this experiment at home….
Stanford Ph.d. researcher Elizabeth Newton* had “tappers” tap on the table 120 common songs such as “Happy Birthday” and “The Star Spangled Banner” and asked “listeners” to guess the title. Before the experiment began, tappers estimated that half of the songs would be correctly guessed. But the actual number of correct guesses was only 3 out of 120, not 60! Most of the tappers were shocked at the inability of the listeners to identify the tunes. That’s because they were tapping with the song title and melody already in their head. Go ahead and try, it’s impossible not to hear it “Happy Birthday” in your mind as you tap. However, from the listeners’ perspective it is just a bunch of disconnected beats. This is because once we have information, it’s nearly impossible (or perhaps undesirable) to “unlearn” the context and place ourselves back in the mindset of the new learner. We literally can’t imagine what it’s like to “not know” the information. “The Curse of Knowledge” is the first of several hurdles to effective communication that the Heath brothers identify and help us to navigate by using their SUCCESs model.
Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotion, Stories
Simple. Focus on the core of the idea, ruthlessly stripping away anything extraneous. Simplicity isn’t for simpletons, it’s actually quite challenging to achieve. If you convey ten points, you convey none. For Southwest, it is being the low cost airline.
Unexpected. Next, find something that is counterintuitive about the core. Get people’s attention by creating a knowledge gap that breaks their “guessing machines. Create a mystery then solve it. Jared lost weight eating Subway Sandwiches? Hippos and deer kill more people than sharks and bears? Really?
Concrete. Share your idea in concrete terms, using vivid sensory words. Avoid abstraction, which is hard to digest, and easy to misinterpret. The foxes, lions, and mice in Aesop’s fables were able to teach us profound lessons about the rich complexity of human behavior.
Credible . Increase belief. Cite authorities, “anti-authorities,” figures and statistics, but make the numbers accessible on a human scale. Say “enough pizza for everyone in Rhode Island to have a lunch,” instead of “ten tons of pizza.”
Emotional. Connect your idea to something the listener already cares about. Create emotion on a meaningful human scale. Research on charity shows that we are more likely to contribute to a single individual than to an entire nation, no matter how deserving.
Story. Wrapping everything into a story brings all the “sticky” factors above to life, integrating them in a way that people can remember and share with others. Stories are a mental dress rehearsal to inspire and empower us to act when we encounter similar situations ourselves in the future. “If the little child can point out that the emperor has no new clothes, then so can I.”
The beauty of Made to Stick is that it demystifies “innate creativity” as the sole well-spring of effective communications. The Heath brothers show how any of us can better identify and share the potentially sticky ideas that are around us, just waiting to be discovered. The SUCCESs model challenges all of us to reconsider our personal and professional communications in a way that will really stick! Made to Stick is not a one-time read, it is a reference source to return to again and again.
*Newton, L., 1990. Overconfidence in the communication of intent: Heard and unheard melodies. unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA