Saturday, May 1, 2010

Made to Stick - A Formula for SUCCESs

Most business prose can at best be deemed professional and at worst mind-numbingly dull. If you contrast this with proverbs, urban legends, and other popular messages that resonate seemingly on their own you have to wonder – what makes some ideas survive while others wither and die? It's this question that Chip and Dan Heath answer in Made to Stick.  (What follows is not a review but rather just my notes on the book.)

The answer is SUCCESs: Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Stories

Simple pertains to the forced prioritization (like the lead in a newspaper story) of your message to its core. Simple includes compactness, the elimination of secondary and tertiary points (“If you've said three things you've said nothing.”). Simple doesn't mean simplistic. You can make your message profound and complex by tapping the audience's memory through the use of layered schemas (things they already know). Furthermore, good metaphors are generative in that they inspire novel thinking.

Unexpected messages get our attention by surprising us (by breaking our guessing machine). The surprise must support your core message and must make sense when your audience thinks about it (not surprise for surprise's sake). These surprises hold the audience's enduring interest on the journey from mystery to understanding. Curiosity exists when there's a gap in our knowledge but that's a problem because people think they know more than they actually know.

A concrete message avoids the abstraction of language and eliminates cultural differences in interpretation. Using concreteness as a foundation for abstraction is a basic principle of understanding. This is where the Curse of Knowledge comes into play as experts tend to overuse abstractions because they've forgotten what it's like to not understand. Concrete does not mean “dumb down”. Instead it means to find a universal language which everyone understands; no doubt this will be concrete.

Ideas become credible through celebrity, authority, or even anti-authority endorsements. Application of vivid details further enhances credibility, but one must be careful to reduce the details to “human scale”. Credentials become stickier when the audience can test them for themselves.

Emotion makes people care. This is important because they won't act until they care. Emotion is important also because too heavy a reliance on data makes your audience more analytical and less likely to act (i.e. cold). You don't have to create this emotion from scratch. Instead you can piggyback on an idea they already care about; and one thing that people care about a lot is themselves. Therefore, engage WIIFY: what's in it for you. You should be aware of and appeal to the two models of decision making: analytical (what is the best choice?) and identity (what would a person like me do?).

A credible idea makes people believe, an emotional idea makes people care, and the right story makes people act. By putting knowledge into a framework, stories become like a flight simulator for the brain, making the audience act or at least think about how they'd act. By creating a story that illustrates overcoming a challenge, bridging a gap, or solving a problem the audience is engaged on your side instead of evaluating an analytical argument that almost makes them an opponent.

Summary: For an idea to stick with an audience it must be simple, it must be unexpected so they pay attention, it must be concrete so they understand and remember, it must be credible so they agree and believe, it must be emotional so they care, and it must delivered as a story so they are able to act. But beware the curse of knowledge which can render everything useless.

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