Made to Stick: SUCCES against the Curse of Knowledge

… people don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits.

They buy quarter-inch holes

so they can hang their children’s pictures.

‘Made to Stick’ by Chip and Dan Heath

A young and passionate CEO carefully crafts new strategy that will revolutionize the company standing and even the industry itself, yet his brilliant idea falls on the deaf ears of the stakeholders.

A dedicated scientist discovers a dead-sure cure for an untreatable disease, yet the scientific community dismisses the idea and leaves thousands of ill people in the dark although their lives could so easily have changed for better.

The marketing department of a food chain finds a customer success story that will make into a beautiful campaign for the brand, yet the management shrugs off the idea 15 minutes into the presentation.

It doesn’t have to be all that tragic, and contrary to what is seems, the actual villain here is not at all the thick-skinned management.

The Villain

So who actually dooms great ideas to be failed and forgotten? It’s time to introduce the first character of our story – behold, the Curse of Knowledge.

We know our idea (strategy, cure, success story, the list goes on) so well, that we cannot recall how it felt to ‘not know’. Simple as that. The picture is there in our mind, it’s perfectly clear and crisp, but in some bizarre way our audience falls short of understanding what it is that we want to say. The CEO talks about ’maximizing the shareholder value’. The idea is perfectly clear for the CEO and the management because they concentrate on the big picture. But will this lofty idea be meaningful to the staff? To contrast, take JFK making a call to ‘put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade’. No abstract talk about ‘maximizing the value of the outer space’, rather an understandable aim put in plain words (though it did sound like science fiction at first).

The idea of the Curse of Knowledge cannot actually be stressed enough for the content crowd. Why is that so? We know our content so well that we forget how it is to ‘not know’ and get bewildered when people cannot grasp our idea.

The Hero

As much as some of us hold a secret liking to villains, a story with a devious villain winning over and over again isn’t that interesting to make it into your personal Top 50 Stories of the Year. What we need here is some spice – someone who would keep our villain on their toes. What we need is a hero. The curtains unveil the SUCCES (not really what you would expect, especially with a typo, eh?).

What stands behind SUCCES is an approach suggested by Chip and Dan Heath in their book ‘Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and other die?’. We’re not talking about the usual sort of success-and-confidence-kit with ‘keep your eye contact’ and ‘imagine them wearing their underpants’. We’re talking about down-to-earth principles that can help transform a gloomy idea failure story into a captivating and inspiring idea success story. The solution is simple – making your ideas stick. And let me quote in here:

‘By “stick”, we mean that your ideas are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact – they change your audience’s opinions and behavior.’

Anyone working with content can definitely relate to the concept of ‘stickiness’. After all, what we’re all trying to do at the end of the day is to provide our audience with the content they need, understand, and remember, ultimately shaping how they perceive our brand and act on our products.

Breaking down the SUCCES

SUCCES stands for six principles that can help ideas stick with your audience and is short for Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, Stories.

Made to Stick: SUCCES principle

Let’s take a closer look.

S – Simple (to figure out what you want to say)

The more you say, the less people will hear. They will remember the last thing you said, the first thing you said (probably), and with some luck, several details in-between. That is why you need to make sure that you get across the most important information. So strip your idea down to its most essential and profound core (ideally, a one-sentence statement). Start talking with your lead – the core – and then expand on the core. Go down from the most important to the least important, from the general to the detailed.

U – Unexpected (to make your audience pay attention)

You know what you want to say, but how do you grab the attention of your audience? You can use surprise, but it won’t last long – a better way is to generate interest and curiosity. The solution is to break the people’s expectations by being counterintuitive & systematically revealing the gaps in their knowledge. Once you do that, help them fill these gaps.

C – Concrete (to make your audience understand and remember)

You’ve got their attention, but how do you make sure that they understand what it is you’re saying and will remember it the next day, in a week, or even in a month? Explain your ideas in terms of what people already know – concrete images, human actions, sensory information, familiar objects. To quote from Chip and Dan Heath, ‘Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions—they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images—ice-filled bathtubs, apples with razors—because our brains are wired to remember concrete data.’

Also, by being concrete, you make sure that your idea means the same to everyone in your audience.

C – Credible (to make your audience believe and agree)

To make ideas stick, you need to make people believe them (no one has issues believing a professional doctor talking about health-related stuff). But how do you make people believe your ideas if you can’t back them up with a regular authority?

There are five types of authority you can arm yourself with:

  • Antiauthority (think about chain smoker sharing about the adverse effects of smoking)
  • Details (the more details, the more convincing it seems)
  • Statistics & cold hard numbers (careful with this one, when getting into statistics it’s easy to lose track of what you’re really trying to get across)
  • Sinatra Test (if your idea is found credible in one area, people will consider it credible in all related areas)
  • Testable credentials and call for action (push your audience to check the credibility of your idea for themselves)

E – Emotional (to make your audience care)

To get people to understand and believe your ideas is one thing, to make people care is another. Caring is all about feeling. And people are wired to feel only for other people, not abstractions or statistics. They are also wired to feel for an individual rather than for a thousand people out there. The hard part in all this is finding the right emotion that you can tap into – confidence, hope, fear, resentment, and so on.

Similar to credibility, there are three ways to make your audience care:

  • Use the power of association (make your audience care for the idea by associating it with something they already care for)
  • Appeal to self-interest (don’t emphasize the features, emphasize the benefits and what’s in it for your audience)
  • Appeal to identity (reach your audience by appealing to their identity – values, morals, etc.)

S – Stories (to make your audience act)

With stories, you can make your audience act on your ideas. Think about doctors, firefighters, executives sharing stories about how they ran into trouble and how they got out of it. Listening to story is basically a mental rehearsal of the situation that helps us perform better when we actually encounter such situation in real life.

You can use three types of stories:

  • The Challenge plot – to help overcome obstacles
  • The Connection plot – to help get along or reconnect
  • The Creativity plot – to inspire a new way of thinking

Note from the author

made_to_stick_book_cover Made to Stick is one of those books where reading the summary is simply not enough. Not because reading the actual book is the ‘proper’ thing to do, but just because of the sheer amount of real-life stories about ideas failing and succeeding that are analyzed in the book (from PalmPilot invention and Texas anti-littering campaign to kidney heist urban legend and a lot more). Without all these details, reading only the summary is like hearing about how to ‘maximize idea value’. On a side note, one of the authors, Chip Heath, actually teaches a course at Stanford about making the ideas stick – that’s just to give you an idea about the amount of research put in there.

A disclaimer though: if you do read the book, you won’t stop at reading it once. It addresses a topic so fundamental that you keep returning to time and again regardless of your age, experience, and current job title. So heads up and enjoy the good read!

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