Made to Stick- a framework for sticky content

Welcome to our inaugural book summary, where we summarize a book every communicator should read to help them create sticky content. Through our book summaries, we hope to introduce you to important books in communication, science communication, social science and more.

Cover of the book Made to Stick

When an idea or a fact is communicated with someone, it is registered in their short term memory. Our short term memory retains information no longer than a mere 30 seconds (Huffman, Dowdell, Sanderson, 2018).  Yet, some ideas or facts leave a lasting impression for weeks or even years. What makes these memorable ideas or facts different? The answer is, they are communicated in a way that makes them “stick” to our brains.

In the book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath offer strategies for creating memorable and impactful messages. The authors propose that “sticky” messages have 6 key features: they are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and tell a story. Using real-life examples, Heath brothers demonstrate effective ways to utilize these features in order to grab and retain the attention of an audience’s interest.     

Sticky content feature 1-Strip and Simplify

When communicating their messages, many tend to be descriptive and detailed. While there are good intentions in this way of communicating, the audience will be distracted by an overload of information, and may miss the main point of the message. The Heath brothers compare this issue to a common practice by journalists where they bury the main message in a shroud of detail.  

So how can one avoid sacrificing the main point of a message to ensure it is noticed and remembered? The solution Heath brothers propose is to make the message “simple”. To make the message simple, one should communicate the core of the message while making it concrete. To reach the core of the message, one must prioritize what to include while discarding information that may distract the audience. 

How can one communicate effectively with such a limited message? This brings us to the second part of the solution: we must make the message concrete utilizing associations and schemas. Associations and schemas are much like archetypes and stereotypes, in which much of the population is aware of certain ideas because they are so familiar with them. We can efficiently make an idea stick by associating it with something already familiar to the audience.

An example that the Heath brothers use is to introduce an audience to Pomelo, a fruit with which many are unfamiliar. The authors propose to associate Pomelo with a familiar fruit, such as a grapefruit.  Due to the associations and existing schemas, this unfamiliar fruit is now familiar and tangible.   

Sticky content feature 2-Surprise! And Mystery?

Currently, car commercials have become predictable. Once we see the vehicles cruising a windy road, our brains are tranquilized and the commercial’s message fails to stick. But what would happen if a normal looking car advertisement broke that archetype? According to the authors, this is exactly what the Ad Council did in their PSA regarding the need to use seatbelts. The PSA starts out normal, a smiling family packed into a minivan, but as they pass an intersection there is a terrifying collision. This unexpected outcome captures the attention of the viewer, and since the ad breaks their schemas about car commercials, they are more likely to remember the message.

The Ad Council PSA is one example of how to not only grab the audience’s attention, but to make the message stick. The PSA manages to present the audience with an unfamiliar stimulus, and breaks them out of the hypnotic trance that is routine and gimmickry. 

If a way to interest a viewer is to break their schemas, how can one keep their attention past the initial surprise? A solution, according to the authors, is to create a mystery and an unexpected journey where the audience is striving to fill their knowledge gaps and achieve closure. By creating a mystery, the audience’s interest can be sustained for a longer time.  One example of using this strategy was an astronomer who wrote an article which asked “What are the rings of Saturn made of?” and sustained the audience’s attention by unfolding the answer like the plot of a mystery. Sometimes there would be leads or dead ends, but by the end of the article the reader is curious for an answer. By making the article into a mystery the writer managed to grasp and keep the reader’s attention. 

Sticky content feature 3-Strive for the Tangible

Imagine trying to teach calculus to a room full of middle school students. If you started with differentiation and explained that it is the process of finding the rate of change,  you’ve already lost the interest of half of the room. But if you compared the jargon term “rate of change” with something more familiar like how many miles they can travel on their bikes per hour, they can imagine the situation and better understand the concept. This is an example of comparing abstract versus concrete ideas. Plain jargon has no meaning to the students, but utilizing bike riding makes the term more tangible and easier to grasp.

Concreteness can also be achieved if we include the viewers’ senses, and help them visualize the idea.  The Heath brothers provide an example where the consulting company Stone Yamashita helped the technology company HP to gain a partnership with Disney theme parks. Instead of creating a Powerpoint presentation about HP’s products, Yamashita built an exhibit about a fictitious family and their experience with HP’s products as they enjoyed Disneyland. The immersive exhibit showed how each product would be connected to the family, and would aid in bettering their experience at the theme park. By making this “intense sensory experience” Yamashita illustrated, in concrete terms,  the potential of the HP products to Disney executives. This example, much like teaching calculus, shows that taking advantage of the senses and familiar experiences can help an idea become concrete and understandable.

Sticky content feature 4- Validate the message

Another important aspect of getting ideas to stick is to get the audience to believe in the message. To accomplish this, the message would need either external or internal credibility.

External credibility refers to an external credible source, like an authority or anti authoritative figure whose opinion gives the message weight. When we think of an authoritative figures, this is anyone we look up to such as a celebrity or an accomplished scholar. Anti Authorities on the other hand, gain their credibility not from notoriety but from having experienced something first hand. For example, Pam Laffin, a spokeswoman for an antismoking ad, was not a clinical expert but a victim of irreversible damage by smoking. 

Internal credibility depends more on the viewers’ reactions to certain details of the idea, which is more subtle and relies on the audience’s senses. Data visualization is one example of internal credibility, where visual and sensory simulation is used to help an audience sense the impact of statistical information. Putting in the effort to make an idea credible and more tangible increases its impact and helps make it stick. 

Sticky content feature 5- It’s personal.

Emotions drive many of our daily decisions, especially in situations where the experience is made personal. This is demonstrated really well by the example Heath brothers provide about a children’s charity sending donation request letters. Two versions of the letter were sent, one focusing on sharing statistics about child poverty, the other focusing on a single child named Rokia. The latter donation request led to twice as much donation per donor than the former: it’s easier to see and connect with the suffering of one individual person rather than with pure statistics. 

Another example that Heath brothers share is a cable company surveying homeowners about their desire to sign up for their services.  The message about the benefits of signing up for cable was written in two different formats. One version emphasized the benefits for homeowners in general, and the other addressed the message directly to the individual homeowner by using the word “you”. Even though both messages highlighted the exact same benefits, the more personalized message led to more than 50% higher rate of cable subscriptions.

Take home message: involve your audience’s emotions and make your message personal.

Sticky content feature 6- Tell a Story

Stories communicate a message or teaching in a more engaging contextualized format. This is why stories have been a major means of communicating information for thousands of years. Aside from a learning-experience, stories can also inspire the listeners to take action by describing the challenges a protagonist faces and what they do to overcome them.   So, when possible, find a story about your message, or statistics, or research rather than share information that lacks context, and is devoid of emotional impact.  

In closing

I hope this summary helps you craft better and more memorable sticky content.  I have done my best to do this book justice, but it is nothing like reading the whole book. The Heath brothers offer many more examples and share advice on creating and spotting sticky content. 

Hope this blog post was sticky enough to make you want to share it!

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