Want your stories to succeed? Build them on ideas that “stick,” say Chip and Dan Health

I often blog on issues pertaining to stories and storytelling. But thus far, we haven’t discussed much about what constitutes a good (or compelling) story.

Thirteen years ago, Chip Heath (a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford University) and his brother, Dan Heath (a senior fellow in social entrepreneurship at Duke University), combined their research interests and wrote Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck (London: Penguin/Arrow, 2007).

The book, which has fascinated entrepreneurs, authors from multiple fields, researchers and academics alike, asserts one overarching tenet: Thinking, writing and other story-based endeavours that provide “sticky ideas” (i.e. ideas that succeed by becoming popular and influential in contemporary culture) all exhibit the following six principles (“SUCCES”): 
1. They are simple.
2. They are unexpected.
3. They are concrete.
4. They are credible.
5. They are emotional.
6. They have the structure of a story.
The Heaths say that the extent to which ideas are interesting (“Are ideas born interesting or made interesting?”) conforms to the ol’ nature vs. nurture debate. Say the Heaths: “This is a nurture book.”

So we can all nurture our ideas so that they’ll become successful in the world.  Right.

But it’s not that easy, is it, or we’d all already be doing it (and often)?

The Heaths qualify that “there is no ‘formula’ for a sticky idea. . . . But sticky ideas do draw from [this] common set of traits [SUCCES], which makes them more likely to succeed.”

(1) To aim for simplicity is not to “say it short,” but to craft our ideas to be “both simple and profound.” This amounts to crafting “a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.” Think “proverb,” not “sound bite.” Consider Pareto’s Law, that (I paraphrase here) “80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes” (an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs).

(2) To aim for unexpectedness, we have to get our prospects’ (or readers’) attention, keep their interest and raise curiosity for the time it takes to get our ideas across.
An unexpected idea must “violate people’s expectations.” It has to be counterintuitive (e.g. the idea that a bag of movie theatre popcorn is “as unhealthy as a whole day’s worth of fatty foods” [16]). We can engage people’s curiosity over longer periods of time by “systematically opening gaps in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.”

(3) To aim for concreteness, we have to make our ideas clear by explaining them in terms of human action that involves sensory information. For instance, the urban legend that people were inserting razors in apples to poison children on Hallowe’en is compelling because it is concrete and “our brains are wired to remember concrete data.” Concrete language is needed if our idea is going to “mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.”

(4) To aim for credibility, our “sticky ideas” have to carry their own authority. The Heaths cite presidential candidate Ronald Reagan as asking voters a simple question (to win the presidential debate against Jimmy Carter) that allowed voters to test the idea for themselves and find it credible: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”

(5) To make an idea sticky, we have to make our audience feel something and to feel it “for people, not for abstractions.” It can be hard to find “the right emotion to harness.” The Heaths say it wouldn’t work to persuade teenagers to stop smoking by trying to trigger fears for the consequences. But if you “tap into their resentment of the duplicity of Big Tobacco,” you could cause that tide to turn (18).

(6) To persuade people to act on our ideas, we have to tell stories about them. The Heaths say that firefighters exchange stories after every fire they fight, because doing so creates “a more complete mental catalog of critical situations” they may face, so that they will know how to respond.
Researchers have found that mentally rehearsing such situations (in many fields of endeavour) helps us to perform better. And hearing stories “acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively” (18).
Contrary to the average person’s expectations, we don’t need any particular education or expertise to use these six principles. The Heaths remark that many of these principles “have a common-sense ring to them” (18).

But the reality that we are not swimming in brilliantly designed stories, filled with sticky ideas, is due to what the Heaths call “the Curse of Knowledge” (19), the fact that “once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us.” The problem that results is that we find it hard to share our knowledge with others, because we “can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind” (20). I’d call this a limit of empathy that can occur when we try to share knowledge.

The only reliable way to beat this “curse of knowledge,” the Heaths say, is (1) not to learn anything—(generally not a good idea); and (2) to take your ideas and transform them, using the six principles of SUCCES.

So instead of droning on like a CEO about the importance of “maximizing shareholder value,” JFK in 1961 famously shared his idea (story, really) for an American moon mission, saying his country’s goal (as a culture) was “to put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade” (21). This idea (expressed as a story) checks off all the boxes of SUCCES and escaped the “curse of knowledge.”

The story, the Heaths observe, “motivated the actions of millions of people for a decade.” JFK was more intuitive as a leader than the average CEO is,

operating today. JFK’s story stuck.

The Heaths say that we needn’t be highly creative to create sticky ideas—such stories can be systematically produced. A “paint-by-numbers” approach [including the six factors of SUCCES] will achieve more creative results than a “blank canvas” will.

So we all can create “sticky ideas” and stories that help us succeed at what we do. “Normal people in normal situations can make a profound difference using their sticky idea” (289).

Use stories that stick.

Made to Stick has many more, illuminating stories and examples that nuance their six principles and give ordinary readers further substance to contemplate. If you work creatively in any industry (and who doesn’t?), take the time to buy this book and mark it up!

Make it your creative Bible for your next media release, testimonial, blog posting or other story/copy—or hire me to do that for you!

And now it’s your turn: Can you meditate on your latest project and how it  bears out the Heaths’ six “sticky” principles? How can you strengthen your stories to reflect them?

The implications are profound—this is much more than just a great ‘summer read.’