“Made to Stick” Identifies Six Principles of “Stickiness” that Help Make Your Presentations, Products, and Advertisements More Memorable (Part II)
This is the second in a two-part review of Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick. To read part one, click here.
Some ideas are memorable, or “sticky.” Most are are not.
That has as much to do with the audience as with the speaker. Most people think of the memory as a file cabinet, a tidy place where we store facts and ideas.
According to the Heath brothers, however, our memories are more like Velcro.
Your audience is primed to remember certain types of information. They each have “loops” that you’ll want your message to “hook,” if you want it to stick. A watermelon is easy to remember, because it has so many hooks—taste, color, smell, a hot summer afternoon crunching into a river-cooled wedge.
In fact, you may be thinking about delicious watermelon for the rest of the day, because Velcro.
The credit card number you used to buy that watermelon? You’re lucky if it has one hook (perhaps a birth date?) for which your memory is primed.
It’s up to you, the speaker, presenter, boss, or motivational speaker, to create hooks that work, and make your message as sticky as possible. Not just for clients! Your company may have spent millions analyzing the needs and desires of potential customers, but your employees are also human beings. They will remember what’s said in staff meeting if you keep things sticky.
Make it a habit.
The Heaths identified six principles of stickiness, made more memorable with their clever acronym, SUCCES: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, Stories. Today, we’ll look at the final three.
You are more likely to remember information from a credible source. And that’s not always an expert—hundreds of thousands of US citizens believe vaccines cause autism, though most traditionally credible sources (doctors, scientists, and the CDC) agree that they do not.
What makes a message credible?
While experts and authority figures work well when demonstrating credibility, your audience may find an “antiauthority,” someone who is not part of the establishment, even more credible.
“It can be the honesty and trustworthiness of our sources, not just their status, that allows them to act as authorities,” write the Heaths.
Their example is Pam Laffin, a cigarette smoker who starred in an effective 1993 anti-smoking campaign, while dying of emphysema. She wasn’t a Surgeon General, representing a medical establishment that had once lied to protect tobacco profits. She was a smoker, like her target audience.
Anti-vaccine activists are similar: They are parents, not doctors, and many (including actress Jenny McCarthy) have children who were diagnosed with autism after being vaccinated. They may not be correct, but they are truthful, and passionate. And therefore credible.
The book suggests other ways to establish credibility.
One is by using detail: Even when a story is entirely fabricated, if it includes more detail than the true version, people will be more likely to believe it. Examples also establish credibility, while reinforcing the “concrete” aspects of your story. Statistics, though easily forgotten, add heft to your point. It’s easier to lie without statistics than with them.
If you want people to remember those statistics, or any string of numbers, try explaining them at a human scale. For instance, you probably don’t remember much about quantum mechanics, except, perhaps, Schrödinger’s Cat. This is a world primed with Maru videos to remember cats and boxes, rather than long mathematical equations.
If you remember enough physics to find this meme amusing, your high school teacher won.
Finally, you can use the Sinatra Test. If you can show that you’ve made it “there” and can therefore make it anywhere. The example given is Safexpress, a small, family-run delivery business in India that charges more for a guarantee of safe, on-time deliveries.
When a major Bollywood studio asked them to justify their prices, they could have said, “98.84% of our deliveries arrive on time.” Instead, the CEO replied that they had been entrusted with delivering Harry Potter books to stores all over India on the morning of their release. That’s credibility.
Emotions are tied to the Velcro of your memory using hooks we don’t quite understand. And each person—more to the point in marketing, each group of people—is affected by different emotions in different ways.
You not only need to make an emotional appeal, but also cater to your audience.
For instance, when the American Legacy Corporation got the go-ahead to make a series of powerful anti-smoking commercials targeting teens, they could have chosen fear (of a cancerous death), sadness (loss of a relative), or guilt (spreading cancer with second-hand smoke). Instead, they came up with this:
The advertisement used classic teenage rebellion against authority to create one of the most memorable PSAs ever.
Emotional appeal is also why it is so important to avoid clichés. Perhaps you want employees to “hit the ground running,” or voters to refrain from “drinking the Kool-Aid.” But those phrases have lost their emotional impact through overuse, and your audience will be too busy rolling their eyes to remember anything.
The most popular emotional appeal is to personal self-interest, but it may be more complicated than you think.
The Heaths quote veteran copywriter John Caples as saying “First and foremost, try to get self-interest into every headline you write.” Say “you benefit” instead of “people benefit.” Don’t sell drills, sell photos of children hanging perfectly on the wall.
That’s absolutely true—to a point. Research shows that your audience believes that personal self-interest guides others, but the needs of the group, perhaps all of humanity, guide many decisions. For example, an unemployed Republican, or business-owning Democrat, will vote against their own self-interests in order to support their group.
People ask themselves, “What would someone like me do?”
In fact, while most advertisers are happy to appeal to naked self-interest, there’s evidence that the stickiest emotional appeals are those that, well, teach the world to sing. In perfect harmony.
“Or cry. Go ahead, let it out. And when you remember this commercial tomorrow, though it wasn’t even in English, you’ll understand.”
Our core belief here at Chainsaw Communications is that story is the best way to make an idea stick. The Heaths concur.
Why do we tell stories? They are almost always designed to both entertain and inform. As noted in the previous blog, some of the stickiest ideas in human history are religious tales from Abraham to Zeus, and secular stories such as Aesop’s Fables. The common thread is that they both entertain and instruct.
Everyday storytellers subconsciously do the same thing. Whether gossiping or talking shop, people tend to weave instruction and morals into each otherwise engaging tale. This is how humanity has evolved to share information, and process it as well.
When you hear a well-told, relevant story, you actually simulate the experience in your brain. According to the Heaths, simply meditating on tasks such as playing trombone or throwing darts improves performance, about two-thirds as much as physical practice.
“Stories,” they write, “are like flight simulators for the brain.”
If you’re a certain age, perhaps you remember Subway’s national campaign promoting their low-fat sandwiches, “7 Under 6.” Seven sandwiches that had less than six grams of fat!
Or, perhaps you remember the local Chicago campaign, which promoted the same low-fat subs using one of their real customers, a young man named Jared.
A Subway franchise owner, Bob Ocwieja, noticed Jared losing weight—245lb all total—eating their sandwiches almost every day. He thought Jared’s story would make a great commercial. Top brass disagreed and went the professional PR campaign, “7 Under 6.” So, Ocwieja filmed his own 30-second spot. The rest, as they say, is history.
The message is the same—Subway, unlike other fast food chains, offers several low-fat options. Jared’s story hooks into our mental Velcro, primed with dozens of diets over a lifetime, inspirationally.
Which brings up another key point: You don’t usually need to make up stories. It’s better to simply spot them. There are several templates for plots that intrigue, inspire, and stick with the audience, but it’s up to the presenter to observe and identify a story that works. So stay alert.
Like the other five principles of stickiness, the story helps you step beyond the Curse of Knowledge. Most people don’t know how many grams of fat a sandwich is supposed to have. But with very few exceptions, they all know how good it feels to lose a few pounds. It’s an idea that sticks.