A while ago, I made a summary of the tipping point where Malcolm Gladwell explains how and why some ideas tip and spread like wildfire. He introduced the stickiness factor and said that if you want your idea to spread, first, you have to make sure that it sticks. But this question remained unanswered. “How would a good sticky idea look like?” In 1961, John F. Kennedy proposed that our nation put a man on the moon and return him safely within a decade. Now, that was a sticky idea and changed the behavior of so many people. In this book called Made to Stick, Chip Heath gives us the six traits of sticky ideas. They are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and stories put into an acronym as SUCCES. To give you a sense of what they like, let's look at them in the context of man on the moon. That was a simple idea, a kid could understand that. It was unexpected, it sounded like science fiction at the time and got massive attention. It was a concrete idea because you can picture the success in exactly the same way. It was credible since it was coming out of the mouth of a president. It was an emotional idea since it appealed to the desire to beat others. And it was a story of accepting a challenge. The process of making your idea sticky is building these traits into your idea. Let's examine each one.
The first one is simplicity. When it comes to stickiness, too much detail is counter-productive. If you say 10 things, you say nothing. Instead, find the core message and cut the idea to just one simple easy-to-grasp statement. Journalists have to master this skill to come up with good headlines that grab the reader’s attention and convey the meaning of an entire article in just a few words. They know a bad headline can prevent a great article from getting the attention it deserves. Another example is the Southwest slogan of “the low-fare airline.” A catchy statement like this will stick, and if you want to get your ideas to stick, find the core essence of your message and focus on it.
The second principle of sticky ideas is that they are unexpected. They surprise us and get our attention. “You only use 10 percent of your brain.” You probably have heard this before. It's absolutely wrong and there is no reason why it circulates besides the fact that it is surprising. Like, wow, I thought the brain was more important than that. To get somebody's attention, all you have to do is to break a pattern. We all have patterns in our minds. If I tell you a friend of mine is on a diet, what is my friend eating? Lettuce salad, carrot,…. Is this what's in your mind? And then I say, no, no, no, my friend not on that diet. He's on this diet. Atkins diet. They never spend money to advertise this diet because word of their diet circulated like an urban legend, just because it blew the pattern that we have in our mind about a diet. By presenting your ideas in an unexpected way, make sure it will get the attention it deserves.
Sticky ideas are also concrete. In other words, they call up a picture in your mind. This is not rocket science and the reason we don't see more sticky ideas around is because of a problem called the curse of knowledge. As we become more expert in our domain, it becomes harder and harder for us to picture what it's like not to have the expertise that we have. Experts think abstractly, but what everyone else needs to hear is a concrete message, something that they can picture in their mind. If it makes you see something, feel something, that idea is concrete, it's tangible. The more concrete and better describe an idea is, the more likely it will stick and be passed on.
Sticky ideas are credible. In general, if you want an idea to spread, you first need to make sure that it's believed. This can be done in several ways. One way is to have experts back it up. Another way is to use real facts and figures to illustrate the point. Just make sure to avoid any abstractions here. Using the audience itself as a reference is another good way to gain credibility. When Ronald Reagan ran for the presidency, he used the following slogan, “Ask yourself, are you better off now than you were four years ago?” This directly addresses voters and they can come up with an answer of their own. People often trust their own judgment more than experts. So if the audience can personally verify your message, it is particularly credible.
Sticky ideas are also emotional. Emotions are the main driving force behind human behavior, and if you want to get people to take action, the message needs to appeal directly to the emotions. An anti-smoking campaign will make a bigger impact if it shows pictures of people whose lives and bodies have been destroyed by cigarettes. These types of pictures appeal to emotions while facts and figures barely have any emotional effect. So focus on emotional triggers rather than dry facts when presenting an idea.
Sticky ideas come in the form of stories. We still telling Aesop's Fables, twenty-five hundred years after his death. You remember that story about the Fox who couldn't reach the grapes and then walked away and declared them sour. And this is what we get the “sour grapes” praise from. If Aesop had given his helpful hints like ‘don't be a bitter jerk when you fail,’ I'm not sure we would be still talking about Aesop twenty-five hundred years later. But he told stories and those stories have lived on. Stories are not just entertaining, they exercise our abilities. A story is like a flight simulator for the brain. In a study, researchers showed that mental practice is two-thirds as good as real practice. This is stunning. When you hear a story of a person facing a challenge, it's not as good as you being there, but it may be two-thirds as good. Nordstrom is a great company known for outstanding customer service, but they don't tell their employees that they stand for outstanding customer service because every company can say that. In Nordstrom, they tell stories to illustrate what outstanding really means. They talk about a Nordi who gift-wrapped a package that a customer bought at Macy's. They tell the story of a Nordic who refunded money for a set of tire chains that a customer was dissatisfied with, even though Nordstrom doesn't sell tire chains. This is remarkable. It says that even if the problem wasn't ours, we refund your money. The outstanding customer service is abstract and this story is anything but abstract, and that's why it can change the actions of their employees. So if you want to get people to act differently, the challenge is to tell stories.
Communication is hard and making a message stick is not easy. But you can beat the curse of knowledge by using the principles of success. Make your ideas simple, surprise people, make it easy to picture in the mind, add credibility and emotions, and tell a story. Then you can turn your ideas into ones that stick. Good luck making your ideas stick with others.