Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Book Review: Made to Stick

Since I'm in an amazing MBA Program at Biola University, and our reading consists mostly of "real books," not text books, I thought I might fill this space with a book review assignment.

Book Information
Heath, Chip and Dan Heath (2007). Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York, NY: Random House.

Ideas abound. Teachers, marketing gurus, CEOs, copy editors, preachers, and parents want their messages conveyed with maximum impact and “stickiness” so that the hearer will absorb and take action based on the message. With urban legends woven throughout, this book uses the acronym SUCCES—Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotion, Stories—to demonstrate why we remember the Kidney Theft Ring story and do not recall the capital of Kansas.

Major Sections
For an idea to stick, it must be simple. Find the core idea and say it in a way that is compact. Proverbs do this well: A bird in a hand is worth two in a bush. How often do mission statements wind up communicating very little in their attempt to say something important? The prompt, “The single most important thing we must do is…,” (27) can be a springboard to solidifying your efforts into a single thought. This is another principle discussed in this chapter: “If you say three things, you don’t say anything” (33). Stripping your message to its core element helps your hearers understand the ideas and efforts so that all actions are focused on the same goal. For Southwest Airlines, it’s “We are THE low fare airline.” Serving meals does not lend itself to that core idea. For Bill Clinton’s campaign it was, “It’s the economy, stupid.” This struck at the core of what voters wanted in their new President.
The greatest hindrance in communicating effectively is the Curse of Knowledge. The more we know about something, the less likely we are able to know what it is like to NOT know that something. “Becoming an expert in something means that we become more and more fascinated by nuance and complexity…when the Curse of Knowledge kicks in…making something simple can seem like ‘dumbing down.’ Simplifying, we fear, can de-evolve into oversimplifying” (46). Recognizing that the Curse of Knowledge inflicts blindness to the one attempting to convey the message is important. Overcoming this blindness starts with making sure the message conveyed is clear, concise, and simple.

Two questions are posed in this chapter: How does one get and keep attention? “Most of the time we cannot demand attention; we must attract it” (64). If we can use the emotions of surprise and interest, ideas can be made stickier. Surprise is triggered when our schema fails, and it prepares us to understand why the failure occurred. Schema is defined in the previous chapter as “a collection of properties of a concept or category... that consists of lots of prerecorded information stored in our memories” (54). To be surprising, an event cannot be predictable, but it should be “post-dicatable,” meaning after the surprise, the recipient of the emotion understands why he felt surprised. Read the word “phraug.” Get it? Surprised and satisfied. Mystery solved.
While surprise is a way to pique interest, curiosity is the way to keep it. “Unexpected ideas, by opening a knowledge gap, tease and flirt. They mark a bit red X on something that needs to be discovered but don’t necessarily tell you how to get there”(93). Sony accomplished this by proposing a “Pocket Radio,” something unheard of in 1953. JFK, in his address to congress in 1961, proposed that the US put a man on the moon. Are these messages surprising? Yes. Do they invoke curiosity? Yes. In addition, these messages are also simple.

Language is abstract, but life is concrete. This is the paradox of clear communication. We want our mission statements to say something profound, yet they often are laced with abstract and often meaningless strategy statements such as: Front-line dynamic knowledge base; Robust user-facing implementation; or Profit-focused foreground hub. (All these were generated from They’ve got a million of them!) “Abstraction makes is harder to understand an idea and to remember it (100). We would do well to make our corporate purpose statements more concrete and meaningful.
The means of making something concrete is to ask the question, “Can I examine this with my senses?” Mathematical concepts, arguably one of the most abstract topics taught in classrooms around the globe, have varying results. While all teachers used rote memorization, it was the Asian teachers who were successful in relaying these concepts through concrete examples. In fact, the Asian teachers used such concrete examples nearly twice as often as their US counterparts. The result? “The math skills of Americans fall behind those of Asians early—the gap is apparent in the first grade, and it widens throughout elementary school (104). The students are able to retain the concepts since memory is more like Velcro than the analogy of a filing cabinet. Memories are not stored in files, waiting for retrieval. They have hooks and, “The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory” (111). One effective tool a company can use is to create an image of their ideal client. Man? Woman? Age? Income? Interests? Education? Accessibility to technology? Give her a name (Excellent Ellen). When new products are proposed, ask the question: “What does Ellen want?” Now that’s concrete!

They are many instruments for establishing credibility, depending on who you are trying to impress with your message. Letters after your name from a prestigious university; the backing of a reputable organization; endorsements from celebrities - like Oprah - are a few examples. The book also suggests those considered “anti-authorities,” effective spokespersons who had a powerful tale to tell, are living proof of why something does or does not work (135-6).
It is not always necessary, however, to have these types of external authorities. Credence can be given to a message if it has enough vivid detail. Names of persons, places, descriptions of sight and sounds that tie into product or service usage—all these tools are powerful when you want your message to be credible. Steven Covey in his book, The 8th Habit, shares some startling statistics about employees and their organization’s purpose: “Only 37% said they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why. Only one in five was enthusiastic about their team or organization’s goals. Only 20% fully trusted the organization they work for.” (144) Not only is this example a powerful statement of the ineffectiveness of most company’s mission statements, it is credible because the believable Mr. Covey gives sufficient statistics, another tool to lend authority and concreteness to your statements. You can just envision these employees aimlessly doing their job without knowing what they are really doing there. Scary.
A last credible strategy worth mentioning is the Sinatra Test. “In Frank Sinatra’s classic ‘New Your, New York,’ he sings about starting a new life in New York City, and the chorus declares, ‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.’ An example passes the Sinatra Test when one example alone is enough to establish credibility in a given domain” (151). Will LAUSD adopt your curriculum? Does Harvard recognize your course as transferable? Does Phil Keaggy play your guitar? Does Mario Andretti’s wife drive your car? If the answer to this question respective to your industry is “Yes,” you have powerful credibility.

“Mother Teresa once said, ‘If I look at the masses, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.’” (165). It’s hard to get compelled to action by large, inconceivable statistics. We are much more likely to respond to one child. This has been the strategy of World Vision for decades. The book shares a story of a letter that was written to solicit contributions and was filled with statistics of children in Africa and their need for water, food, and housing. Another letter told the story of Rokia, a young girl living in Africa with no water, food, or place to live. Those who read the statistics gave an average $1.14. Those who read about Rokia gave $2.38, more than twice as much. When statistics were added to the Rokia story, giving went down to $1.43. “Somehow the statistics actually made people less charitable” (166-167). How do you make people care about your message? Move them to action with emotion.

All these strategies can be rolled into the most powerful tool: Story telling. In fact, after a lecture or seminar, when participants were asked what was the most important take-away, the response was tied to a story the speaker shared. When employees gather for lunch and share shop talk, they are teaching each other in a way that no technical manual can. Stories woo the listener to action. Think of the story of Jared and his Subway Sandwich Diet. Think of the popularity of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. These and other examples show the power of a story.

To say I appreciated and enjoyed the message of the book is an understatement. I have shared the stories and examples with my cohorts until I think they may either be quite energized or hope to see some of the principles applied in my role as Marketing Director. If only I had read this book years ago! Well, considering it is only a year or two old, that was not even possible. Was there redundancy? Yes, but I believe it was strategic. The principles would have been to my mind like eggs to Teflon had they not been as sticky. I loved the story about the manufacturer of toxic fabrics who changed the chemicals so that the materials were actually cleaning the water rather than polluting it. I was moved by the example of BBs in a bucket to demonstrate the enormity of the nuclear weapon arsenal. And I could feel the pain of the blue-eyed children in Mrs. Elliot’s simulation of prejudice.
Through out the pages of the book, I could not help but reflect on the stickiness of God’s message throughout Scripture. From the stores of the Pentateuch and the poetry of the Psalms and Proverbs to the poignant parables of Christ, the Master Story-Teller and the drama of Revelation, no messages are stickier! Yet, how often does our sinful world attempt to discredit its simple message of hope and redemption, or do we as believers find ways to complicate the Truth? May we be delivered from the Curse of Knowledge—although we are not truly that knowledgeable—and find ways to live out its message in a way that would winsome and compelling.
Of course, the real test this book’s “stickiness” is whether or not the message was so simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story-worthy that I can apply it to my everyday life. (Yes, I was able to list the SUCCES acronym from memory.) Because I am in the business of selling services to teachers of writing—one of the most neglected areas of academic study in the last 20 years—I hope so! I can see how we must craft our company’s purpose statements, which are virtually non-existent, so that our team really does know the message of “What are we really doing here?” We have a leader who excels in communication. In fact, we all have a copy of the audio talk, “What are we really doing here?”! The answer? We are changing the world. How’s that for being simple, unexpected, and all those other things? Now, the challenge becomes how to craft the message so teachers and parents—our “Ellen Excellences” get it? The website, the catalog, the magazine ads, the booth layout at conventions can all be Sticky, Succes-ful, and inspire sales. Ideas may abound, but actions do speak louder than words.

Where should this book fall in the scheme of our MBA Program? There is no question of whether or not it belongs. Perhaps it could be included in the leveling marketing class, but then, not all students would enjoy its juice. The marketing strategies class is already a tough climb. Please don’t add any more! When should it be read? In the Entrepreneur II class is late enough in the coursework to have loops for the Velcro to stick, but early enough that we would not feel robbed of its riches.

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