A few years back, Chip and Dan Heath discovered the secrets to “stickiness.” They examined hundreds of naturally successful messages—from urban legends, wives-tales, and proverbs, to advertising slogans, conspiracy theories, and corporate mottoes—and identified a handful of characteristics that the most shared, talked about, and enduring stories shared. They distilled these into Six Principles of Stickiness in their bestselling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
Here’s an example that may stick in your mind.
Back in the 1990s, movie theater popcorn was often drenched with artery-clogging saturated fat. But simply telling people that a medium-sized bag contained 37 grams of fat didn’t keep many from stuffing their faces with the stuff. The number alone just didn’t mean much, even when compared to the USDA’s recommended daily allowance (less than half that amount).
But when people heard in a Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) ad campaign that a medium-sized bag of “buttered” popcorn contained more saturated fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings—combined—they paid attention. In fact, the story took off. It was featured on all the major news networks and got coverage in major newspapers across the country. Even Leno and Letterman cracked jokes about popcorn on late night television. The message stuck. Movie theater popcorn sales plunged and, in short order, just about every major theater chain started making healthier popcorn.
So, what made the message so memorable? Here’s how the Heath brothers break it down—and tips for making your messages stickier too:
6 Principles of Stickiness = SUCCES(S)
1) It’s Simple: It strips what’s complex down to the essentials.
2) it’s Unexpected: It’s surprising. It jolts us from our preconceptions.
3) it’s Concrete: A vivid picture jumps to mind. It’s an uncomplicated comparison.
4) it’s Credible: It’s factual without too many numbers. It taps into what we already know.
5) it’s Emotional: It makes us feel something—joy, disgust, fear, sadness, pride.
6) it’s a good Story: It’s the kind of message we could easily recount at a cocktail party.
The Details: Dan and Chip Heath’s Six Principles of Stickiness
Strong messages strip ideas down to their core, not into sound bites but into proverbs, both simple and profound. A simple message is like a proverb or “The Golden Rule,” time-tested cultural expressions of morality or ethics conveyed in the most essential terms.
- Determine the single most important thing (“If you say three things, you don’t say anything.”)
- Don’t bury the lead.
- Tap into existing schemas or analogies that evoke familiar concepts (the greasy fast foods schema, for example).
Violating expectations grabs people’s attention. When we open gaps in people’s knowledge, we can be ready to fill them in with important, new information or new perspectives. JFK did this when he announced that the US would put a man on the moon within the decade.
- Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages—if people think they already “get it,” they pay less attention.
- Get attention with surprise. Figure out what is counter-intuitive about the message (an entire day’s worth of fat packed in a single bag of popcorn!?).
- Hold attention with interest.
- Avoid gimmicks.
- Present numbers or statistics in surprising ways, making them less abstract.
Our brains are hardwired to remember visual or sensory information much better than abstract concepts. The most memorable messages are expressed in terms of vivid pictures, analogies, and human actions. For example, real images of the ravages of war are far more stirring than dry statistics about the numbers of nameless soldiers or citizens who’ve been killed or displaced. Short of images, supplying the real names of individuals killed has a very different effect than numbers alone. Naming three greasy meals, even without visuals, creates a mental image in our minds.
- Chip Heath calls it the “Velcro” theory of memory: the more hooks in your idea, the more chances to stick. Visuals are good hooks.
- Find your inner Aesop: Write with the concreteness of a fable.
- Make abstraction (and numbers) concrete with imagery. Comparing a number to something familiar is one good way.
- Set the scene. Provide a concrete context.
- Put people in the story.
Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials—not necessarily hard facts or numbers—but triggers that connect your story to audiences’ real life experiences. For example, instead of citing specific economic statistics, Ronald Reagan asked Americans in a televised presidential debate, “are you better off than you were 4 years ago?” The “evidence” was alive in each audience member’s mind. Credibility was built into the message.
- Show, don’t tell: Use convincing details.
- Invite audiences to try it out or “see for themselves.”
- Prove it by showing examples and case studies where the concept or solution is realized. Show that your idea is viable because it’s worked elsewhere.
If you want people to care, make them feel something. They might forget what you said or what they read, but they’ll remember exactly how you made them feel. They’ll remember if they were filled with pride or if they cried, laughed, or shuddered. Most of us feel our emotions stirred when we hear even a very short clip of a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. We remember how the full speech made us feel and we don’t need to hear all the words again to experience the same emotions.
- Connect to people’s sense of identity—make sure they see why it matters to them.
- Try not to overwhelm. People shut down if a problem appears too big to surmount. Studies find that information about or an image of one starving child elicits more sympathy than hearing about millions starving in an epidemic.
- Help people imagine themselves acting on their convictions or living in a better world. Projecting a positive future motivates behavior.
- Engaging the individual is key, but remember that “group interest”—the community or worldview we identify with—is often a better predictor of political opinions than self interest. Consider where they’re coming from and what drives their worldview.
Our brains are “wired” to make sense of the world with stories. A story format combines all five other principles of stickiness and helps us process and remember new information. Stories are easy to retell—far easier than facts or statistics without context.
- Spark people’s imagination—invite them to picture themselves in a story or acting on a conviction.
- Think of the stories you tell at the water-cooler or the dinner table. Retelling gives people a sense of ownership and engagement.
- Include the basic elements of every memorable book or movie you’ve ever seen: a hero, a quest, a threat, a villain, and a resolution.
- Look for three key plots found in inspiring stories: challenge (overcoming obstacles); connection (getting along or reconnecting with people); and creativity (encouraging a new way of thinking or changing perspective).
- Tell a “springboard story”: a story that helps people see how an existing problem can change.
- Stories are best when they are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotional.