Dan Heath, co-author of “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”
I recently attended a presentation by Dan Heath, co-author of the best selling book “Made to Stick“. Here is a summary of the most interesting things I heard about why some ideas thrive while others die – and how to improve the chances of worthy ideas.
“With millions of ideas clamoring for attention, you’ve got to figure out how to get attention,” Heath said. “You don’t necessarily have to be a creative genius. There are templates for ideas that stick.”
Heath developed the book by first asking the question, “What makes naturally sticky ideas stick?” He then set out to reverse engineer that and arrived at six traits that successful ideas have in common:
Simplicity: strip an idea to its core, something simple and profound. Short sound bites are not the mission. Proverbs are the ideal.Heath said that he thinks marketers spend too much time obsessing about their customers and demographics. Customers want something that will do a job for them. The successful Swifter product wasn’t born out of understanding the “mopping demographic”, it came from an understanding that people need to do a job – sweep floors.
Unexpectedness: violate people’s expectations to capture people’s attention… and hold on to it. But not just surprise, which doesn’t last. Generate interest and curiosity.”Think about what people expect us to say, that as soon as we say it, people tune out,” Heath said. “Is there something we could disrupt there to get their attention?”
Heath said that the Atkins diet is an example, because it was completely different than what we expected a diet to be. Interestingly, you probably first heard about it not from marketing but via word of mouth, which is how sticky ideas travel.
Concreteness: explain ideas in terms of concrete images, human actions and sensory information.
Credibility: if we’re trying to persuade a skeptical audience to believe a new message, we’re fighting against an uphill battle against a lifetime of personal learning and social relationships. Fortify the idea with sources of credibility, including authorities, the power of vivid details, and contextualizing statistics in terms that are more human and everyday.
Emotions: to get people to care about an idea, make them feel something.Heath talked “identity appeal”, which is about three questions people ask: who am I, what kind of situation is this, and what does someone like me do in this situation? As an example, Texas had a wildly successful ad campaign to reduce litter in the state with its “Don’t Mess With Texas” ads, which appealed to a Texan’s sense of patriotism for the state, what they think of themselves as a Texan. This is in contrast to “consequence appeal”, which is about cost vs. benefit.
Stories: to get people to act on ideas, tell stories. Three types of stories: The challenge plot (David vs. Goliath), the connection plot (form a relationship across boundaries), and the creativity plot (triumph over a difficult task via ingenuity). All three share a sense of inspiration.These six qualities are quite powerful and many are common sense, however they aren’t commonly applied due to the ‘curse of knowledge’. Heath explained:
“The smarter we get, the more experience we gain, the more skill we get,” Heath said. “But simultaneously, it becomes increasingly hard to empathize with our audience, who doesn’t have all the knowledge we have. The people with the most knowledge often have a difficult time talking about it.”
The cure: translate that message into something sticky. A person can learn without a lot of domain knowledge.
Heath was asked, how do you apply these principles?
“We all have the moment when we have the spark of an idea,” Heath said. “Freeze that moment. How do you go about expressing it? What is the creative execution?” That’s where the six traits come into play.