Why do some ideas stick and others don't?
You likely know proverbs like "you can kill two birds with one stone." These were written thousands of years ago. So why can't we remember the main ideas from a book we read a month ago?
These are the types of questions Chip Heath and Dan Heath set to find out in their book, Made to Stick. They explain what makes ideas stick is how well they follow the SUCCESs framework.
The SUCCESs framework summarizes the six key elements that make ideas sticky. According to the framework: sticky ideas are:
With this framework, spreading my ideas through content creation has become much simpler. You take some gum, and you stick it to the idea. I'm sorry, I had to make that joke at some point.
Essentially all it takes to make an idea sticky is you simplify the idea by finding its core message, and secondly you apply the rest of the SUCCESs framework.
By implementing this framework to my own content creation, I have made my ideas stick much better.
You can make the same transformation.
I will be giving a book summary interpretation of Made to Stick by going through the six-step framework and summarizing how we can implement them in our content creation (however, the ideas can be applied to any creative activity).
The first element of the SUCESs framework is simplicity.
A simple idea is one reduced down to its core essence. This doesn't mean dumbing it down. A simple message can have a lifetime spend pondering over it. It can be both simple and complex.
Take proverbs, for example.
The proverb is the most enduring sticky idea. It follows everything that makes an idea sticky according to the SUCCESs framework. Some common examples are:
- You can kill two birds with one stone
- You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink
- A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush
- Peanut butter is the best food
Okay, that last one might be made up, but the main reason these ancient proverbs have stuck for so long is because of how simple they are.
How Can We Make Ideas Complex Yet Simple?
There are three ways we can make our ideas more simple without losing meaning:
- Tap into people's schemas
- Use analogies
- Use generative metaphors
Tap Into Peoples Schemas
Psychologists define Schema as a collection of generic properties of a concept or category.
Schemas consist of lots of prerecorded information stored in our memories. You have a schema for rain, a schema for homework, and a schema for schema. So meta of me, I know. All of these things bring images and associations to mind that you have constructed over your life.
Tapping into peoples schemas allows you to spread ideas with profound simplicity and complexity.
This is because you can leverage the pre-encoded memory of the audience. Take science courses, for example. Most Introductory physics classes start with simple, idealized situations: pulleys, inclines, objects moving at constant rates along frictionless paths. Doesn't make them any less boring. Sorry if that's your major. I'm a mean man. By starting with these simple, idealized, situations, the teacher can tap into the schemas all the students have of pulleys, inclines, and objects from their everyday normal lives.
In effect, the teacher leverages the pre-encoded memory of the students.
Another excellent example of using high-order schemas is in movie pitches.
In Hollywood, people use core ideas called "high-concept pitches." You've probably heard some of them. Speed was "Die Hard on a bus." 13 Going on 30 was "Big for girls." Alien was "Jaws on a spaceship." Referencing other movies in your high-concept pitch is effective because they pack so much meaning inside them. They encapsulate the original movie's characters, plot, and setting in a few words or less. This allows movie pitchers to get across a profound amount of information without saying many words.
Each pitch draws upon the schema of the movie producer for the movies mentioned.
Finally, tapping into people's schemas encodes the idea deeper into memory.
New knowledge gets connected to past knowledge in a process known as Deep processing. The past knowledge becomes a cue for the new idea. Because the new idea connects to a past schema, it becomes more deeply encoded in memory.
Using analogies is another great way of simplifying ideas.
Analogies drive their power from Schemas. They simplify difficult-to-understand concepts by comparing them to things the audience already knows. The audience can draw upon their background knowledge in one avenue to learn a new one more effectively.
For example, you can explain the extremely difficult to conceptualize Theory of Relativity using the following simple analogy:
Imagine you are on a train, traveling at a constant speed. If you were to throw a ball, it would travel in a straight line relative to you and the train. However, to someone outside the train watching, it would appear that the ball is following a curved path because of the motion of the train.
The balls path is perceived differently relative to the observer.
Similarly, in Einstein's theory of special relativity, the laws of physics appear the same to all observers, regardless of their relative motion. This means that if two observers are moving at a constant velocity relative to each other, each observer will see the same physical laws being followed, but they may see different events happening in different orders or at different times. In this way, the events they see happening following the same physics laws are relative to their own position and speed.
All physical movement, therefore, is relative.
Clearly, using analogies helps you understand super-complex topics. Not only do analogies help your audience understand an idea but it allows you to make the idea more personal by crafting your analogy to a specific person.
For example, soft drinks and movies are more tangible than a B-2 bomber. Unless you have used more B-2 bombers than consumed soft drinks and movies. It's safe to say you haven't.
Use Generative Metaphors
Finally, try using generative metaphors.
The psychologist Donald Schon introduced this term to describe metaphors that generate "new perceptions, explanations, and inventions" which aid in your understanding of the thing.
For example, the metaphor of hell being other people generates ideas of a fiery landscape, bad conversations, and the devil. All of these generations are implicit offsets of the metaphor that aid in the meaning of the proverb, that some of the worst emotions you can feel as a human have to do with other people. In this way, you can convey profound complexity in a simple idea.
Why Do We Fail To Make Our Ideas Sticky?
The funny thing is even if you know that you should have your ideas follow the SUCCESs framework, you will often fail to make them do so.
This is because of the great antagonist to making ideas sticky.
Just kidding. There are two main reasons:
- The curse of knowledge.
- We tend to add over subtract
The Curse Of Knowledge
Firstly, we often fail to follow the SUCCESs framework because of the curse of knowledge.
The curse of knowledge is the bane of sticky ideas.
It describes the phenomenon in which a person gains more and more knowledge of a field but forgets what it's like not to know that knowledge. As a result, the more they learn paradoxically, the worse they often become at teaching. This is why experts are often not the best teachers. They have forgotten what it's like to be a beginner.
In effect, experts miss critical explanations of things a beginner might need for understanding.
The difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly.
Experts perceive concrete details as symbols of patterns and insights they have learned through years of experience. And, because they can see a higher level of insight, they naturally want to talk on a higher level. To keep in the Flow state they need to increase the complexity of their learning so they can stay in the activities Goldilocks zone.
This is why experts find it hard to talk simplistically.
They have forgotten what it's like to be a beginner and are bored with beginner material.
We Tend To Add Over Subract
Secondly, we often fail to follow the SUCCESs framework because we tend to add over subtract.
Leidy Klatz explores why in his book, Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. In his studies, he found whether building, writing, cooking, or scheduling, adding more than subtracting was widespread.
For example, in one study, participants were given a twelve-item travel itinerary for a day in New York City. Then they got a list of additional activities and attractions.
The practitioners asked participants to improve the travel itinerary in any way. Curiously, only one in four participants chose to remove from the original packed itinerary! Only after participants were reminded that "changing" could mean adding or subtracting did the majority begin to subtract activities.
Applied to ideas, people have an enormous tendency to add unnecessary information that hurts the ideas stickiness. It takes real conscious effort to keep ideas following the SUCCESs framework. But with hard work, you can do it.
This leads us to the next element of sticky ideas: unexpectedness.
On a warm morning in 1939, George Dantzig raced across the college campus of UC Berkeley. He was so late for his statistics class that when he got in, he frantically scribbled down the homework problems on the board.
The next day Dantzig gave the solved problems to his professor during office hours. The professor's eyes went wide. As it turned out the two "homework assignments" were not homework at all but examples of famous unsolved statistics problems. Dantzig had solved them both.
The reason Dantzig was able to solve the statistics problems was because he hadn't let his past perceptions of his abilities stop him from trying to solve the problem. He thought they were the homework problems, and therefore treated them as solvable.
This story is so sticky because it follows the second part of the SUCCESs framework, it's unexpected. It broke our schema of homework. Most people think of homework as mildly annoying. They don't expect it to be impossible statistics questions.
This unexpectedness might keep us thinking about the story long after we have heard it.
How Does Unexpectedness Create Stickiness?
Simply put, surprise occurs anytime something in the world doesn't fit into our mental models of the world.
Unexpected ideas break our schemas or patterns. This creates tremendous curiosity because our brain wants to fix its possibly incorrect schema. We are motivated to learn. However, only if the idea is interesting do we hold onto it. We can quickly lose attention if it's only unexpected and not interesting, like a jump scare. This is why clickbait only works in content creation if you deliver on the promise given in the clickbait.
Unfilled clickbait causes the viewer to lose interest and leave feeling scammed.
How Can We Create Unexpectedness?
"To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from "What information do I need to convey?" to "What questions do I want my audience to ask?" - Chip Heath and Dan Heath
In other words, how can you convey your message in a way that is unexpected.
This is why Creating mystery is one of the best ways to foster curiosity. You create mystery when you instill an unsolved question in someone's mind.
One of my Psychology professors did this incredibly well. He showed 52 cards on screen, asked us to choose one, and then called a friend on a different part of campus he called the "Wizard." Time and time again the Wizard correctly guessed which card we had chosen despite having no communication with the professor beforehand. Then the professor told us he would answer how the Wizard's magic worked throughout the lecture.
Creating a mystery like this is one of the best ways to make an idea more sticky. I have never seen a class more captivated by a lecture as right then.
In the 1980s, two medical researchers from Perth, Australia made an astonishing discovery. Barry Marshal and Robert Warren discovered that Ulcers were caused by the bacteria, H Pylori in the gut and could be easily treated with antibiotics. A discovery that could change the health prospects of millions of human beings. Nobody believed them.
Firstly, because no one thought bacteria could live in the stomach, secondly Marshal and Warren weren't even doctors yet, and thirdly, a medical researcher in Perth is like a Physicist from Mississippi. One morning Marshall lost patience and brought his colleagues into the lab. He drank an entire glass of h pylori filled water in front of them.
A few days later he got ulcer symptoms, and after taking antibiotics, he was totally fine. Marshal's demonstration spurred secondary action and in 1994 the National Institute of health endorsed the idea that ulcers were caused by bacteria.
This story is so sticky because it follows the third part of the SUCCESs framework, it's concrete.
Think about the number of concrete details that stick out. The gut, the Australian researchers, and especially the glass of H pylori filled bacteria Marshal drank. Concrete details like this create images in your mind.
Humans are incredibly good at remembering images.
Absraction, however makes it harder to understand an idea.
This is because abstractions, unlike concrete images, are ambiguous. Other people might interpret the abstractions differently based on their unique perspective. And our future selves might interpret the abstraction differently as we change.
In contrast, concrete ideas are difficult to misinterpret.
How Can We Make Something Concrete?
- Make it vivid
- Make it relatable
The more vivid and relatable an idea the more sticky.
Vivid ideas are stickier because they are easier to imagine in your mind, making them stick out in your head more. For example, some of the most sticky ideas were written by Aesop. "The Fox and the Grapes," "The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," "The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs," "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing," and many more were all written by Aesop.
These stories are remembered thousands of years after their first telling because they are so vivid in the mind. The goose that laid the golden egg, for instance, conjures up a vivid image of a white goose in a barn that lays shiny golden eggs.
Alongside vividness, relatable ideas are more sticky.
If you wanted to explain Civilization six to your grandmother you might consider comparing it to Donkey Kong or Mario. Firstly, because there is never not a good time to bring up Donkey Kong or Mario. But secondly, your grandmother might be able to relate to those games as a way of understanding Civilization six.
By putting your ideas in relatable terms, you give them a scaffolding to understand them, making your ideas stickier.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had tons of time.
I couldn't see my friends, classes were online, and I was home almost all day. So I decided to try and lose the extra 30 pounds I thought I had. I went on YouTube and searched up: "how to lose weight fast."
This is how I started doing the Anabolic diet.
The diet involved eating as high volume and protein as possible every three hours to artificially stuff yourself so full you didn't feel the craving to eat.
I had comically massive salads, colossal ice cream shakes, and gargantuan wraps. Alongside the food, I started moving a lot. I walked around my dining room table while in online classes, ran a 5k every day, and weight lifted 6 days a week. I stuck religiously to my eating schedule, missing time for friends, family, and hobbies. I lost 30 pounds in three months. The typical recommended weight loss rate posed by popular fitness YouTuber AtleanX is two pounds a month.
I was five times over that.
All I wanted to do was open the cabinet and eat a whole massive glob of peanut butter.
Then one day, I was sitting on the couch at my next scheduled eating window when I realized I was too tired to get up and make my meal. I knew then it had to stop. My obsession with losing weight had caused me to sacrifice all the other things I valued. I created a new eating plan that relied much more on intuitive eating and was more sustainable over the long term. It's the same plan that I follow in happiness today.
I learned you should never let one thing intrude on all of your other values.
This story is so sticky because it follows the fourth part of the SUCCESs framework, it's credible.
The main reason is that I'm what you would call an antiauthority. An antiauthority has had direct experience against what they advocate. In this case, I had direct experience going through a diet that wasn't sustainable.
This gives me immense credibility and, in turn, makes the story sticker.
But there are other ways stories can be made credible.
How Can We Make Something Credible?
There are three main elements to credibility:
Sources are references backing up your point from an expert, antiauthority, or the audience.
In the previous story, the source of the story was me! I had been through the anabolic dieting experience and thankfully came out alive. In addition, I reference popular fitness YouTube AtleanX.
Sources make ideas more credible.
Details are an individual feature, fact, or item.
As mentioned before, The more vivid and relatable an idea the more sticky.
In the context of credibility, vivid, relatable ideas seem more real, and more believable. In my friend's Minecraft server, we once implemented an evil Communistic regime named "Brussia" where everyone had to provide seven stacks of bread daily to the communal kitchen. That never happened. But you might have thought it did because of how vivid and relatable the details were. You thought, there's no way Aidan could have made that up; that was so specific.
How bold of you to assume I have no problem lying to my audience.
However, in most cases, a person's knowledge of details is often a good proxy for their credibility and makes ideas more credible.
Humans are terrible at thinking statistically.
We evolved to have great spatial navigation on the African Savanah, not to analyze our death rate in Dark Souls 3.
However, when used correctly, statistics can be an incredibly powerful tool for credibility. To be used well, you should almost always use statistics to illustrate a relationship. When used to demonstrate a relationship, the main focus remains on the central idea.
For example, in the previous story, I explain that the typical weight loss plan recommended by fitness YouTuber AtleanX is 2 pounds a month. Yet, I lost 30 pounds in three months, five times faster than the recommended rate. In this case, the statistic was used to show the relationship between my weight loss plan and a typical healthy one.
The statistic should rarely be the focus of your idea.
Implement these three things into your ideas, sources, details, and statistics, and you will come across as an authority on your subject.
Fredrik Backman's 2012 novel, A Man Called Ove, tells the darkly humorous story of Ove, a 59-year-old Swedish man who, after his wife Sonja dies, becomes a grumpy old wisecrack.
Think Ebeneezer Scrooge but Swedish and grumpy all the time rather than just around Christmas.
Everyone in the neighborhood despises him. Every morning, he runs around the neighborhood to "check" that everything seems to be in order. He complains about cars or bikes that park in the wrong parking spots, shouts at neighbors whose dogs go unleashed, and generally glares at anyone he walks by. And every morning, when he returns from his morning "check", he plans to kill himself.
He can't take living without Sonja.
She was his light in the dark. Where he was literal and mechanic, she was artsy and bright. She made life worth living.
However, when an Iranian family moves in next door, it becomes an unlikely friendship.
Throughout his attempts to kill himself, Ove is stopped by the Iranian Families acts of kindness and requests for help. One time before he's able to hang himself, they ask for his help backing out of the driveway. Another day they ask him to babysit their child. He even helps the Iranian woman give birth to her next child.
Throughout all of the requests, the Iranian family shows him genuine kindness.
Slowly but surely, Ove is brought out of the dark shell of his wife's death. By the novel's end, Ove learns the power of kindness. He begins to be kind simply for the sake of it and ends the book surrounded by a community that loves him.
This story is sticky because it follows the fifth element of the SUCCESs framework, Emotional.
Emotional ideas are sticky because they make us care. Humans have a universal ability for empathy unless, of course, you're a psychopath. When you heard about Ove's story you probably wanted to help him.
How Can We Make Something Emotional?
The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don't yet care about and something they do care about.
You might not care as much about the polar ice caps melting as you should. But as soon as I show you a picture of an adorable little polar bear baby, you have some emotional stake. Polar bear babies are too cute to ignore!
This idea culminates in the Identifiable victim effect.
The identifiable victim effect is the phenomenon through which we are more moved by individual tragedies--especially involving those we affiliate with--compared to tragedies that compound to insane statistical numbers. This ties back to everything we have said before about statistics and concreteness. You would be moved if I told you 1,000 polar bear babies were being killed yearly from the polar ice caps melting. But if I showed you a photo of a polar bear baby drowning in the water, you would be in shambles. Showing an individual is more concrete than shouting a massive abstract statistic.
To make your ideas more emotional, connect them to an individual, concrete thing they care about.
I learned I wasn't a partier in my first semester at Cornell.
Every party I went to was the same two things. On the one hand, a desperate race to see who could get smashed the fastest. And on the other a terrible conversation filled with the same questions: "what's your name," "what college are you in," and "what's your major."
I accepted I wasn't a playful person.
I was to be habitual, routine, and hard-working at college. I had beaten video game addiction two years earlier. I wasn't going to create a partying addiction.
But then I had a Halloween party at a friend of mine's house, TJ.
Going inside, it felt like all the other parties I had been to. People were making boring conversations, eating junk food, and drinking. The only difference is they did it dressed stupid too.
For some reason, that night, I decided things needed to be different.
I had just finished reading a book called The Art of Witty Banter, cringe I know. But, I wanted to put the tips to the test. So I scoured the party, found a girl with a colored lizard cut out on her head, and made my move.
"How often do you feed that lizard?" I said.
"Every day or so." She responded.
"Dang, I have to feed my lizard every two hours. It's sacrificing my schoolwork and relationships. Jokes on the Lizard, though, I'm doing so bad in statistics I don't have the skills to calculate how much food he needs, so I always underfeed him."
I was in my flow now. So I went up to a guy in a gorilla costume. We talked about how he and his family had been deported from Kenya to be Ronald Reagan's pet gorillas.
Over the next few hours, I made witty banter and played stupid party games like bob the apple, pin the pumpkin, and eat the donut.
It was wonderful.
I realized it didn't matter even though I didn't see anyone I might want to hang out with after the party, it didn't matter. Play and fun are integral parts of life. Not every conversation needs to be a significant discussion about ideas.
This story is so sticky because it follows the sixth and last element of the SUCCESs framework, story.
Humans Are Naturally Primed To Hear Stories
Before the invention of writing we communicated entirely orally.
There was nothing but storytelling. It's not like you were going to sit down with your tribe friend and analyze excel data sheets. For this reason, everyone across all cultures in the world understands the natural arc of a story.
Stories are our universal language.
Another benefit is Telling stories switches your audience into creative mode rather than analytical mode.
When you're listening to a story, you likely don't rigidly analyze it; you let it flow through you. Storytelling invites your audience to join you in following the story, and its implications rather than rigorously analyzing the message.
In addition, one of the aspects that makes stories great is they are relatable.
This is why the best stories are often not the epic, grandiose ones. Nobody when hearing your story about falling out of a plane and hitting a wheel barrow thinks, wow I remember when I fell out of a plane and survived by hitting a wheel barrow. But when I tell you my story of realizing more of life can be playful and fun, you relate on a much deeper level.
How Can We Make Something Into A Story?
The art of storytelling is a subject I could talk about for days, so for simplicity, I will give my three best tips and point you to the best storytelling book I have ever read.
Firstly, the most important tip I have to tell good stories is to realize what a story is. A story is a reflection of change over time. Something begins one way and ends another.
Everything in your story should be a build-up toward your five-second moment, when something changes from one way to another. My second and third tips are just words: location and action. Whenever you start telling a story, give a location and an action.
I'm standing in the Mcdonald's parking lot.
I'm walking home at night.
I'm driving my car in New York.
Give a story with change that builds towards a five-second moment, starts with location and action, and you will be better than 99% of storytellers worldwide.
Finally, read Matthew Dicks Storyworthy. It's the best book on storytelling I have ever read.
Six Questions To Ask Yourself Next Time You Share An Idea
In the internet age, attention is the scarcest commodity there is.
Luckily, you now have six questions to ask yourself before sharing any idea:
- How can I make this as simple as possible?
- How can I make this unexpected?
- How can I make this concrete?
- How can I make this credible?
- How can I make this emotional?
- How can I make this into a story?
May these questions guide your path as they have for me.