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Made to Stick April 18, 2011

Posted by kimretta in Uncategorized.
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Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Review by Kimra McPherson

Made to Stick argues that well-crafted stories are key to getting people to remember, internalize, and act on ideas — and its very structure proves its point. The book contains story after memorable story, from urban legends to advertising breakthroughs to how an overweight college student who lost weight eating sandwiches became Jared, spokesman for Subway. There’s other information in this book, too, including theory explaining why some messages work and exercises to beef up your own storytelling skills. But to be honest, those segments didn’t fully register with me. What I remember are the stories.

The book is written by a pair of brothers, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, who realized that their lives in business and academia had converged in a common interest in why people remember some things and forget others. Early on, they note that dry, abstract business messages often seem profound to the executives delivering them but sound like little more than boring, meaningless corporate-speak to the employees and clients on the listening side. “We have to strategically maximize profit and increase customer satisfaction?” Yawn.

As an antidote, they propose a set of characteristics that memorable messages have in common: They’re Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories (or SUCCESs — an acronym they rightly note is “a little corny,” but hey, it’s sticky). The book is organized into chapters focusing on each principle, each with its own boatload of illustrative stories.

The book’s rhythm becomes familiar fast and grows tiresome after a while: set-up, then story; set-up, then story; exercise based on the stories you’ve just read; then another round of set-up and story. But the stories almost all work — which, indeed, should be the case if the book is doing its job! One of the early examples focuses on the person who realized he could illustrate the unhealthiness of movie popcorn by comparing it to an indulgent, fatty spread consisting of bacon, Big Macs, and steak. Over the time I was reading this book, I heard or read various versions of that story at least five times, and running through the SUCCES principles helped me to understand why it persists.

Frankly, after Concrete, the principles and their stories start to blend together a bit; almost all of the examples cited as Emotional are also Concrete, and Stories are … stories. But in the epilogue, the authors note that their framework is meant to be a checklist, not an equation. Not all of the elements need to be present for a message to work; the ones that are present just need to be as strong as possible.

This book seems apt to read now, as we near the end of our semester and think about how to tell the stories of the products and services we’re designing. Throughout the book, the authors reference the Curse of Knowledge: the problem of having spent a lot of time studying and thinking about a problem and learning so much about it that all perspective on why it might matter to others is lost. (They liken this to a student trying to write a research paper and wanting to cram in every single detail uncovered, whether or not it’s relevant to the overall argument of the paper.) They acknowledge in the epilogue that they could have spent even more time addressing how to break the Curse of Knowledge, but several of the book’s more useful tips suggest ways to step back and figure out what your message (or product, or service, or strategy) is about for someone else. One of my favorites, from the Emotional chapter: “An old advertising maxim says you’ve got to spell out the benefit of the benefit.” Naturally, this possibly abstract line is bolstered immediately with an illustrative story: “In other words, people don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures.” I may not always be able to recall every detail from Made to Stick, but I’ll certainly remember that.

Curious? Check out the first chapter.