Politics & Policy

Great Communicator

Thinking in proverbs, not sound bites.

Imagine: You’re at the airport and don’t have anything to read on the flight. You see two books at a kiosk: Six Principles of Effective Communication, a nondescript textbook, and Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, a bright orange hardcover with what looks like duct tape on the cover. Which book would you buy?

The point of this imaginary scenario (I made the first book up) isn’t that you need a catchy title and cover to sell books, but that how ideas are communicated is often as important as the ideas themselves.

Chip and Dan Heath have spent the last ten years studying this phenomenon — why some ideas “stick” — Chip as a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, Dan as an educational entrepreneur and consultant. In Made to Stick, they share what they have learned.

“Stickiness” is the term they use to describe ideas that stay with us, that become part of our mental furniture. In other words: effective communication. The brothers adopted the idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book The Tipping Point. But while Gladwell was studying the nature of social epidemics, the brothers Heath wanted to understand the structure of effective communication — what makes ideas that stick tick.

Their answer? If you want to create an idea that sticks, develop a Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Story. This acronym (SUCCES) may be memorable, and a little corny, but what does it mean exactly? At the risk of oversimplifying, it means using what we know about how people think, act, react, and interact with ideas to speak to them effectively.

From the introduction to the epilogue, and through chapters dealing with each of the six qualities, the authors craft a basic and effective model for such communication.

Step one is to strip your idea to its core. When we try to communicate too much, nothing sticks. But simplifying is not dumbing down; be simple, yes, but profound. Think proverbs, not sound bites.

The rest of the acronym involves taking take the next steps, the Unexpected focuses on getting their attention, the Concrete on helping them to understand and remember, the Credible on convincing them to agree or believe, the Emotion on making them care, and the Story focuses on the ability to act.

The authors flush out these qualities using examples and explanations from psychology, politics, screenwriting, economics, folklore, and even epidemiology. What makes the book enjoyable, and useful, is the way it blends and balances these diverse anecdotes and explanations from social-science research. They avoid jargon and heavy academic style by mixing in stories, examples, and “Idea Clinics” — short sections that model the application of these qualities to specific examples — with their argument. Each chapter is thought-provoking without being intimidating or tiresome.

The book also uses pop-culture and historical references — from memorable advertising like Subway’s Jared spots, Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” and the “Don’t Mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign, to political sound bites like Bill Clinton’s “It’s The Economy, Stupid” and Ronald Reagan’s “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” — to illustrate how recognizably sticky ideas reflect the six qualities.

The book is full of examples that reinforce the ideas being discussed. In the Idea Clinic from the Concrete chapter the authors relate the story of James Grant, longtime director of UNICEF. Grant always traveled with the ingredients of Oral Rehydration Therapy — a packet made up of one teaspoon of salt and eight teaspoons of sugar.

When he met with leaders in developing countries he would take out his packet and ask: “Do you know that this costs less than a cup of tea and it can save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives in your country?”

Grant could have offered lots of statistics and an in-depth explanation of the medical causes, and the devastating impact, of dehydration in the developing world. But his packet and his question make the issue concrete and recognizable far better than the technical details found on your typical fact sheet.

Made to Stick is an interesting, thought-provoking, and useful guide to generating ideas that stick. It helps make clear the nature of effective communication, and in our jobs and in the public square, it’s help we can all use.

– Kevin Holtsberry is a freelance writer in Ohio.

<em>Made to Stick</em>, by Chip and Dan Heath



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