Our literacy team recently finished a book study on Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. This book is filled with strategies for creating and communicating ideas that will be “sticky” with an audience. Although not specifically directed toward educators, we found lots of applications to our work with teachers and students.
The Heath brothers define ideas that stick as those that are understood and remembered and that have a lasting impact on the audience by changing opinions or behavior. After studying countless examples of ideas that fit this definition, including everything from marketing campaigns to urban legends, they identified six principles of stickiness:
“It’s hard to make ideas stick in a noisy, unpredictable, chaotic environment. If we’re to succeed, the first step is this: Be simple. Not simple in terms of ‘dumbing down’ or ‘sound bites.’ You don’t have to speak in monosyllables to be simple. What we mean by ‘simple’ is finding the core of the idea. ‘Finding the core’ means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence (p 27).”
“Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because surprises make us pay attention and think. The extra attention and thinking sears unexpected events into our memories. Surprise gets our attention. Sometimes the attention is fleeting, but in other cases surprise can lead to enduring attention. Surprise can prompt us to hunt for underlying causes, to imagine other possibilities, to figure out how to avoid surprises in the future (p. 68).”
“This is how concreteness helps us understand—it helps us construct higher, more abstract insights on the building blocks of our existing knowledge and perceptions. Abstraction demands some concrete foundation. Trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air (p. 106).”
“We don’t always have an external authority who can vouch for our message; most of the time our messages have to vouch for themselves. They must have ‘internal credibility (p. 106).”
“How can we make people care about ideas? We get them to take off their Analytical Hats. We create empathy for specific individuals. We show how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about. We appeal to their self-interest, but we also appeal to their identities—not only to the people they are right now but also the people they would like to be (p. 203).”
“Stories have the amazing dual power to simulate and inspire. And most of the time we don’t even have to use much creativity to harness these powers—we just need to be ready to spot the good ones that life generates every day. (p. 237).”
One of the ideas that stuck with me as I read and discussed this book (see what I did there?) was the concept of the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we can’t unlearn it. The more expertise we develop in an area, the more challenging it is to remember what it’s like not to know. Our knowledge and understanding make it difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of the learner, which is critical if we want our ideas to stick.
Made to Stick is an interesting and engaging read for anyone who wants their ideas to impact their audience, whether it is one person in a conversation, a class of students, or colleagues in a presentation. It offers practical and actionable wisdom that is illustrated by stories from many contexts where sticky ideas matter