Book Notes by Abi Noda

Made to Stick - by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

READ: Sept 22, 2013

Made to Stick is about the art of making ideas unforgettable, or "sticky" as the authors call it. The writing is solidly researched and draws extensively on studies of memory, emotion and motivation, along with countless real-life examples. My only criticism of the book is that I felt it could be a little bit more practical at times, with more emphasis on practical examples instead of long anecdotes (although that is consistent with the principles of their book). Regardless, Made to Stick is an invaluable guide to effective communication that I'd recommend to anyone and plan on re-reading in the near future.

How do you design ideas that stick?

There is no "formula" for a sticky idea, but sticky ideas draw from a common set of traits which make them more likely to succeed.


The six principles of "sticky" ideas:

  1. Simplicity - find the essential core of our ideas - A successful defense lawyer says: "If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won't remember any". To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion. We must relentlessly prioritize. Create ideas that are simple and profound, like proverbs. Identify the core, then communicate it effectively.

  2. Unexpectedness - make the audience pay attention - How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across? We can use surprise—an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and cause focus—to grab people's attention. But surprise doesn't last. For our idea to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity. One method is to systematically "open gaps" in peoples knowledge and then fill them.

  3. Concreteness - make the audience understand and remember - How do we make our ideas clear? We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, and in terms of sensory information. This is where so much business communication goes awry. eg. mission statements, visions, strategies are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless. Naturally, sticky ideas are full of concrete images because our brains are wired to remember concrete data. Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in the audience.

  4. Credibility - make the audience agree/believe - How do we make people believe our ideas? Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials — in most day to day situations we don't enjoy the authority of being the surgeon general or citing innumerable statistics to back up our ideas, so we must do so via other means: eg. Reagen asked the simple question: "Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago"

  5. Emotions - make the audience care - How do we get people to care about our ideas? We make them feel something. We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions. eg. It's difficult to get teenagers to quit smoking by instilling in them a fear of the consequences, but it's easier to get them to quit by tapping into their resentment of the duplicity of Big Tobacco.

  6. Stories - make the audience act - How do we get people to act on our ideas? We tell stories. Hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond or act a certain way under a given situation.

These six principles are fairly intuitive and straightforward, yet incredibly difficult to apply. Why is this the case? The Curse of Knowledge: once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind. Getting a message across has two stages: the Answer stage and the Telling Others stage. In the Answer stage, you do research and use your expertise to arrive at the idea you want to share. The factors that work to your advantage in the Answer stage backfire on you during the Telling Others stage because you'll naturally jump to the punch line even though your punch line is meaningless to your audience.

In making ideas stick, the audience gets a vote. You have to ask yourself the question is the audience's version of my message still core?

The world takes our ideas and changes them, so the ultimate test of our success isn't whether people mimic our exact words, it's whether we achieve our goals.

The epilogue contains a great "symptoms and solutions" field guide


simple == find the core idea. How do you find the core?

Finding the core means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important, but just aren't the most important. Simple is about forced prioritization, which is really hard for smart people because we see value in all the details and nuances.

SW Airlines: "We are THE low-fare airline"

Clinton's advisors told him "If you say three things, you don't say anything". Studies show that choice and uncertainty can paralyze us. Finding the core rescues our audience form decision angst. Core messages help people avoid bad choices by reminding them of what's important (L613).

Once you've identified the core, how do you package it in a way that can be shared?

simple == core + compact

The Golden Rule (and other proverbs) are a great example of what we're after… ideas that are compact enough to be sticky and meaningful enough to make a difference (L804).

How do you make a compact message profound? You use flags — you tap the existing memory terrain of your audience. You use what's already there. (L876)

"Schema" = a collection of generic properties of a concept or category. Schemas help us create complex messages from simple materials, eg. metaphors.

Good metaphors are generative — they generate new perceptions, explanations, and inventions. eg. Disney calls its employees "cast members",


The first problem of communication is getting peoples attention. How do we get people's attention? SURPRISE

Surprise is triggered when our schemas fail, and it prepares us to understand why the failure occurred.

Surprise is like a process interrupt signal. Surprise makes us pay attention and think. This extra attention and thinking sears unexpected events into memories.

Surprise makes us want to find an answer — to resolve the question of why we were surprised.

To be satisfying, surprise must be "postdictable" — the answer needs to be valuable and helpful.

A good guideline for achieving surprise is to expose parts of your message that are uncommon. eg "Great customer service" is common sense. Warming customers' cars in the winter is uncommon sense.

To get your audience's attention: (L1204)

  1. Identify the core
  2. Figure out what is counterintuitive about your message
  3. Communicate your message in a way that breaks your audiences guessing machine along the critical counterintuitive dimension. Then help them fix their machine.

How do we keep people's attention?

MYSTERY. Mysteries are powerful because they create a need for closure. You keep people's attention by invoking curiousity — the intellectual need to answer questions and close open patterns.

Surprise is created from an unexpected moment. Mystery is created from an unexpected journey.

Loewenstein's "gap theory" proposes that curiousity happens when we feel gaps in our knowledge. Gaps can be opened by highlightining specific knowledge that a person is missing. eg. point out a fact that they don't know, pose a mystery, present a situation with an unknown resolution, challenge them to predict an outcomechallenge...

One challenge of gap theory is that people are naturally overconfident, and therefore it is difficult to open gaps in their knowledge. We can prevent overcofidence by making people publicly commit to a prediction or by making them realize others disagree with them — this creates a powerful thirst to fill a knowledge gap (to find out who is right).

Another challenge of gap theory is when the audience does not have basic knowledge on a subject to begin with, thereby making it difficult to create a relevant knowledge gap. This challenge can be overcome by setting some context or highlighting what the audience already knows.


How do we get people to understand and remember our idea?

Language is often abstract, but life is not abstract.

Even the most abstract business strategy must eventually show up in the tangible actions of human beings. It's easier to understand those tangible actions than to understand an abstract strategy statement.

Abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and to remember it. It also makes it harder to coordinate our activities with others, who may interpret the abstract in very different ways.

The Nature Conservancy… instead of talking in terms of land area, it talked about landscapes — they set a goal of preserving "fifty landscapes", which sounds more realistic than "40 million acres". They also gave regions names… eg. "Mount Hamilton Wilderness" instead of "There's a really important area to the east of Silicon Valley"… turns a set of acres into an eco- celebrity.

What makes something "concrete"?

If you can examine something with your senses, it's concrete. A V8 engine is concrete. "High-performance" is abstract. "World class customer service" is abstract. An employee ironing a customer's shirt is concrete.

Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. 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. Concrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts — if you've got to teach an idea to a room full of people and you aren't certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.

Experiments in human memory have shown that people are better at remembering concrete, easily visualized nouns ("bicycle" or "avocado") than abstract ones ("justice" or "personality").


What is it about concreteness that makes ideas stick?

Remembering the capital of Kansas is an abstract exercise. By contrast, when you think about "Hey Jude" you may hear the actual song in your head. "Mona Lisa" conjures an image of the painting in your head.

Memory is not a single filing cabinet. It is more like velcro. The more hooks an idea has, the better it clings to memory. e.g. Your childhood home has a gazillion hooks in your brain. A new credit card number has one, if it's lucky.

Simulating an experience creates many hooks in the brain. Example: Jane Elliott taught "prejudice" by having her students simulate it in her classroom.

This is why the most effective way of teaching TDD is to make students do TDD.

If concreteness is so useful, why do we split so easily into abstraction?

Because the difference between an expert an a novice is the ability to think abstractly. Biology students try to remember whether reptiles lay eggs or not. Biology teachers think in terms of the grand system of animal taxonomy. Novices perceive concrete details as concrete details. Experts perceive concrete details as symbols of patterns and insights that they have learned through years of experience. and, because they are capable of seeing a higher level of insight, they naturally want to talk on a higher level. Voila… this is another manifestation of The Curse of Knowledge.

Concreteness helps people coordinate

Concreteness makes targets transparent. Abstract goals like "the next great search engine" or "the best passenger plane in the world" do not fully align efforts unless the goal is made concrete. Concreteness creates a shared "turf" on which people can collaborate.

Concreteness is a way of mobilizing and focusing your brain

  1. Write down as many things that are white in color as you can think of.

  2. Write down as many white things in your refrigerator as you can think of

Most people can list about as many white things from their refrigerators as white anythings…

One way to help communicate ideas concretely is to let our decisions be guided by the needs of specific people: our readers, our customers, etc.

Lean Startup / customer development is all about taking abstract hypotheses based on intuition, and validating them with concrete data.

Being concrete isn't hard — remembering to be concrete is hard because it's easy to slip into abstractspeak. We forget that other people don't know what we know.


How do we make people believe our ideas?

Extrinsic credibility:
Intrinsic credibility:

We don't always have an external authority to vouch for our ideas; most of the time, our messages have to vouch for themselves. They must have "internal credibility". 


How do we get people to care about our ideas?

Curse of Knowledge can be a barrier in coming up with reasons for people to care. Employ the "Three Whys" method (the tactic of repeatedly asking "Why" to get the core) to overcome the Curse of Knowledge.


How do we get people to act?

Stories as simulation

It has been scientifically proven that mental simulation can build skills. This plays true more so for skills that are non-physical. In general, mental practice alone produces about 2/3 of the benefits of actual physical practice. (L3624)

A good story is a simulation — a flight simulator for the brain, which puts knowledge into a framework that is more lifelike than shooting factual/logical arguments.

Stories as inspiration

Unless you are a brilliant fiction writer, spotting stories its the way to come up with stories rather than inventing them.

Analysis of Subway's "Jared" campaign (L3788)

"Three-plot framework" for identifying and classifying a good story:

  1. The Challenge Plot

- The Challenge Plot is a story where the protagonist overcomes daunting obstacles (eg. Jared, rags to riches)

- Challenge plots inspire us by appealing to our perseverance and courage

- They make us want to work harder, take on new challenges, overcome obstacles

  1. The Connection Plot

- The Connection Plot is a story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap (eg. West Side Story, Coke commercial where a scrawny white dude and a big black athlete bond over a glass of Coke)

- Connection Plots inspire us in social ways — they make us want to help others, be more tolerant of others, work with others, love others

  1. The Creativity Plot

- The Creativity Plot is a story about someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way

- Creativity plots inspire us to problem-solve and make us want to do something different, to be creative, to experiment with new approaches

"Springboard stories" are stories which lead people to see how an existing problem might change — they make people realize possibilities, combat skepticism, and create buy-in. When you normally make a direct argument, you implicitly ask the other side to evaluate your argument and argue back. With a story, you engage the audience — you involve people by asking them to participate.

Telling stories with visible goals/barriers shifts the audience into problem- soliving mode, and beyond problem-solving for story characters, they problem- solve for themselves and focus on potential solutions.

Stories can single-handedly defeat the Curse of Knowledge, and are naturally concrete, emotional, … the hardest part is making sure stories are simple and reflect your core message.