Book review: Made to stick

Finally got around to reading this book. The latest issue of Fast Company has a preview of the 2nd book about to hit the shelves from Chip and Dean Health.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

By Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Random House


You’re losing sleep over the serious lack of buzz about your big project at work.

No one’s buying in and you don’t know why. You fired off the all-staff memo. Made the rounds with your PowerPoint presentation. Built the case for change with a burning platform and clear path to the promised land. But no one’s drinking your Kool-Aid. What gives?

Elizabeth Newton knows why. Newton earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University by studying a simple game.

Newton assigned folks to play the part of tappers or listeners. Tappers got a list of 25 songs that we’ve all heard and sung since childhood. Newton had tappers secretly pick a song and tap out the rhythm on a table. Listeners had to name that tune.

Of the 120 tapped songs, listeners named only three for a success rate of just 2.5 per cent. Yet tappers went into the game predicting a 50 per cent success rate. When listeners got it wrong, tappers were flabbergasted. How could listeners be so clueless and stupid with songs that were so simple and obvious?

The tappers in Newton’s research study had fallen victim to the Curse of Knowledge. When they tapped, the songs were playing in their heads. They couldn’t imagine what it was like for listeners to hear only a disconnected series of taps.

 “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it,” say authors and brothers Dan and Chip Heath. “Our knowledge has cursed us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily recreate our listeners’ state of mind.”

The Heaths say we’re forever replaying Newton’s research project at work. Chances are you’re suffering from it with your project that’s on the road to nowhere. You hear the music. The rest of us hear only noise.

“The tappers and listeners are CEOs and frontline employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. All of these groups rely on ongoing communication but, like the tappers and listeners, they suffer from enormous information imbalances.

“When a CEO discusses ‘unlocking shareholder value’, there is a tune playing in her head that the employees can’t hear. It’s a hard problem to avoid – a CEO might have 30 years of daily immersion in the logic and conventions of business. Reversing the process is as impossible as un-ringing a bell. You can’t unlearn what you already know.”

But you can make your ideas more powerful and sticky so that you escape the Curse of Knowledge and we have a better shot at understanding, remembering and acting on what you have tell us.

The Heath brothers have come up with the following six principles for making ideas stickier:

Aim for simplicity by stripping your sticky idea down to its essential core. What’s the single most important thing we absolutely need to know? Not three things. Only one.

To get and hold our attention, spark our interest and stoke our curiousity. Be counterintuitive and do something unexpected that surprises us.

Make your sticky idea clear and concrete. Steer clear of ambiguity, meaningless abstractions and jargon.

Help us believe in your idea by building credibility through convincing details, accessible statistics and testable credentials. Let us try before we buy in.

Make us care. For us to care, we have to feel something and we’re hardwired to feel things for people rather than abstract concepts.

Sell us your idea by telling us a story. Stories provide simulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act). If a credible idea makes us believe and an emotional idea makes us care, a great story makes us act.

So if want more buzz and buy-in for your project, serve up a simple, unexpected, concrete, credentialed and emotional story. And beware the Curse of Knowledge.

With a little focused effort, the Heaths say anyone can make almost any idea sticker. “And a sticky idea is an idea that is more likely to make a difference.” And get you a good night’s sleep.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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