Made to stick — Summary

This is one of the books everyone should read. Knowing how to create ideas which stick to people’s minds is fascinating and useful

Ideas can be presented so that people tend to forget them, or so that people tend to remember them. In this book, you will learn how to present ideas so that they “stick.”

Think a moment about all the great ideas coming from the academic background, most of them are soon forgotten and gather dust in the thesis shelves of some university.

Other ideas, although often less brilliant, spread like wildfire, rumors and urban legends for example. One example is the panic millions of parents had during Halloween in America because supposedly an unknown villain distributed candies laced with poison or razor blades. Tha story was a baseless urban myth of course.

But why did it spread so quickly and why is it so hard to stamp out such misinformation? Here is another example, some years ago, Art Silverman who worked for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) wanted to raise awareness about the use of coconut oil for the preparation of popcorn resulted in shockingly unhealthy — high in saturated fat — movie popcorn.

Telling people facts resulted not very effective. After all, nobody seemed to stick with the idea that a bag of popcorn contained 37g of saturated fat. So they tried to package their message in a stickier envelope, which resulted in an eventual replacement of coconut oil with healthier alternatives by all major American cinema chains.

“A medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn at a typical neighborhood movie theater contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings —combined!”

The folks at CSPI assisted with visuals—they laid out the full buffet of greasy food for the television cameras. An entire day’s worth of unhealthy eating displayed on a table.

The message stuck, the story was an immediate sensation, featured on major TV channels like CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN and many front pages like USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post’s Style section.

Headline writers trotted doozies like “Popcorn Gets an ‘R’ Rating,” “Lights, Action, Cholesterol!” “Theater Popcorn is Double Feature of Fat.” etc. Moviegoers started asking the service staff if the popcorn was made in the “bad” oil. Sales plunged.

Soon most of the biggest theater chains announced that they would stop using coconut oil to fry popcorn.


Simple ideas stick

To make an idea stick, it has to be simple. A simple statement makes an idea easy to grasp, understand, and remember.

The trick then is to abstract the core idea of something and encapsulate it without changing the meaning.

This doesn’t mean that it has to be dumbed down, many ideas can be abstracted without changing the meaning. So that everyone can understand, while the idea sticks.

Unexpected ideas get our attention

Our brain likes to save energy. Whenever we are doing something repeatedly like our daily routines, driving to work, brushing teeth, etc., our brain works on autopilot. This means that we don’t pay any conscious attention, our subconscious mind is in control and information just passes by unremembered.

To make us pay attention then, something unexpected must happen. If you drive to work and then a big obstacle appears on your way, you suddenly pay full attention as the brain jolts out of autopilot.

If you want people to pay attention then, present your idea in an unexpected or striking way.

Curiosity gaps capture people’s attention

People tend to be distracted fast. The challenge then is to hold their attention, once you get it. A good way to overcome that obstacle is to use curiosity. A curiosity gap can be used to make people want to know more so that their attention gets retained.

When people go on autopilot, it is often because they think they already know everything out there. To capture their attention then, show them something they don’t know yet. This immediately jolts them out of autopilot and makes them want to know more. People don’t like gaps in understanding. They make them feel compelled to fill the gaps.

Detective novels use this technique perfectly. They present clues and red herrings making the reader guess and wonder. Curiosity gaps work because once the interest of a person is triggered, the person wants to fill in the gap.

Headlines are a perfect example of this. Celebrity gossip magazines use them with great effectiveness to boost sales. Once people read the headlines, they want to fill in the gap. They want to know the rest of the story.

Surprising facts are another great opener for curiosity, for example, a question like, “why do 90% of people react badly to this situation?” would trigger the attention and curiosity of many people.

Concrete ideas stick

The more concrete and better described (without jargon) the idea is, the more likely it will stick, here is why. The more educated people are, the more they tend to explain things in an abstract manner. Instead of using simple language, they use jargon only known to other people with deep knowledge in that specific topic.

But how is a message supposed to stick if other people can’t understand it? Our brains tend to forget information we don’t understand. If it doesn’t make sense to us, we just ignore it or forget it soon, because our brains can’t integrate it in a meaningful way with prior knowledge.

To solve this problem we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and ask, “How does what I say sound to the other person?”

Elizabeth Newton’s Ph.D. experiment in 1990 demonstrated how hard it is to put us in a situation of a person which does not have the knowledge we have.

Subjects in her experiment had to tap a song, while another subject had to guess the name of the song. Before the listeners guessed the name, the tappers were asked how probable they thought it was that the listeners guessed the song correctly. The tappers estimated that the listeners guessed the song correctly about 50% of the time. But in reality, the subjects only guessed 2.5% of songs correctly.

How can that be? Why did the tappers suppose that they got their message across 1 time in 2 when in reality, it was only 1 time in 40? The reason is that when the tapper taps, she hears the song in her head.

The tapper/listener experiment happens everywhere every day. CEOs trying to get a message to their employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, writers and readers, marketers and customers, etc. All these groups suffer from enormous information imbalances. When the CEO discusses a concept to one of his employees, in her head the song is crystal-clear.

People tend to forget that not everyone knows as much about the subject as they do. Only by using concrete, understandable terms can we be sure that the message will be understood.

Concreteness means to avoid unnecessary jargon and in simple and clear language. Don’t let room for interpretation, make sure to explain it exactly as it is. In the case of Aesop’s fable about The Fox and the Grapes, the Fox didn’t know that the grapes were sour, he convinced himself that the grapes he can’t reach are too sour so that he wouldn’t feel so frustrated.

Sticky ideas must be credible

If people don’t believe something to be true, the will readily dismiss it. Ideas need credibility for them to stick. Credibility can be gained in many ways. The first thing most people resort to is an authority. If an expert backs up a statement, the statement gets a lot more credibility. The expert doesn’t necessarily have to be a doctor or Ph.D., it can be any person who represents a clear message, for example through her own experience.

Take for example the anti-smoking campaign which featured a woman in her late twenties who had smoked since the age of ten. She was facing her second lung transplant, and her appearance was that of an elderly, frail woman. Her appearance and story gave a lot of credibility to the campaign because people trust real people.

Another way to add credibility is to use facts and statistics, but statistics which paint a simple and clear picture. One example of effective use of statistics to convey a message is the anti-war campaign that claims the world’s combined nuclear arsenal has 5000 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb. This example paints a clear reference point in the audience’s imagination about the unimaginable destruction a nuclear war would produce.

Another method is asking the audience itself to take their own experience as a point of reference. Politicians do this often, Ronald Reagan’s electoral slogan was “Ask yourself, are you better off now than you were four years ago?” People often trust their own judgment often even more than they do an expert’s.

Emotional appeal is a strong motivator

We often assume that people are rational, but we are in fact irrational most of the time. That’s why emotions can be a better driving force to get people to make decisions. Emotions are a stronger force than rational decisions. For example, a picture of a starving kid could lead much more people to make aid donations than presenting the dry facts that millions of children are starving.

A picture of destroyed organs from people who were smokers will likely be much more effective for an anti-smoking campaign than facts and figures.

If you want an idea to stick, focus on emotional triggers rather than dry facts.

Appeal to self-interest

As we already saw, people tend to identify more with other people rather than facts and figures. Even more so, we tend to act when one particular person is involved, ourselves. “What’s in for me?” That phrase may sound familiar. We always want to know what we can get for ourselves.

To capitalize on people’s self-focus, companies should relate to their customers, showing them how their product benefits them instead of just listing features. The customers need to identify themselves with the product through their imagination. Once they see themselves lying on the sofa, enjoying that new tv or smartphone, they will be more likely to get it.

This appeal was employed successfully in Texas through a campaign aiming to discourage littering in young people. It coined the message “Don’t mess with Texas” and had it read out by Texan celebrities and athletes from local sports teams. Young Texans identified with their role models and the message making them think, “Real Texans don’t litter the sidewalk.”

Stories as inspiration

There was a time when most information was transmitted through storytelling. Imagine the older generations of our ancestors sitting around a campfire, telling their younger generation stories containing all kinds of wisdom.

A story is like a simulator for our brain. It allows us to experience something by getting inside the action. That’s why stories are more useful to inspire people than mere slogans.

Slogans are helpful to make an idea stick. But they can’t get people emotionally involved as a story. Take for example the true story of Jared Fogle through which the fast food chain Subway gained great profit.

Subway launched a campaign in the late 1990s to tout the healthiness of a new line of sandwiches. The initial campaign was based on statistics — seven subs under six grams of fat — that’s pretty good but not nearly as good as Subway’s next campaign, which consisted of a story.

Jared had serious weight problems. He wore XXXXXXL shirts and had ballooned to 425 pounds in his junior year in college. Then he was diagnosed edema, a condition in which the body retains fluid because the blood can’t transport enough liquid. This condition often leads to diabetes and heart problems, which Jared’s father warned him about constantly.

During spring break following his December hospital visit Jared decided to slim down. He started with Subway’s “7 Under 6” campaign and even developed his own all-subway diet. A foot-long veggie sub for lunch and six-inch turkey sub for dinner.

After three months he dropped almost 100 pounds, sometimes losing as much as a pound per day. He stuck with the diet and instead of taking the bus to classes, started walking as much as he could once his health permitted it.

Jared’s weight-loss story became a national phenomenon. USA Today, ABC, Fox News, and even Oprah called the producer of the first ad featuring Jared’s story. Quoting Jared himself, “Subway helped save my life and start over. I can’t ever repay that.”

Subway’s sales were flat in 1999 after the ad sales jumped 18% in 2000 and another 16% in 2001. Even smaller sandwich chains were growing at about 7% per year. So great was the impact of Jared’s story.

Stories can also inspire better social behavior, the story of the “Good Samaritan” is one such example. Stories about creativity and success are also very inspiring.

The reason I like reading biographies so much is because first of all they are very inspiring, secondly, one can learn from the actions of other people. – Karl N.

To produce messages which stick, the mnemonic SUCCESs to remember the six principles of stickiness.

1. Simple – isolate the core idea

2. Unexpected – grab attention by surprising people

3. Concrete – make sure an idea can be grasped and remembered later

4. Credible – give an idea believability

5. Emotional – make people connect emotionally with your idea

6. Story – use the narrative power of stories

This is one of my favorite books if you share this excitement get the book or share this summary.

Karl Niebuhr

Karl Niebuhr

Hi there,
I often learn awesome stuff while reading and it makes me want to share that shit. That's what this site is for, hope you not just learn from it but enjoy it like I do!
Karl Niebuhr

Latest posts by Karl Niebuhr (see all)

Also published on Medium.