Ryan Battles Data-Driven Marketing Specialist

Six Principles of Sticky Ideas


This week I finished reading Made to Stick by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. The book is centered around six principles of sticky ideas and is geared toward marketers, writers, leaders, coaches… anybody who has ever needed to get a message across.

The book is chock-full of stories that demonstrate sticky messages vs. messages that are easily forgotten. Each chapter has several “clinic” sections where the authors start with a problem and share the original solution. They also rework the solution in a way that is a lot more memorable.

So why did I care to read this book? I have many areas in my life where I need to maximize the stickiness of the message that I’m trying to get across:

  • Parenting
  • Blogging
  • Speaking
  • Managing Contractors
  • Educating Clients
  • Reaching out to Customers

Due to the relevant nature of the book’s contents, and the countless stories told one right after another, I found the book to be a joy to read, and I gained some practical insight while reading.

Although these principles seem pretty obvious, it is pretty common for a presentation to fail to utilize any of them. How many speakers have you listened to that simply share data and show charts, or rattle off facts? While these are informational, the messages rarely stick. We could all gain to utilize these six principles a little more in our communication:

Principle 1: Simple

The goal of “simple” is to boil down a message to its absolute core. For example, Southwest Airlines has been consistently profitable for more than 30 years, even while other airlines have gone bankrupt, redefined their images, and struggled to stay in the air. Southwests secret? Their company motto is to be THE low-fare airline. Every significant decision that is made within the company, including in-flight refreshments and entertainment, is influenced by this core mission. While there are more principles at work within Southwest that allow them to succeed, this is the core message they have chosen to focus on with their key decision-making. It has allowed them to remember what to say ‘yes’ to and what to say ‘no’ to.

By keeping our messages simple, we make them much easier to digest, recall, and apply.

Principle 2: Unexpected

A message that is so unexpected that it causes you to pause is going to be sticky.

In the 1950s Sony was a struggling technology company with low employee morale, and they had just acquired permission to license cutting-edge transistors. Now, at the time, radios were giant pieces of furniture due to the large vacuum tubes required to receive the radio transmissions. With transistors, the size of a radio could be greatly reduced. The lead technologist had to come up with a way to inspire and motivate his team for the ground-breaking work ahead. His message to his team was simple and unexpected:

We’re going to create a pocketable radio.

The idea of putting a radio in your pocket at that time was about as absurd as putting a dishwasher in your pocket. The unexpected story stuck and motivated Sony employees to press on with this new product.

Principle 3: Concrete

Being concrete in our messaging involves using sensory language whenever possible to paint a mental picture. For instance, when Boeing designed the 727 passenger plane in the 1960s, the management team set the following goal for the plane’s design and capabilities:

  • It must seat 131 passengers
  • It must fly nonstop from Miami to New York City
  • It must land on Runway 4-22 at La Guardia

That last point is not just a random runway, it is a runway that is less than a mile long, and much too short for the existing passenger jets of the day.

If the specifications for the 727 were to be bigger, fly further, and land on shorter runways, the engineering team might not have pushed as hard to produce as revolutionary of an airplane.

Principle 4: Credible

Credibility can come from outside or within the person with a message. For example, when I purchase items from Amazon, the user reviews often sway me towards or away from a purchase. This is an example of outside credibility–unless the manufacturer is writing the reviews!

An example of credibility coming from within is an author who gives away a free chapter of her book. Just last week I purchased a book because I read through a sample chapter and couldn’t wait to hear more of what the author had to share.

In marketing, you can establish credibility with just one example. For example, Safexpress (a family-owned delivery business in India) had the contract to deliver the fifth Harry Potter book on the same day, across bookstores in India, by 8:00 AM sharp. They couldn’t deliver too early or the secret could be blown, and delivering too late would leave many angry bookstore owners. The delivery was a success, and this story speaks louder to all of their potential clients than reciting their on-time delivery statistics.

Principle 5: Emotional

People typically don’t care about numbers, they care about things that they can connect with. An interesting challenge described in this chapter was an anti-litter campaign across Texas. The marketers thought about displaying a Native American shedding a tear over litter, or cartoon wildlife delivering an anti-littering message, but they knew that these messages wouldn’t work with those they were trying to reach.

The typical Texas highway litterbug was an 18-25-year-old male who drives a pickup truck and listens to country music. The marketing team had to get through to that persona…and a cartoon owl just wasn’t going to cut it.

They ended up going with a handful of well-respected Texas professional athletes picking up trash on the side of the highway, saying:

You see the guy who there this out the window…you tell him I got a message for him (crushes can)…Don’t mess with Texas.

Within 1-year litter had declined 29%.

Principle 6: Stories

The final principle in sticky ideas is to tell a story to get the message across. Did you know that you can maintain a healthy weight by eating exclusively at Subway? How did you know that? I’m not sure about internationally, but I know most Americans know the Jared story…a 425lb. a college student who now weighs 180lbs. after eating Subway for lunch and dinner. Even though the corporate offices shied away from this message because of the potential health liabilities they could have, it was just too compelling of a story to be ignored.

Stories drive through stimulation and inspiration.

Should You Read the Book?

While I’ve summarized the six key principles here, as I mentioned before, the book is full of so many examples (I’m going to guess around 100) that drive home each of these principles from different angles. I’m certainly not going to give a presentation the same way again after reading this book, and I will pull it out for inspiration whenever I need to get a message across in a sticky way. I do recommend this book to anyone who wants to be a better communicator.

About the author

Ryan Battles

HI, I'M RYAN. I believe the best way to learn and remember is by writing things down and sharing them with others. This blog exists to help me synthesize and process my journey towards self-improvement.

Ryan Battles Data-Driven Marketing Specialist

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About me

HI, I'M RYAN. I believe the best way to learn and remember is by writing things down and sharing them with others. This blog exists to help me synthesize and process my journey towards self-improvement.