Made to Stick: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: July 8th, 2011 by bobmorris

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Random House (2007)

The art and science of devising ideas that have impact and endurance

This is one of the most entertaining as well as one of the most thought-provoking and informative books I have read in recent years. Chip Heath and his brother Dan examine an especially important challenge to everyone who struggles to formulate and then communicate ideas that “stick”: That is, ideas that “are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact – they change your audience’s opinions or behavior.” Extensive research indicates that each of us receives several thousand messages each day from various print and electronic media as well as from those with whom we have direct contact. These competing messages create “clutter” that is increasingly more difficult to penetrate.

Others have already explained why they hold this book in high regard. Here are three reasons of mine. First, the Heaths brilliantly explain how to nurture ideas that will succeed by penetrating the clutter and then sticking in a “noisy, unpredictable, chaotic environment.” They stress the importance of simplicity (i.e. “finding the core of the idea”), of surprise to attract attention and then interest to keep that attention, of concreteness (“language is often abstract, but life is not abstract”), of credibility (hence the importance of verifiable details), of emotion (i.e. making people care), and of storytelling that provides stimulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act). The Heaths’ own explanation of all this “sticks” because it possesses the same qualities to which the acronym SUCCESs refers: their explanation is guided and informed by Simple Unexpected Concrete Credible Emotional Stories.

Also, I greatly appreciate the Heaths’ use of real-world situations that demonstrate why some ideas “stick” and most others don’t. For example, in Chapter 5, the Heaths examine efforts to reduce litter in Texas. The state was spending $25-million a year on cleanup and costs were increasing 15% a year. Efforts to encourage better behavior (such as use of “Please Don’t Litter” signs and roadside trash cans marked “Pitch In”) weren’t working because they weren’t effective as appeals to emotion. What to do? How and why “Don’t mess with Texas” stuck is best revealed within the narrative. My point now is that this and dozens of other examples give a stickiness to the Heaths’ key points. Again, how they organize and present their material penetrates the clutter that (at last count) 432,367 books on communication offered by Amazon have helped to create…and that number does not include seminars, workshops, CD, DVDs, Web sites, and articles.

Key Point: Whether devising a campaign to eliminate litter or writing a book about penetrating clutter, ideas must “stick” to have any visibility and “traction” to have any impact. I agree with Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

I wholly agree with Chip and Dan Heath that, contrary to what many people may believe, almost anyone can craft ideas that make a difference. “And that’s the great thing about the world of ideas – any of us, with the right insight and the right message, can make an idea stick.” In this volume, the Heaths share all they have learned about how to do that. To paraphrase Henry Ford, whether you think you can or think you can’t make a difference…you’re right.


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