The book is aimed at anyone who has an idea to convey and is trying to ensure that what they are trying to convey sticks with their audience. Proverbs and folklores survive while corporate marketing material does not.
Stories stick Facts don’t
A famous urban legend in the United States is Kidney heist. An attractive woman offered your friend’s friend a drink. He became unconscious soon afterward, only to be woken up later to realize his kidney has been stolen. This urban legend is an interesting story worth sharing and that’s why it sticks. Good delivery is like this; it does not need repetition, people hear them once and remember them forever.
A non-profit found out that a single bag of popcorn, due to the presence of coconut oils, contains twice the recommended daily allowance of saturated fats. Telling the public that 37 gms of saturated fats are above 20 gm daily limit was meaningless. People can’t relate to it, and it won’t form a story. So, the non-profit did a press conference and told that a single bag of popcorn is worse than “bacon-and-eggs breakfast, big Mac and fries for lunch, and steak dinner with trimmings combined”. That was an immediate hit, sales of popcorn dropped, and eventually, theatres conceded to remove coconut oil from popcorns.
In 1960s, a myth about contaminated candies given to the children during holidays begins to spread. Parents were scared, and states passed laws. When the researcher did the study, they found exactly two cases of candy contamination, both by the family members.
Six principles of stickiness (SUCCES)
- Simplicity – The idea should be stripped to one statement so profound that the individual can spend their life learning to follow it. For example, “Don’t take drinks from strangers.”
- Unexpectedness – Violate people’s expectations to ensure that they are not zoned out while listening.
- Concreteness – Make the ideas concrete. Mission statements, synergies, and vision do not go too far. Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images, for example, of children eating apples with razor blades.
- Credibility – Ask people to themselves try and see if they feel the idea is credible or not.
- Emotions – We feel for humans, not abstractions. Prefer facts over emotions. For example, a teenager won’t quit smoking fearing its consequence but might quit it as resentment of big tobacco.
- Stories – Stories stick and are like a mental simulation of the situation, we will encounter in the future.
Kennedy’s “Putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade” fits all the criteria. “Becoming an international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives” means nothing. Sadly that’s how modern days CEO speak. While many of the above ideas are obvious, we end up ignoring these due to the curse of knowledge.
In Tapper vs. Listener experiment, one person taps a given famous song on a listener’s hand. The tapper thought 50% of the listeners would guess the song correctly, only 2.5% did. That’s the knowledge gap we encounter when conveying our ideas.
Keeping things simple
The more we reduce the amount of information in an idea, the more it gets stickier.
US army moved from passing the actual commanding order to the commander’s intent (CI). The CI prescribes the core idea that has to be done not how it has to be done. This leaves good enough to deal with unpredictable situational changes.
Don’t bury the lead
Focus on one core idea. The information should be in the decreasing order of importance as one reads further. For 1992 elections, Clinton used “It’s the economy, stupid” as the lead. To avoid burying the lead, other essential things like balancing the budget was forcefully left out.
Extraneous information, uncertainty, and choices impact our behavior. For example, in a study, only 20% of students chose to study over once-in-a-lifetime lecture. But when a third choice to go watch a foreign film was added, 40% chose to study. The students chose less enjoyable decision of studying as opposed to spending time choosing between the other two alternatives.
Accuracy vs. accessibility
An accurate but inaccessible message like “maximizing shareholder value” is useless. Southwest’s “The low-cost airline” is an actionable message which can be used to make decisions.
The Daily Record, a local newspaper of Raleigh, has an intense focus on “names, names, and names” around anything related to locals. That’s why it enjoys a strong readership. Most other local newspapers, in practice, pay lip service to the idea of local news. Proverbs are passed around for generations since they are simple to learn, for example, “a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush.” Palm Pilot won the market since it tried to do a few things well. As opposed to other PDAs which were trying to stuff too much the functionality.
Good vs. bad analogies
Good analogies are generative. Disney calls its employees cast members. They are on stage when they are in front of the public. Even a Disney street cleaner is a performer. One can easily guess that since they are performing in front of the public, they are expected to take breaks in private. Compared to this, Subway’s Sandwich artist is a flawed analogy. The job does not have much individual expression and therefore, calling them artists does not help them define any aspect of their job.
Unexpected – Getting people’s attention and keeping it
Good vs. bad unexpectedness
An advertisement for a new minivan, the whole family, is inside it and enjoying it, then suddenly an accident happens at an intersection. The ad was about the importance of car seat belts. It does the job well of communicating its core message. Outpost.com, an online computer part seller, did a super bowl advertisement where wolves attack marching band members. It had an element of surprise but has no core message.
- Find the central idea of your message
- Find out what’s counter-intuitive about it
- Deliver the message in a way that it breaks the audience’s guessing machinery, so that, they are forced to focus.
Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages. When we are angry, we think we are right. We remain curious as long as we believe there are gaps in our knowledge, the way to maintain someone’s attention is to open a gap before closing an existing one. In a teaching setting, one great way to maintain curiosity is to ask a question, and then make people publicly guess the answer to it, thereon, eventually, the mystery is revealed before the class ends.
Masaru Ibuka, Sony’s chief technologist in 1950s, motivated its engineer to build “pocket-sized radios” using the newly licensed transistor technology. Till then, Radio was a piece of furniture. It took a long while before Radios became pocket-sized but the surprising and concrete vision kept engineers motivated.
A concrete idea hooks into our existing notions and is easy to memorize. For example, Pomelo is an extra-large grapefruit. That’s one reason why folklores like “grapes are sour” are so vivid and concrete. They might have had abstract details which got stripped over time.
We fall for abstractness because of the expertise trap. A novice percieves a concrete detail as a concrete detail. An expert perceives it as symbols of patterns and insights, they have learned over the years. And that’s the Curse of Knowledge. The big advantage of concreteness is that it makes coordination easy across different teams. “A plane which can fly from New York to Miami non-stop” is concrete, “the best passenger airplane in the world” is not. Concrete exercises are easier, “Write a list of all white things you can think of” is hard, “Write a list of all white things on your refrigerator” is easy. James Grant, director of UNICEF, would put a packet of salt and sugar, the ORS ingredients, on the table in front of a Prime Minister and say that this costs less than a cup of tea and can save millions of lives in their country. The trick worked.
Good source of building credibility
- Authority – FDA, CDC, doctors, all are sources of credibility for us.
- Antiauthority – A recovering alcoholic/smoker is an anti-authority who is even more powerful than an authority.
- Facts & details – Adding details, even unnecessary ones, makes the story look credible. Facts can be used only if they are comprehensible. For example, 4000 nuclear warheads are not comprehensible. Beyond War Movement, used to use a metal bucket and would drop a BB metallic ball in it. The presenter would compare this to the bomb dropped in Hiroshima and would give vivid details of that. Then he would drop 4000 BBs into the bucket and mention that this is the number of nuclear warheads in the world. The story worked. Safexpress in India focused on high-margin reliable delivery and got a lot of international business. They were having a hard time finding the local business though. They convinced Bollywood producers to use them as a distributor by telling them how Safexpress delivered Harry Potter in time and how they handle delivery of board examination papers across India.
- Falsifiable claim – Nothing works better than a claim which anyone can verify for themselves. For example, a burger shop claiming check our burgers are bigger than Macdonalds is a falsifiable claim. It works great.
Emotions over facts
Our analytical brain performs differently than the emotional one. Numbers and facts trigger former, stories trigger the latter. There are two major appeals – appeals to self-interest (what’s in it for me?) and appeal to identity (what would be a person with identity similar to me do?). Identity rules over self-interest, especially in politics where people vote based on the group they identify with. Don’t mess with Texas anti-litter campaign directly appealed to the identity of Bubbas and greatly reduced the roadside litter.
We love stories for the entertainment they provide. There are three types of story plots – challenge, connection, and creativity plot.
- Challenge plot -This storytelling inspires listeners to act. For example, a 300 pounds man goes on a Subway diet and cuts his weight to 180 pounds. This story first showed up in a student newspaper, and then an ad-agency heard about it and decided to pursue it. So, another lesson here is that you don’t always have to find a message which sticks but should be able to spot one.
- Connection plot -This storytelling improves bonding and relationship. They are about human connections, for example, Romeo & Juliet.
- Creativity plot -This storytelling is to inspire people to act differently than what they are doing right now. For example, Ingersoll-Rand, an industrial appliances company, made a new team whose goal was to produce new grinder designs at 4x the pace. The team invented a new test called Drag Test to quickly decide whether a new form of plastic can replace metals or not. A similar situation happened with Stephen Denning in 1996, who found out that a farmer in rural Zambia saw information about fighting malaria on USA’s CDC’s website. When he narrated this story inside The World Bank, the bank decided that the knowledge management should be their top priority.