Made To Stick

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008 0 comments

made-to-stickMade to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. Chip & Dan Heath.

Made to Stick is not a book about presentations, but it is a book for presenters. Looking at what m62 would call the “messaging” stage of presentation design, the book looks at what makes some ideas easy to understand and remember.

In communication, and this will be familiar to all who write presentations, often knowing too much can be a disadvantage. Try – the authors suggest – tapping out a popular tune to a nearby listener. The person tapping expects the listener to know what they are tapping, and yet most of the time they will not. We assume, as presenters, that our audience understand us, but without our background knowledge and overview of our material, often they do not.

So, what to do?

Brothers Heath suggest that, if our messages are to stick, our ideas should be:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

These categories can be massaged to spell SUCCESS, but whether this helps or not is anybody’s guess.


Simple messages clearly convey a single core idea, and have this core idea communicated in a way that taps into the audiences’ existing ideas and knowledge. Election campaigns can be focused on ‘the economy (stupid!)’; airlines can be all about ‘low fares’.

Core ideas must be meaningful, and easy to understand – so the film Speed can be seen as “Die Hard on a bus” – explaining one idea by easy reference to existing ideas that are already understood. Jargon should be avoided.
Simple ideas, when grasped, should explain a lot, with few words. Disney theme park employees are “cast members” – an idea that can guide behaviour and decision making. For example, cast members wouldn’t take a break on stage, so Disney theme park employees shouldn’t take breaks in uniform in public.


Many corporate presentations are boring – in part because the audience know what they are going to hear before they hear it. Not only because presenters use bullet points and hand outs to give the game away, but also because messages are fairly predictable. People pay more attention to things that don’t seem to fit, that aren’t expected. One reason why “We’re Number Two, We Try Harder” was such a successful slogan for Avis was because people expect companies to claim the number one spot, not second place. An unexpected approach gets the attention.

Presenters can get attention by surprising the audience with surprising facts, and can sustain attention by creating a mystery of teaser. Presentations can be made more engaging when the audience are actively involved in confronting something genuinely surprising. Involving the audience in dispelling myths, right at the start of a presentation, can go a long way to putting the audience into a receptive frame of mind.


Messages stick when they are made concrete, or real. The Heaths illustrate this in an interesting way. Try now to think of as many white (coloured) things as you can. Then, try to think of as many white things in your refrigerator as you can. For many, the second task yields as many objects on the list as the first task.

Concrete ideas are fairly exact – saying that a computer is “the size of a magazine”; showing what your product did for Acme Corp can be concrete; describing a target consumer in great detail – down to pictures of her kitchen and her car is concrete.


m62 often recommend building credibility in the first few minutes of a sales presentation. Why? Because if a message doesn’t seem credible it will be discounted, even if it is perfectly true. Credibility can be achieved through status, through prior performance, through the use of convincing detail, or through the appropriate use of statistics.

Status – “Nobel Prize winner”, “biggest widget maker in the USA”, or so on – makes an audience lend credence to a message. In a related way, credibility can be built by demonstrating that a company have performed for others who have very exacting standards. In this way, a courier firm can claim to have transported the latest Harry Potter book securely, or a security firm could claim to have guarded top VIPs.

Extraneous details can make an idea easier to remember, and a tale seem more believable. So, an organisation that claims to value diversity may not be believed, a dance group who talk about a 73 year-old member might be.

Statistics, when brought to life, bring tremendous credibility. So, instead of $200 million turnover, think along the lines of “sold enough shampoo to wash all the hair in New York for an entire year”, for example. Extremely large, or extremely small, numbers should be converted into a frame of reference that the audience can readily make sense of.

Finally, credibility can be built by asking the audience to test something for themselves – “our burgers have more beef than the competitions’ – see for yourself”, would be an example from advertising (or, more exactly, “Where’s the Beef?”). Truth helps here, but the very act of inviting direct comparison itself builds credibility.


Understanding how people make decisions is crucial to presenters, particularly those selling. Yet Dan and Heath Chip argue that we tend to assume that others make decisions differently to how we make them ourselves. More exactly, we tend to assume for others more base instincts than we ourselves have.

People make decisions based on their own self-image and group identity – that is, they decide “as fire-fighters”, or advertising creatives, or left-wing process engineers, or whatever. People often aren’t as moved by appeals to their base instincts as we might think, but instead make decisions based upon their sense of how people “like them” would act. Emotions are important – and are often more sophisticated that we realise. People care about individuals, their own self-interest as autonomous beings, rather grandiose and important concepts they see as relevant to their own identity (“sportsmanship”), and about their own group identity.

Business decision makers often exhibit a strong sense of corporate belonging – which could and should be utilised when appealing to their sense of the company “Way” of doing things.


Stories provide a memorable way to structure information. Although the “essential” moral of a story may be far shorter than a story itself, if a story is well chosen it becomes memorable, whereas a moral with no story will simply be forgotten. Stories should be inspiring – about overcoming obstacles, or doing things in new and creative ways. Stories should not be invented – but spotted. Individuals in companies often encounter situations that would make great stories, but very few of these stories are recorded.

Stories often work best when left slightly open – messages and morals should be left for the audience to discover and expand upon – rather than spelt out in 28 point font.

Should You Buy It?

Brothers Chip and Dan Heath bring complimentary perspectives to this work. Chip Heath, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Stanford University, draws on his research into urban legends and conspiracy theories – such as that of “kidney theft” or “razors in candy on Halloween”. Dan Heath founded an educational publishing company, and so grapples with the challenge of helping to explain complex material on an everyday basis. These perspectives shine through, and the numerous stories told make the material covered easy to grasp.

Made to Stick is a great book – a real must for anyone grappling with how to get ideas heard and noticed in a crowded marketplace. The material is clearly presented, and Brothers Heath thankfully had the awareness to bring their own teachings to bear on their material. The book is easy to read, and easy to remember. A clever summary helps the reader commit material to memory. Academic detail is relegated to a references section. Arguments are well-made, and schemas are well-constructed.

Other authors may have issue with some of the material presented. Better stories and illustrations are out there. Other approaches may be easier to put into practice, may help ignite greater creative spark, or may just work to make stickier ideas. This book won’t be the last word on what makes some messages stick – no book will – but it is certainly an indispensible popular addition to the field.

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