Ideas that “stick” are ones easily remembered and understood. They have a lasting impact on the intended audience by making them listen, believe and act. So what makes an idea sticky? It must follow 6 principles:
- Tells a story
“For an idea to stick, for it to be useful and lasting, it’s got to make the audience:
Understand and remember it
Be able to act on it"
We think our audiences hang on to every word we feed them but oftentimes that isn’t the case. One major reason is we tend to suffer from “The Curse of Knowledge”. Once we know and understand something we assume everyone else does too. We fail to connect to our audience by making our ideas relatable.
However, we can engage our audience by using a simple framework that will ensure our ideas are remembered. The framework is a checklist for creating a successful, or sticky, idea using a simple unexpected concrete credentialed emotional story (SUCCESs). It is the combination of these 6 principles that make it work.
A sticky idea must be simple, not in the terms of “dumbed down” or “sound bite”, but should find the core of the idea. To get to the core of the idea, you must remove any superfluous and tangential elements. It is about finding what is most important.
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
–Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
There are two steps in making your idea sticky:
1) Find its core idea
2) Translate the core using the SUCCESs checklist.
Making ideas sticky is all about reducing the bandwidth for the reader. Short sentences are better than long paragraphs, easy words are better than hard words and use bullet points when necessary. Proverbs are the best example of distilled core ideas. Coming up with a compact phrase is easy, but coming up with a profound compact phrase that will be easily remembered is rather difficult.
The most basic way to get somebody’s attention is to break a pattern – to be unexpected. Our brains naturally begin to ignore consistent stimulation so a pattern break is needed to get us to pay attention and think. It is this extra attention and thinking which sears unexpected events into our memories.
To ensure your unexpected message is well received by your target audience, you must:
- Identify the central message you need to communicate
- Determine what is counterintuitive about your message
- Communicate your message in a way that breaks your audiences guessing machines (make it unexpected)
Your message should push beyond common sense into the realm of uncommon sense. Something that is common sense is easily ignored even if the underlying message isn’t so. You must pull out the parts that are uncommon and highlight those.
Create suspense in your message. You should be creating a mystery that makes the audience react with an “Aha!” moment preceded by a “Huh?” moment. This can be done by introducing knowledge gaps, or by providing the audience with enough information to make them realize they are missing some specific knowledge.
It is important to open knowledge gaps before we close them. We have a tendency to give away all of the facts at first instead of posing a question or puzzle for our audience to solve. Instead of thinking “What do I need to convey?”, you should be asking. “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”.
Abstract ideas are difficult to understand and remember. Using concrete language helps you avoid this problem by boiling down your message to specific people doing specific things. Having a concrete message helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts.
A concrete message is not one that is “dumbed down” but rather uses a “universal language” that everyone can speak and understand. This can be done by using a visual cue whether its a person or prop to help your audience picture your idea.
To give your ideas credibility, you must weave in vivid details. It helps to turn your ideas into stories using real people. A great way to do so is by implementing The Sinatra Test. This test was popularized by Frank Sinatra’s lyrics in New York, New York: “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere…” It implies if you have one strong example, your audience will assume you can take care of their problems.
“For instance, if you’ve got the security contract for Fort Knox, you’re in the running for any security contract (even if you have no other clients).”
Another way to add credibility is to use statistics. Statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves, but when used to illustrate a relationship they can become quite powerful. Statistics provide scale and context so your ideas are easier to remember.
If you want your audience to care about your message, you must appeal to their emotions. The most basic way to get them to care is to associate your message with something they already care about. One reliable way to do so is by invoking self-interest.
“First and foremost, try to get self-interest into every headline you write. Make your headline suggest to readers that here is something they want. This rule is so fundamental that it would seem obvious. Yet the rule is violated every day by scores of writers.”
To get people to care about your ideas you must avoid encouraging them to think analytically. Once they put on their analytical hats, their ability to react to emotional appeals has been hindered. Get people to care by using associations (or avoiding associations), appealing to self-interest and appealing to their identity.
Stories have the amazing dual power to simulate (knowledge about how to act) and to inspire (motivation to act). Use stories to wrap your idea with context and it will be remembered as associated with that context. Analogies also help make your message “simple” and “concrete”.
The book uses the example of the story of Jared from the Subway commercials who managed to lose life-threatening weight just by eating Subway sandwiches. His story changed his life and made a major impact on Subway’s bottom line. It is the power of his story that connected with the audience, something that stats and figures could never do.
If you wish to craft a compelling message, this book is one of the best resources I’ve read for providing you with the right framework. Remember that a “sticky” idea = understandable, memorable, and effective in changing thought or behavior.