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Making your ideas stick

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath

Like many of you, I have a lot of books on the shelves of my office, not to mention beside my bed. I’m a sucker for a snappy title which, combined with the instant gratification offered by online shopping, has made building a large collection all too easy in recent years. Of course, some of those books are still in the ‘queue’ to be read. Others have been partially read but they (or I) ran out of puff before finishing them. And then there are the few – the very few – that have been read from end to end and marked throughout with comments and/or sticky labels.

One of the most annotated books in my library is Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. The authors have pulled apart a task that most of us do often, but few of us do well: the conveying of ideas. They have identified six elements common to ‘sticky’ ideas, that is, ideas which are memorable, and which can cause us to change the ways we think and act.

These six elements are not complicated – when understood they seem like common sense. They are also widely applicable, to everything from an ad to a book. Yet they are surprisingly rare. Most people in most situations still believe that laying information out logically in front of someone – on a PowerPoint slide, for instance – will be enough to make that information stick. Yet all of us know, often from soporific experience, that it doesn’t work like that.

So what are the Heaths’ magic elements? What follows is a list rather than an explanation. For more details you’ll need to read the book.

The first is simplicity: focus on conveying only the central idea, and be brief in doing so. Instead of spending time adding layers of information, spend time stripping away all but the essential.

Next is unexpected: surprise the audience by breaking a pattern, doing or saying something out of the ordinary. Ask questions and leave them hanging for the answer.

Be concrete rather than abstract: use examples the audience can relate to; use imagery or real objects rather than vague concepts.

Make the information credible: use statistics in a way that your readers or listeners can relate to – that have a sense of scale, or that they can even test themselves.

The fifth element is emotional: Find an emotional connection to your audience so that they feel something as a result of hearing or reading what you have to say. Appeal to self interest.

Finally, the best way to bring all this together is to use stories. A  good story carries people along with you. A story is much easier to remember than plain information.

The more of these elements you can use, the more sticky your ideas will become. It just takes a little thought to incorporate them.