Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

At the urging of a fellow teacher, I bought the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. These brothers had been working in different fields, one developing computer-based curriculum and the other teaching at Stanford, when they individually become interested in what made certain ideas… stick. They put their minds together and wrote up their findings in a very interesting and quick read.

Somewhat, ironically, I think I had already read this book before. I guess not everything in it stuck, because this second time through was definitely enlightening. 

They started by looking at things which are very sticky, urban legends and click-bait stories on the internet. They determined 6 principles which seemed to be found throughout what stuck.
1. Simplicity: Find the core and turn it into a proverb. 
2. Unexpectedness: Generate interest and curiosity by opening and filling knowledge gaps. 
3. Concreteness: Eschew abstract language for concrete images 
4. Credibility: Let people “try before they buy” to see if your ideas are true. 
5. Emotions: Tap into the relevant emotions to get people to act. 
6. Stories: We are naturally built to tell and enjoy stories which provide “a kind of mental flight simulator.” (p. 16-18)
Together these form the acronym SUCCESs. See what they did there? Simple, unexpected, concrete… they are using their own formula to help us remember their formula. Brilliant. 

But there is a villain in this story, the Curse of Knowledge. Using an experiment involving people tapping out songs to uninformed listeners, the tapper could always hear the song but the listener just heard meaningless taps. Too much knowledge can lead to the sounds of a symphony in the head of the instructor and random noise to the student. But the teacher cannot unlearn what he knows, so he must be intentional in his methodology of teaching to best communicate the information. 

While this can be discouraging to people who do not consider themselves naturally creative and able to massage the message to fit the SUCCESs formula, the Heaths swear you don’t have to be super creative. They point to research that shows that effective commercials follow six basic formulas. (p. 260)
1. Pictorial Analogies: Extreme analogies rendered visually.
2. Extreme Consequences: Unexpected, exaggerated consequences of a product’s attributes.
3. Extreme Situations: The product is shown performing under unusual circumstances.
4. Competition: The product is shown winning a competition with another product.
5. Interactive Experiments: Listeners interact with the product directly.
6. Dimensionality Alteration: Time leaps to show long-run implications.
When comparing the well-done ads to less effective ads, they found there are infinite ways to fail, but apparently only six ways to succeed. 

In expounding upon the “S” in SUCCESs, they discuss a military concept known as “Commander’s Intent.” (CI) The CI lets the men on the ground know what absolutely must be accomplished. Since no plan survives contact with the enemy and “no lesson plan survives contact with teenagers,” (p. 27) we communicators must determine what MUST be communicated if all else fails. We must find the core. It’s not about dumbing down, but “about elegance and prioritization.” (p. 30) In a section called “Punch Line,” the brothers advise, “Avoid burying the lead. Don’t start with something interesting but irrelevant in hopes of entertaining the audience. Instead, work to make the core message itself more interesting.” (p. 41) They repeatedly warn against “burying the lead” and neglecting to make the core of your information stand out. One way to develop the simple core of a lesson is to use analogy. This “pins” the new idea to an old one and brings with it all the information the student already knows. And then layer simple idea upon simple idea to build up to a complex set of ideas. 

Making an idea “U”nexpected refers to the ability to supersede an existing “schema” and cause a listeners “guessing machine” to fail. In short, try to produce an, “I did not see that coming.” (p. 67) This jolts us to attention as we desperately want to know WHY we did not see it coming. To be effective the surprise must be “post-dictable.” That is, after the secret if revealed, you can think, “Oh, now it makes sense.” To do this, we must try to figure out what is the unexpected implications of your core message. Make use of mystery and knowledge gaps to keep the audience interested. We are creatures who are desperate to know the answer to a question which confounds us. Use that. “To make our communication more effective, we need to shift our thinking from ‘What information do I need to convey/‘ to ‘What questions do I want my audience to ask?’ “ (p. 88)

“ ‘C’oncrete language helps people, especially novices, understand new concepts. Abstraction is the luxury of the expert.” (p. 104) We must work to develop a “universal language” in order to be understood, and that language is always concrete. Props can be especially helpful her. Let people see in concrete terms what you are talking about. The problem here is that it is too easy to slip back into abstractspeak because of that old villain, the Curse of Knowledge. 

Next, an effective message much be “C”redible. High level, credible spokespeople work for this, but are rarely available. But we can use “anti-authorities.” These are people who have no stake in the message, a smoker who says, “Don’t smoke” or a friend who recommends a product. While statistics can add credibility, overuse actually inhibits it. Try to make the statistics powerful using easily visual, concrete analogies and physical objects. Try to demonstrate the relationship you are trying to convey with statistics and describe that instead. Make sure to fill your information with memorable details. We can also tap into the audience as a source of credibility by asking them to test us. Challenge the audience to prove us wrong. They also refer to the “Sinatra” test based on his hit song declaring “If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere.” Prove to your audience that you have performed in such a way, that their relatively smaller needs are easy to fill. To add credibility, it’s hard to know whether to defer to an expert, use vivid details and analogies in describing statistics, use an anti-authority, tell a “Sinatra” story, or ask the audience to test it for themselves. Sometimes we have to try them all before finding what will work.

We are “E” motional beings. “If we want to make people care, we’ve got to tap into the things they care about.” (p. 176) One thing people care about the most is themselves. We need to appeal to self-interest. Tell people what’s in it for them. Have them imagine themselves after using your product or learning your information. How much better will it be for them? But don’t use this to excess or your risk offending them if the ploy is too crass. Try to appeal to Maslow’s higher order needs. Appeal to their identity or desired identity describing what “someone like you” would do/say/believe. Appeal to their sense of transcendence. Show them how to be a better person.

S”tory can become a mental flight simulation, meaning that we immerse ourselves in stories and imagine we are a character within. By doing so, it is the next best thing to being there. Stories invite us to wonder what we would do in that situation. As we mentally try out different strategies, and then hear what actually happened, we absorb the information in a much more memorable way. “Stories can almost single-handedly defeat the Curse of Knowledge. In fact, they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework. Stories are almost always concrete, most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure they they’re Simple — that they reflect your core message. It’s not enough to tell a great story; the story has to reflect your agenda.” (p. 237) And we don’t have to be super creative, we just have to develop the abilities to spot a great story. 

This wonderful book is such a joy to read. It follows its own prescription, telling story after story to reinforce its points. I hope it “sticks” and makes me a better communicator. 

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