Thursday, May 24, 2007

Book review: Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

It seems like every year there's a particular book from the fields of social science, business or cultural analysis with a big concept that captures my imagination and makes me rethink things. A few years ago it was The Tipping Point; last year it was The Long Tail. I think this year it might be Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. If your work involves communicating ideas and hoping they stick, whether as an author or teacher or pastor or marketer or advertiser or parent or blogger, you need to read this book.

The basic concept is that certain ideas have a stickiness that stays with people, while others don't. Urban legends, like waking up in a bathtub full of ice and missing a kidney, or razor blades in Halloween candy, are sticky. Some commonly held sticky myths are that the Great Wall of China is the only human-made object visible from space (I believed this) or that you only use 10 percent of your brain. Other false sticky ideas that persist are the notions that the Chinese character for "crisis" also means "opportunity," or that Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, as Nathan Bierma has debunked.

More important, non-sticky ideas can be made sticky. Here's an example. A typical bag of movie popcorn used to have 37 grams of saturated fat. A true fact, but rather abstract. Nobody knows what that means. So in 1992 a scientist called a press conference declaring that a medium bag of popcorn has more artery-clogging fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries at lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings - combined! With all the visuals in front of the cameras, this press conference presented a sticky idea that made sense and changed the movie popcorn industry.

Another example: It's one thing to say that among business employees, only one in five are enthusiastic about their team's goals and that only 37 percent know their organization's goals. It's another thing to say, as Stephen Covey does, that if this were a soccer team, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they're supposed to play. That kind of concrete analogy makes the truth of the idea far more sticky.

The Heaths show and tell that to be sticky, ideas need to be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and use stories. We see this in movie pitches: Speed is "Die Hard on a bus." 13 Going on 30 was Big for girls. I've used this kind of shorthand in my own presentations of book proposals: More Than Serving Tea is like a Christian Joy Luck Club. A forthcoming book, Conversations with C. S. Lewis, is like Tuesdays with Morrie except with C. S. Lewis.

Other cultural examples of sticky ideas: Jared, the guy who lost hundreds of pounds eating at Subway. "Don't Mess with Texas," which began as an anti-littering campaign and took on a life of its own about what it means to be Texan. JFK's goal to put a man on the moon. Churches can create sticky ideas; one example that the Heaths cite is Saddleback Sam and Samantha, which Saddleback Church has fleshed out as who they want to reach. Willow Creek likewise did the same with Unchurched Harry and Mary. Having concrete, sticky ideas of who they're ministering to helped these churches become what they are today. Fundraising appeals are more effective when personalized by stories of specific children or people who are being affected. As Mother Teresa put it, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will."

In my own writing and speaking, I realize that I tend to overdo the exposition and lack sticky illustrations and applications. At the retreat I spoke at last weekend, I talked about how witness in suburban contexts needs to be both contextualized and countercultural. Kind of abstract. But the illustration that got the most positive response was this one:
A church in Cincinnati gives free car washes. They have big banners in their parking lot - “Free car wash!” and another banner underneath - “No, really!” And people come by and look a little skeptical and ask them why they’re doing this, and they answer, “We’re showing God’s love in a practical way.” And they’ll wash the cars, and people will try to pay them, they think it’s a fundraiser, but they just refuse them nicely, tell them God loves them and send them on their way.

Now, one car came through and the driver asked them why they were doing this and they said, “We’re showing God’s love in a practical way, we’re washing cars for free.” And the driver thought for a second and said, “Oh, I get it. Back in Jesus’ day, they walked around, so he washed their feet. Today, we drive, so you wash cars.”

Washing feet makes no sense today. But washing cars fits the context of our commuter culture, and it’s also counterculturally Christian. And this illustration stuck with people because it was simple, concrete and practical, and it was a brief story that could be remembered.

Of course, a lot of this is nothing new - Jesus' parables were sticky precisely because they were simple, concrete, surprising, emotive stories that captured people's imaginations. But it's great to have modern-day examples of what this looks like in our culture. The Heaths live out their principles; the book is filled with dozens of concrete, practical stories and examples to show readers how ideas can be made sticky. They have great before-and-after exercises and illustrations to show how you go from "in a typical year, there are only 0.4 fatalities from shark attacks" to "Q: Which of these animals is more likely to kill you? A SHARK or A DEER? A: The deer is 300 times more likely to kill you (via a collision with your car)."

Made to Stick challenged me to rethink how I guide my authors' in their writing, how I write back cover copy, how we publicize and market those books. It should also have application for anybody involved in teaching or preaching. Basically, if you liked The Tipping Point, you'll love this book. Check it out.

1 comment:

L.L. Barkat said...

Sounds like a good read.

On that Chinese character thing (which I followed the link to), I know my spouse has used that in conflict discussions. But he is careful to explain the "incipient moment" aspect, which, in conflict resolution really IS an opportunity. In conflict jargon, it's called the moment of "ripeness." So I guess I understood their point about the character, but I also think it's interesting how people play with the undercurrents of language, to point us to truth.