Saturday, April 08, 2017

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath (Book Review #6 of 2017)



Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

This book is one of the most-recommended business books and was a disappointment. It's three stars. They have sequels, I might get to them, but it's not high-priority. The book is basically a continuation of the research highlighted in Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point. If you're familiar with heuristics and cognitive biases (Kahneman and Tversky) then you may not glean much from this book. Maybe, as the authors remind me, I just suffer from the curse of knowledge-- where I know something and forget what it is like not to know it. The tips of the book are useful to anyone who needs to create a message, from a team manager trying to instill a direction or process, to a pastor who wants to make his sermon or church's mission statement memorable.

I finished this in early 2017 and applied this book to explaining why Trump won the election:
Trump's campaign had a "sticky" slogan that everyone can repeat-- Make America Great Again (MAGA). (The authors give the example of the successful Texas anti-litter campaign "Don't Mess with Texas," very similar.) This hearkened back to the Presidential campaigns of the 1800s where candidates had theme songs played at beer halls and train stops along the way (Thanks to the Washington Post's Presidential podcast for the knowledge there). Whoever had the best song won. (Turkey and other countries today have catchy songs in their political commercials today.) MAGA fits the Heaths' six principles for making an idea "sticky," their acronym SUCCES:
Simple - "Find the core of your idea" - MAGA is an idea summed in four words.

Unexpected - Generate curiousity about your idea. If it's counterintuitive, they will think about it more and thus be more interested.
This is the "again" part of MAGA. To me, that's counterintuitive because we're already great.

Concrete- Make sure an idea is memorable. Use concrete images and proverbs. It helps if you narrow the scope. The authors point out that if you ask people to name white objects in a kitchen, they will struggle to point out many compared to when you ask them to "name white objects in a refrigerator." You narrow the scope and it's easier, even though all items in the refrigerator are also found in a kitchen.
This is the "America" part of MAGA-- it's not about broad concepts like the "future," or       "freedom," the entire world, or human rights. America is narrow enough.

Credible- It can't just be a compact phrase or a "sticky, untrue statement." It must be true and convey an idea. Be "compact and core."
MAGA is compact and core but you can argue it isn't credible. If America is already great (what I argued made the statement counterintuitive) then the statement isn't true. I think we've seen enough lies repeated as truths through 2016-2017 (I know I go to Snopes to debunk fake news stories now more than years ago) that this idea doesn't hold. Every person clings to ideas you think are true but are actually not. It CAN be a sticky, untrue statement in 2017; people will repeat the lie until it is true (Goebbels). In fact, the authors examine various urban legends and myths that were "sticky" even though they were false.

Emotional- The idea must create empathy and appeal to identity. MAGA appeals to patriotism (and also nationalism). The emotional response helps make it sticky, which is also why I would say it can also be untrue in this day and age. It doesn't matter that vitamin C drops don't appear to do anything for anyone, the idea that it does makes people think it does-- placebo effect.
"America great again" makes one think back to childhood or an earlier period when he/she was happy to be an American. Probably a 4th of July picnic before you had to pay taxes or worry about childcare. That's the emotion the slogan appeals to, subconciously.

Stories- People remember stories even if they don't remember the content. People like a good comeback story, rag-to-riches, etc. If you can make that part of your message, it sticks.

Trump's campaign garnered so much attention because it was initially seen as a circus sideshow joke with little chance of winning. Everyone seemed eager to watch him lose at every stage. We all know how that turned out. But Trump also told stories about violence, jobs being shipped to China, Mexican druglords, etc. Those were largely verifiably false but people believed the stories. (Can you remember any stories Hillary told?)

Other details in the book:
Everyone is overconfident in his knowledge and thus many a high-paid marketer has gotten fired for creating a sure-fired campaign that wasn't sticky. But that also relates to the Counterintuitive essential of the sticky idea--your message must show the person's "knowledge gap." "Did you know...?" Knowledge gaps are painful and people naturally want to close them. If you can hook them with something they think is counterintuitive, then they hear the entire message and it will likely stay with them (and maybe they Google more about it later).

Limit the paramaters of your message (see above refrigerator example). If using statistics, or diagrams, you'll want to use the proper scale.
Beware of availability bias and other cognitive biases.

One note on psychology to keep in mind-- people tend to ask "What's in it for my group?" and not just "what's in it for me?" This tribalism is important. People subconciously ask themselves "How are poeple like me expected to think or behave?" In the "Don't Mess with Texas" campaign the appeal was Texans and gave an ideal standard of a "real Texan." This created an identity decision "If I'm a real Texan, I mustn't litter." Images of litter evoked empathy and the slogan appealed to identity-- what does my tribe take pride in?

Your message should also choose a "plot" to go along with the story. Person X did Y and the result is Z. It could be an underdog story or something else. The epitomy of SUCCES, according to the authors, is the Subway Jared Fogle commercials. "Eat subs, lose weight." It was counterintuitive-- it violated the schema we think of when we think "fast food." It was the story of a normal guy who accomplished something big. It was counterintuitive-- anyone can do this! It appealed to emotions--Americans struggle with weight and shame. The story was true and verifiable.

The authors spent time researching where various urban myths and beliefs like "nice guys finish last" came from. It's nice to hear the roots of these stories to help ward against our cognitive blinders.

In all, I give this book 3 stars out of 5. Like most best-selling business books, you're better off reading a review or a summary than the actual book. But you likely forfeit the stories in the book that make it "stick," (but hopefully my review has given you a couple stories to help you remember).

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