Made to Stick

Chip Heath & Dan Heath

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Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Chip Heath & Dan Heath
304 pages (Random House, 2007)

Here at the Aspen Institute, we don’t really like simple ideas. Decades of work in poverty alleviation, human rights, school reform, and climate change have taught us that the worlds we inhabit, and the goals that we set for ourselves, are anything but simple. Simplicity is the antithesis of effective. It ignores the need for comprehensive solutions. It’s the opposite of complexity, and managing complexity is the mantra of the global age. Simplicity leaves me pining for a matrix. So when Made to Stick co-author Dan Heath arrived at the institute’s Maryland campus to teach us how to simplify our ideas, he had his work cut out for him.

The first slide of his presentation was a field of black with a sentence in white, save one or two carefully chosen words in tangerine. It was sublime in its minimalism. The rest of the slides were similar, with an occasional word in cerulean blue or dazzling yellow. Despite the subzero wind blowing off the Wye River estuary, I felt like spring had arrived! Dan put us to work immediately, challenging us to move away from our white boards and wonk speak. Maybe there was hope for me and my ideas yet.

Dan, a consultant at Duke Corporate Education, wrote Made to Stick with his brother Chip, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. And their book is sticking, to thousands of reader-apostles who have pushed it on to The New York Times Best Seller List. The Heath brothers have taught me that if anyone is going to “get” my idea – need it, buy it, fund it, use it – I need to radically shorten my elevator pitch. No more pretending that every building’s a skyscraper. I can live in a world of complexity, and my theory of change can and should mirror the system I am working to change, but I’d better talk about it in a way that leaves my target wanting more, not less. Just because I have a theory of change doesn’t mean I have to wear it on my sleeve.

The Heath brothers became interested in “sticky ideas” individually. At Stanford, Chip was researching why bad and even false ideas, like urban legends, take root. (How many of you think the Great Wall of China is visible from space? Think again.) Dan was busy co-founding a company that explores new forms of education and what makes great teachers great.

To help readers create a “sticky” message – an idea that is understood and remembered, and that creates a lasting impact – the Heaths developed the mnemonic SUCCESs: Simplify the message, which is sort of like boiling the Ten Commandments down to the Golden Rule. Root the message in something Unexpected, to grab your audience’s attention. Use Concrete evidence. Be Credible. (Ask yourself, Will anyone believe me?) Tug at Emotions to make people care. And use Stories that prove change is possible. Is this as easy as it sounds? Of course not. Is it worth doing? Yes.

The authors repeatedly warn about the Curse of Knowledge. The more you know, the more challenging it is to develop and communicate a sticky message. This rings true for many nonprofits I know. The brothers offer amusing examples from prominent NGO Web sites that are long on information and statistics and “message,” but lack anything remotely sticky. Their examples of good practice, however, are inspiring. The book has me waking in the wee hours to consider how to boil my layered, complex, theoretical, and practical work on transforming business education, and mainlining ethics and sustainability in MBA classrooms and business decisions, yadda, yadda, yadda, into a message that will open coffers in private foundations near and far. That would really be SUCCESs.

Judith Samuelson is the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program. She has traveled a career path through government, business, and social investing.