by • 8 Dec, 2010 • InspirationComments (3)3983

Telling great ideas and stories that stick

The real stuff

Photo by Andrew Beresford on Flickr.

Years ago I read the book Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath. Basically it’s about why some stories and ideas disappear and others stick with the receiver forever. What makes a successful story that is retold over and over again?

The book applied its own rules and stayed with me. Reading through a pile of unremarkable blog posts and museum brochures this week its lessons came to mind again. Here’s the slightly edited summary I wrote for internal use in 2007. I believe this message is worth sharing, even after some years. Useful for when you pitch your next innovative idea, give a presentation or simply write copy for an exhibition.

What makes a story or idea stick?

Successful communication alone is not enough to make ideas stick. An idea sticks when:

  1. You can easily understand it,
  2. You can remember it,
  3. It’s effectively changing thoughts or behaviour.

To make sure your idea, story, pitch or presentation fits the above description, Dan and Chip propose the SUCCES criteria. Fulfilling these criteria will make your ideas powerful and successful.

  • Simple: Make sure to communicate (only) the core of your message and to keep this core compact. Use creative analogies, refer to what people already know and don’t explain too much. My favourite example: Alien = Jaws on a spaceship.
  • Unexpected: Get people’s attention by surprise or by making them aware of something they do not (yet) know. Beware not to be too funny: it distracts. It’s better to do something unexpected with something everybody knows.
  • Concrete: Good ideas are as tangible as fairytales and urban legends. Provide the context, stay away from statistics, keep it human and refer to what people already know and accept. (“Before this decade is out, (…) landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth…”)
  • Credible: Credibility can come from inside and outside of the idea. External credibility is when somebody credible tells an idea. Internal credibility (which is more relevant to us) comes from convincing details, clear comparisons (“If we were a soccer team, only two of us would know where to score”) and showing success in extreme or really private cases. (“If it succeeded there, it will succeed everywhere.”)
  • Emotional: There’s a lot of ways to make an idea emotionally relevant to people. Offer them relief or give them something to worry about, address their identity (“In other museums…”) and pick your adjectives carefully (How unique is unique?).
  • Stories: A good idea is a story that can be told over and over again. It’s like an anecdote and people will remember it. To make sure your idea does, make sure it stimulates people (visualisation is a strong tool there) and inspires them by challenge, connection or creativity (a surprising plot).

To check if your ideas, stories, presentations etc. stick, first check all the SUCCES criteria and then simply tell it to somebody who doesn’t know the story. If she can retell it perfectly, you’ve got a story that will make an impact.

The book Made to Stick is filled with clear examples and nice case studies, as well as hands-on exercises to make your ideas stick. It’s definitely worth your time if you want to make your good ideas turn into great stories to tell.

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  • I’ve been wanting to read this book forever but the next one I have on hold on my to-read pile is What the Dog Saw (Malcom Gladwell) — but I had read through a few reviews. I have two questions — is it worth reading it even after having read your summary? I often find books like these (Back of the Napkin, etc.) although they present a great ideas, once you grasp the gist of it, the rest if just painful to go through because it’s just re-explaining the same thing again and again to drill it down…

    Then the thing I’m curious about is that point you mention “unexpected”. Is it the story itself (storyline) that must be unexpected or is it actually the way you tell the story and build in some kind of climax/expectations for the reader? Can ANY story be made to stick (and you follow this to make it sticky) or is it a selection/screening tool, kind of like a checklist?

    Corina :)

  • Hi Corina,

    Although I cannot say whether or not you should read any book without knowing you thoroughly, I do think it’s worth reading after my summary. It’s especially the clear and relevant case studies that give hands-on advice. But then, that might be way preferred way of learning (I learn little from lists and much from practice).

    Unexpected can be both the way it is told, as what is told. To do both at the same time, however, might be tricky. In my experience, the unexpected should only be a small part of the story, as otherwise it becomes unbelievable.

    Can any story be made to stick? With a lot of guts and creativity any story can, I think. But look at – for example – the financial cuts going on all over the Western world and you’ll realise some stories are harder to sell than others.

    I have used the SUCCES criteria to make some of the stories I tell perfect. Not everything has to be perfect, so I’ve been good at ignoring the criteria as well. Telling stories and sharing ideas is something we do on a daily basis. By applying some rules, this will not only become easier but also leave a greater impact.

    Hope this helps:-)

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