NO matter your job title or vocation, we all work at communicating crucial concepts. A history teacher struggles to find the best way to present her lesson so that squirmy middle schoolers will remember a fraction of what she imparts. A company manager toils to make the company's focus and priorities clear, so that his employees will make business decisions with a sense of direction and purpose. A novelist tussles with story line and plot, trying to figure out how to represent the ideas in her head in a way that will penetrate readers' imaginations.
Yet much of the time, these communications fall flat. We spend hours making PowerPoint presentations that put people to sleep. We give dates and facts and statistics, but fail to connect our ideas to real lives. Our messages don't take hold because they don't matter to those we're trying to influence.
According to brothers Chip and Dan Heath, the real reason is because our messages lack "stickiness," that elusive element that piques people's interest.
There are solid reasons why humans tend to dwell on certain things and not on others, they tell us in their book, "Made to Stick." Urban legends, for example, are notoriously sticky, as are "Chicken Soup for the Soul"-kind of stories and proverbs that have been shared across centuries, cultures and languages. These stories take hold, adhere to our psyches, refuse to be displaced. But without this stickiness, our ideas remain transient, brushed away like so much mental fluff.
The Heath brothers, taken with Malcolm Gladwell's bestseller, "The Tipping Point" (from where they got the term "the stickiness factor"), decided to look further into this adhesive component.
Chip Heath teaches a class at Stanford University's business school in this area and Dan Heath, an expert in education, has long explored how successful teachers make their lesson plans linger in students' minds. Together, they developed a schema of the elements required for an idea to attain stickiness, including simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions and stories.
With convincing examples, the authors take readers through these elements, illustrating along the way how the ideas work, such as how the hugely successful advertising campaign surrounding Jared Fogle, the 425-pound college student who lost weight by eating Subway sandwiches, was almost never made (the ad agency and the company didn't at first recognize its sticky factor). And how the creators of a public service program to reduce littering in Texas used knowledge of their target demographic -- men who drive pickups and don't like to be told what to do -- to manufacture the incredibly sticky line, "Don't Mess With Texas."
Some ideas are so chock-full of stickiness that they continue to be retold even as they're proved untrue. "Nice guys finish last," for example, credited to Brooklyn Dodgers Manager Leo Durocher. (Apparently, what Durocher really said of the 1946 Giants was: "Why, they're the nicest guys in the world! And where are they? In seventh place!")
Unlike Gladwell's book, which was built from a number of New Yorker articles and struck a literary tone, "Made to Stick" is more a hybrid of business, psychology and self-help narratives. There are case studies for readers to solve, along with corny acronyms to help us remember the concepts. At times, the writing sounds like the motivational speaker/father character in "Little Miss Sunshine" spouting his nine-step "Refuse to Lose" program.
Still, the ideas themselves are intriguing, and when the authors adhere to their own formula -- giving us real-life stories with concrete details, vivid examples and unexpected outcomes -- the narrative becomes utterly compelling.
The six "sticky" elements may seem obvious to those who make their living in the realm of expressing ideas. Attend any creative writing class, for example, and the first rule you'll learn is "show, don't tell," encapsulating many of the Heath brothers' elements.
The book is nevertheless both a solid introduction to these concepts and an engaging refresher for those who may already be familiar with them.
Bernadette Murphy is the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting" and co-author of "The Tao Gals' Guide to Real Estate."