Opinion: Forget PowerPoint – time to get sticky

Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House, 2008.

I am an obsessive consumer of business books. In fact, several years ago, in an effort to improve my reading habits, my wife made me commit to reading at least 10 non-business books a year. Meeting this target usually involves a cramming session over the Christmas holidays.

But only rarely do I come across a business book that is both insightful and a “fun read,” and this is one of them.

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We live in an era of communications overload. The growth of social media, blogs, Twitter, wikis, et cetera, have only added to the clutter. In this environment, even good ideas have difficulty standing out and succeeding. Moreover, in corporate and government circles, people seem increasingly unable to communicate without the use of PowerPoint. I’m sure that we’ve all sat through a slide-rich, jargon-laden and data-intensive PowerPoint presentation and wondered what message we were supposed to take away.

Made to Stick offers a refreshingly different perspective on effective communications from standard communication texts. It is one you will find of value no matter what type of communication you’re looking to improve, whether creating a mission statement, marketing a new product, pitching an idea, launching an advertising campaign, running a political campaign, teaching a class or giving a speech or sermon.

The authors have spent more than a decade exploring what makes ideas memorable. Chip Heath is a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford’s graduate school of business, where he teaches an MBA class in “making ideas stick.” His brother Dan, a former Harvard researcher, is currently a consultant at Duke Corporate Education and a developer of innovative text books. Both are regular contributors to the magazine Fast Company.

The book takes its inspiration from Malcom Gladwell’s The Tipping Point in which he identifies “the stickiness factor” as one of the three factors that help social phenomena to tip. Building on this concept, the Heath brothers combine research from journalism, education, social psychology, marketing, and political science with a variety of entertaining and engaging stories and cases to describe why some ideas resonate while others die, as well as why some ideas are more viral than others. They construct the book around what they identify as the six principles of sticky ideas. They compact these principles into the acronym SUCCES, the letters of which stand for simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotional and stories.

Each of the book’s chapters focuses on one of these principles. In essence, sticky ideas are simple but profound, grab people’s attention by running counter to their perceived notions, involve concrete examples instead of abstract formulations to help convey complex ideas, appeal to emotional needs and use stories to make the message interesting and memorable.

The book uses a variety of examples to demonstrate how these principles operate in making messages stick. These include several well-known urban legends as well as the “Don’t mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign and Wendy’s “Where’s the beef?” advertising campaign. The chapter on stories describes Subway’s Jared campaign based on the story of Jared Fogle whom the fast-food chain said lost 100 pounds in three months.

The authors also identify one of the biggest barriers that we all face in being effective communicators, which they call the “curse of knowledge.” Once we know something, they point out, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. This prevents us from putting ourselves in the shoes of our audience.

Rather, we tend to get lost in a sea of data and information all of which we as experts think it is important to communicate, losing the audience and our core message in the process. Their advice, based on research, that “stories stick – stats don’t,” is worth remembering.

The book contains a number of practical aids to help you make your ideas stickier. Each chapter is followed by a clinic where the concepts outlined in the chapter are applied to specific case studies. There are also a number of useful exercises, checklist and tools to help you develop “sticky” ideas.

Micheal Kelly is dean of the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.

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