Made to Stick

Made_to_StickOver summer some of our tents got damaged. We had a major windstorm blow through the campground, causing trees and branches to come down everywhere. Two major rips in one tent and a dozen minor tears in the shade tarpaulin. Gaff Tape to the rescue! This tape is seriously potent stuff. It fixes the problems and it goes on easily. There’s really only one problem. You can’t get it off! You can pull the tape away, but the sticky residue remains as testimony to the holes it once covered. The stickiness sticks even after the tent has been professionally repaired. If only that were true of all my good ideas, all my sermons, all my visions for the future! Communicate and they stick – at least all the bits that really mattered.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath is a book for people who want to communicate. Not just say things, but be heard, understood, remembered, and embraced. The authors have written this book for people who want their ideas to change people’s opinions and behaviours – that is, to make their ideas stick. As a pastor, I don’t want to be merely whistling into the wind. I’m keen for people to be excited by the message of God, to remember what’s important, to change how they think and speak and act, and to pass the message on to others. How sticky are my words and ideas? How much is remembered from my sermons? How do I go about seeking to communicate the life giving words of God?

Sadly, I hear some preachers with a love for God’s message, who come across as boring as the paint job on a navy ship. And I hear others, whose messages are largely froth and bubble, a mix of cliches and pop psychology, who get remembered because they manage to communicate in a sticky way. A good message deserves to be communicated in the very best ways possible. This book offers some great ideas, and you’ll find that many of them are pretty sticky!

The authors have identified six common features to sticky ideas. They’ve expressed them by the acronym SUCCESs. A pity they couldn’t think of a seventh – but maybe the lack of a final S makes it even more sticky?! These are the principles they found at work…

Simplicity
Unexpectedness
Concreteness
Credibility
Emotions
Stories

1. Simplicity

This is not about creating sound bites or necessarily short messages. It has to do with stripping the idea down to its core. What is its essence?

A successful defense lawyer says, “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, then when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.”  (p16)

This isn’t about dumbing things down. It’s separating the interesting ideas from the important. It’s separating the important from the most important. It’s distilling the essential out of the most important. Then you’ve got simple.

I see this as a trap for preachers. You’ve been working in a passage of Scripture, soaking yourself in it, picking out gems, discovering new paths, having the occasional ‘aha’ experience. You’ve worked hard in your preparation. There are so many things you want to say. And you do! You have enough different good ideas for a series of sermons and people are left wondering what on earth you said. Occasional preachers and student preachers are especially prone to this. If you only get to say things once every now and then, you’d better make the most of it. Yes! But that doesn’t mean saying everything! It means saying what you most want to say and making it stick.

2. Unexpectedness

The most basic way to get people’s attention is to break a pattern. We tend to be creatures of habit and we get lulled into the security of consistent patterns. Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because they make us pay attention and think. The extra attention sticks the ideas into our memories.

I remember hearing a sermon by a friend, where he began by saying he had two important announcements to make. The first was that someone, let’s call him Tommy, was being kicked out of the church because he’d done a, b, c, f, j, k, m, p, and q. These things were seriously bad and you could have heard a pin drop in the auditorium. This was going to be a heavy time for the church. We’d never faced anything this intense before. How would it be handled? The speaker had everyone’s attention. No one would forget this sermon. In fact, they’d be hanging out to get home and recount it to others.

The second announcement was that there was no such person as Tommy. He’d made him up! He wanted to get us thinking what should we do, what would we do, if these things actually happened. You might argue that the intro was ‘gimmickry’, however I’d respond that it moved me quickly and directly to the weight of the issue. This was more than a trick to get my attention. It persuaded me why I needed to listen. I heard it over 20 years ago, and I think it remains one of the stickiest sermons I’ve ever heard. Because he got my attention and held it, I can even remember the main point and the passage of the Bible being taught.

Getting people’s attention is one thing. Keeping it is another. Too many messages start well, and then deteriorate into boredom. We need to maintain people’s interest. The ideal way to do this is to create mystery, to breed curiosity, to show a gap in the audience’s knowledge that they want filled. It’s this gap that holds people’s attention. This is why people will keep watching a B grade movie to the end. They want the gaps filled and the tensions resolved. This means we need to highlight gaps in people’s knowledge that they want filled. Rather than simply filling their minds with facts, we want them to be seeking answers to their own questions.

To make our communication more effective, we need to shift our thinking from “What information do I need to convey?” to “What questions do I want my audience to ask?”  (p88)

 3. Concreteness

Concrete ideas are stickier than abstract ideas. Aesop authored some of the stickiest stories in history. We remember the message of The Tortoise and the Hare or The Boy who cried Wolf or The Goose that laid the Golden Eggs, far more easily than we could ever remember the abstract messages they portray. Yet because of the concrete story, we also remember the meaning. Here’s an example:

One summer day a Fox was strolling through an orchard. He saw a bunch of grapes high on a grape vine. “Just the thing to quench my thirst,” he said. Backing up a few paces, he took a run and jumped at the grapes, just missing. Turning around again, he ran faster and jumped again. Still a miss. Again and again he jumped, until he gave up out of exhaustion. Walking away with his nose in the air, he said: “I am sure they are sour.” It is easy to despise what you can’t get.  (p98)

If we want our ideas to stick we should err toward concrete ideas rather than abstractions. A V8 engine is concrete, whereas a high performance motor is abstract. A tightrope walker above Niagara Falls is concrete, whereas stepping out in faith is abstract. Engineering drawings are abstract, whereas walking onto the factory floor and showing where the part should go is concrete.

The authors argue that concreteness is the easiest of the six traits to embrace and that it may also be the most effective.

Crafting our ideas in an unexpected way takes a fair amount of effort and applied creativity. But being concrete isn’t hard, and it doesn’t require a lot of effort. The barrier is simply forgetfulness – we forget that we’re slipping back into abstract speak. We forget that other people don’t know what we know. We’re the engineers who keep flipping back to our drawings, not noticing that the assemblers just want us to follow them down to the factory floor.  (p129)

4. Credibility

Why do people believe ideas? There’s a multitude of influencing factors. We’re influenced by our parents and friends. We believe because we’ve had experiences that lead us in this direction. Our religious beliefs have an impact. We believe because we trust authorities on the matter. People develop core beliefs that operate like a set of gates allowing them to accept or reject new ideas. If we want to persuade a skeptical audience to believe a new message, then we face an uphill battle against so many other influences.

External authorities, such as an expert or a celebrity, can add weight to a message. The trouble is we don’t always have access to such authorities. At these times it’s important that our ideas have internal credibility. They must be logical and coherent. They need to stand up for themselves.

An important way of establishing credibility is to make a ‘falsifiable claim’. You ask the audience to test the idea for themselves. Can they prove it wrong? Will they check it out to seek if it stacks up to its claim? Testable credentials can provide an enormous credibility boost, since they essentially allow your audience members to “try before they buy.” (p157)

This approach resonates with how I should see communication about God working. The external authority is God himself, but if people don’t recognise his authority, they can at least test the claims. They don’t need to begin with accepting the divine authorship of the Bible, but can ask questions of verification. One area of internal credibility has to do with “does it work?” I want to encourage people to check out Jesus. I argue that he makes a huge difference to people’s life. I explain the difference he has made to mine. And I invite people to check him out for themselves. Does he make a difference?

5. Emotions

Believing credible ideas isn’t enough. People need to care if they are going to act in response. Much of this chapter seems to be about appealing to people’s self-interest. People are motivated if they feel they’re going to get something out of it. Appealing to people’s self-interest gets their attention. An old advertising maxim says you have got to spell out the benefit of the benefit. In other words, people don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures. (p179) This is the WIIFY – what’s in it for you – aspect of advertising. The authors argue that good communication needs to include this aspect. People need to have their needs engaged if they’re going to buy into the idea.

There are principles here that are more than appealing to selfishness. It’s more to do with people understanding their need to engage with the ideas. That it matters. To them. This is more than facts and figures. It’s more than analysis and reason. It’s about making things personal, showing how much they matter.

The authors have identified that people care more about the particular than the pattern. Like Mother Theresa’s comment: If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will. (p203) If we want people to act, then we need to do more than get them to make a rational response. They need to take off their analytical hats. We must show how our ideas connect with something they already care about. We appeal to what they value, who they are, and want they want to become.

All this might appear very manipulative, and it certainly could be used this way. We could simply end up reinforcing people’s selfishness by encouraging them to focus on their own desires. However, I think we should reflect on the emotional component of making ideas sticky. The world I come from tends to be very cerebral and doesn’t give much thought as to what moves people. We are emotional beings. Let’s not overlook this fact. We can be very passionate about things that matter deeply to us. Let’s tap into people’s passions as we communicate.

6. Stories

Good stories are very sticky. They can provide inspiration that moves people to action. They can help rehearse situations that enable people to perform better when they face similar real life circumstances in the future. A bit like a mental flight simulator that prepares people to respond more quickly and effectively.

Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by so doing they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations.  (p18)

Stories help anchor important ideas in reality. They could be used to explain the idea, illustrate the idea, or apply the idea. You don’t always have to create the sticky story idea. Sometimes it’s just a matter of identifying them when they come your way.

The beauty of stories is that they naturally embody most of the SUCCESs framework.

Stories are almost always Concrete. Most of them have Emotional and Unexpected elements. The hardest part of using stories effectively is making sure that they’re Simple –  that they reflect your core message.  (p237)

Application

If you’re in the business of communicating ideas that you want to change people’s lives, then read this book. You probably won’t like everything – I didn’t. Some things might clash with your worldview – they did mine. But it’s worth reading. The ideas here are worth considering. Communication is two sided. We can talk and talk, write and write, advertise and advertise, preach and preach… resulting in no visible change. No changed thinking. No resultant action.

There are no guarantees here. You could be the world’s greatest communicator and still no one changes. Isaiah the great prophet from around the eighth century BC had a powerful message to communicate, but he was told that the people would not change. Instead they would be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. (Isaiah 6:9)

We can’t control who will be changed by our message and who won’t, but we must not hide behind poor communication. If the message matters then so does the medium. If you want everyone to read something in the paper, then you write a gripping headline and put it on the cover. You don’t hide it away in small print somewhere toward the back.

In my role as a pastor/teacher I want to apply myself to my message, but also to improving my modes of communication. What will help people to grasp and retain the message? What will help people to understand why it matters so much? What will inspire people to take action? How can I make my sermons stickier? How can I communicate our vision in a stickier way? These are all questions worth asking.

2 thoughts on “Made to Stick”

  1. Surely the last ‘S’ is Spirit? Or rather, it should be the first ‘S’. All preaching is useless unless the Holy Spirit takes the word and convicts, challenges and edifies the listener. And that’s the problem I have with books like this. How can a biblically faithful message be boring? Surely that’s sin at work in the listener?

    1. Hi Ken, this is not a Christian book and it’s not directly aimed at preachers. I read it because I thought it was good food for thought. I see the need with this book to be selective and discerning. Some of the ideas I do not agree with, others are awesome, all need sifting.
      I agree with your assessment that listeners to God’s Word need to pay careful attention, lest they end up like the people mentioned in Hebrews 3 and 4 who hardened their hearts. But we need to ask what faithfulness in teaching comprises. It’s possible to tell the truth in such a way as to put people off the truth. For example, speaking the truth without love. It’s possible to handle the Word of truth badly, otherwise Paul would not have called teachers to be workmen who handle it well. It’s possible to speak the word in a way that veils it to the listener, such that Paul asks people to pray that he might proclaim it clearly as he should. It’s possible for the preacher to lazily not apply himself sufficiently to understanding, teaching and applying the Scriptures that people are not helped to understand or apply it for themselves. All this to say, let’s keep our confidence in God’s Word to transform people, and apply ourselves seriously to teaching it well, and pray that God’s Spirit will apply it to our hearts and our listeners.

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