Made to Stick, Part 2: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Note: Because Made to Stick is a very comprehensive book, I’m publishing my book summary in two parts to give you all the salient points. This is Part Two. Part One is here.

Made to stick

Book chronicle and summary of Made to Stick, Part II

Chapter 5: Made to Stick Principle 5 – Emotion

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Mother Theresa

Scientific research shows that Mother Theresa’s precept is true for most of us. Charity organizations have known this for a long time: we do not give to “poverty in Africa”, but we sponsor this or that child. It is very difficult for us to feel compassion for statistics. Although we are aware that the economic situation in Africa is dreadful, we often do not feel concerned enough to act. Seeing an individual suffer, and knowing that we can do something to soothe their ordeal, is quite different.

Charity organizations are not the only ones needing to make people feel concerned. Managers, teachers, politicians and many others need to motivate their colleagues, their pupils, their troops.

What should you be looking for in order to motivate human beings? Appeal to what matters to them.

What matters to them? What are they concerned about?

The answer is simple: themselves. You, therefore, need to appeal to… their personal interest, and explain: “what can you gain from it” in the messages and ideas you want to convey. How many teachers have heard their pupils ask “But what’s the point of it?”. Do you think pupils are motivated to learn if their teacher cannot answer this question? And what if we could tell them that algebra improves your video game performance, would a teacher hesitate to say it? Would any teacher doubt that it would make the pupils more attentive?

If you have their personal interest on your side, don’t hesitate. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t say: “People will feel safe with Goodyear Tires”, say: “You will feel safe with Goodyear Tires”.

There is, however, a more subtle way to appeal to people’s personal interests. In 1982, psychologists carried out a survey on persuasion: students visited homeowners and asked them to answer questionnaires for a presentation. At the time, cable TV was only just beginning and most people had only vaguely heard of it. The survey was meant to compare the efficiency of two different approaches to make people subscribe to cable television, which was to be rolled out a month later.

In the first approach, the following text was presented:

Made to Stick

“Cable television will provide its subscribers with more extensive news and entertainment services. Used appropriately, it gives the viewer freedom to plan in order to enjoy the programs on offer. The subscribers may spend more time at home with their family, on their own, or with friends, thus saving the hassle of a night out, as well as babysitting and petrol expenses.”

In the second approach, the homeowners were asked to imagine a precise scenario:

“Take a few moments and imagine how cable television is going to allow you to enjoy more extensive news and entertainment services. When you know how to use it, you will be able to plan ahead the events you want to watch. Think about it: no more hassle for a night out, not to mention the savings on babysitting and fuel. You will be able to spend time at home, with your family, on your own, or with your friends.”

The differences between the two texts may seem minor. But count the number of times the word you is used in both samples.

One month after the survey, cable television was rolled out in the city and the researchers analyzed the homeowners’ subscriptions. Result: 20% of the first group had subscribed, in keeping with the subscription rate in the area; on the other hand, in the second group, 47% of the homeowners had subscribed.

The subtitle of the article the researchers published was “Is imagining making things happen”. The answer was: it is.

The benefit to the buyer here was not indeed all this valuable. The main argument was: “by subscribing to cable TV, you save yourself the hassle of getting out of your house” (!). These results suggest that – more so than their importance – it is in fact the tangible and concrete aspect of the benefit that clearly comes out when people imagine them, which makes them feel concerned.

There is indeed no need to promise the earth: it is often enough to promise reasonable benefits people can easily imagine themselves enjoying.

Personal interest, however, does not explain everything, as Abraham Maslow attempted to demonstrate in his famous pyramid. A recent study presented the following scenario to a selection of people:

Imagine a company offering its employees a $1,000 bonus should they achieve a number of objectives. Here are three ways of presenting the bonus to the staff:

  1. Imagine what $1,000 means: a deposit on a new car, or the new kitchen you’ve been dreaming about for a long time.
  2. Think of how reassuring it would be to know that you had $1,000 aside in case of hard times.
  3. Think of what this $1,000 represents: the company acknowledges the role you play in its global performances. It is not wasting its money.

When people were asked which presentation would personally appeal to them, most people answered the third. It is good for self-esteem, and it is obvious that $1,000 can either be spent or saved. But the value of the study was in the answer these people gave when asked which proposal would be the best for others. The majority answered the first proposal, followed by the second one. In other words, people thought that they were motivated by self-esteem, but that the others were motivated by a deposit on a new car. It, therefore, appears that many of us believe that everyone except us is living in Maslow’s cave, i.e. the bottom of the pyramid, where primary needs are fulfilled.


And what if people answered in this manner because, deep inside, they favored proposals 1 and 2 but did not wish to appear materialistic to the researchers’ eyes? In this case, the results would be the same, but the interpretation would be radically different.

Let us now look at the power of emotions with this practical case: all Algebra teachers have heard their pupils ask: “Why am I learning this? When am I ever going to use it?” Let’s look at three attempts at answering this question:

Message I:

During a conference entitled “Algebra for All”, the following answers were proposed to the question “Why study algebra?”:

  • Algebra provides methods for moving from the specific to the general. It involves discovering the patterns among items in a set and developing the language needed to think about and communicate it to others.
  • It provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for understanding of the world around us.
  • Algebra provides a vehicle for understanding our world through mathematical models.
  • Algebra is the basic set of ideas and techniques for describing and reasoning about relations between variable quantities.

Comment: This message is the perfect illustration of the “curse of knowledge”. It has obviously been written by specialists, who remain on an abstract level. Would a sulky pupil suddenly become motivated and excited by algebra once he is told that algebra “provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for understanding the world around us”? These phrases are, above all, definitions of algebra, not reasons to study algebra.

Message 2:

Here is an answer written with reasons commonly given to pupils to explain why they must study algebra and taken from the Internet:

  • You have to pass your exams.
  • All Math and Science courses require knowledge of algebra.
  • In order to get a place at a good university, you need to have good grades in Math.
  • And even if you never go into higher education, the reasoning skills you learn with algebra will help you buy a house, make up a budget, etc.

My brother is a salesman in a high-tech business. He’s always had a problem with Math, but now he realizes that the hard work he did has improved his analytical skills and help him today to better present his products to his customers.

Comment: This message is safe from the curse of knowledge and remains concrete. It nonetheless remains in Maslow’s cave because it addresses primary needs. The two reasons given are 1) because you have no choice and 2) in order to carry on doing it. The most efficient part is the last, with a concrete “real-life” story showing that algebra can have concrete benefits.

Message 3:

Here is the answer of a high school teacher:

When his 9th Grade pupils ask him: “When are we going to use this?”, he answers: “Never. You will never use it.”

Then, he tells them that if people lift weights, it is not to prepare in case they are attacked in the street one day. You lift weights so that you can knock over a forward at football, or to carry your shopping bags, or to keep fit, or to lift up your grandchild without feeling stiff the following day. You do Math to improve your ability to reason logically, in order to become a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison guard, or even a parent.

MATH IS FITNESS TRAINING FOR THE BRAIN. It is a means (for most people), not an end.

Comment: Here is a much more efficient message using already explained methods: surprise – in order to capture attention: “Never. You will never use it”; the help of an analogy – fitness training; and it rises up Maslow’s pyramid because it deals with levels such as Learning or Self-Fulfillment. The message is that, by studying algebra, we better realize our potential.

Let’s compare the three messages in a table with the 6 principles presented in “Made to stick” (you can use it at home 😉 ):

Principles Message_1 Message_2 Message_3
Simplicity +
Unexpected +
Concrete + +
Emotion + ++
Story +

Chapter 6: Made to Stick Principle 6 – A Story


Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, 1990’s. A nurse has been watching a newborn for several hours. Suddenly, the baby turns dark blue, almost black. The medical team immediately calls for a doctor and a radiologist and prepare to intervene, convinced that it is a pulmonary collapse – a wide-spread problem for babies placed under artificial respiration – and where a hole has to be made into the chest, in order to insert a tube and suck out the air in order to allow the lungs to fill up again.

But the nurse is convinced that it’s a heart problem. As soon as she saw the baby’s color, she’s suspected that he was suffering a pneumopericardium: air filling the pocket around the heart and stopping it from beating. She therefore tries to stop her colleagues’ preparations screaming “It’s the heart!”. But her colleagues point at the heart monitor showing that the baby’s heart is beating normally. She insists, pushes their hands away, and orders them to be quiet placing a stethoscope on the child’s chest.

Not a sound. The heart is not beating.

A neonatal surgeon enters the room and the nurse immediately hands him a syringe. “Pneumopericardium. Prick the heart.” The radiologist, who has just received the test results, confirms the nurse’s diagnostic. The surgeon inserts the syringe into the heart and slowly releases the air pocket preventing it from beating. The baby is safe.

Later, the team understood why the monitor had misled them: it was measuring the electrical activity commanding the heartbeats, and this had not stopped: the heart was simply unable to respond to it because of the air pocket pressure.

In his book Sources of Power, Gary Klein tells us this story pointing out that it is an example of the usefulness of stories: they are extremely efficient learning tools, and they are rich in teachings, which is why they are so abundant in all circles. They show how context can lead individuals to make the wrong decisions, and highlight the causal relations previously unidentified and the unexpected solutions that the characters have found to solve problems.

The specific teachings from this story are very interesting for medical staff. Even for those of us who do not work in this industry, this story can affect us and make us think: it’s the story of a woman who was not afraid to come out of her role, who did not give up despite the group’s pressure, who saved a life by rejecting the hospital’s hierarchy; a nurse who gave the correct diagnostic to a neonatal surgeon.

Dual aspect

The power of this story is that it has a dual aspect: it is a simulation – showing how to act – and an inspiration – motivating to act. These two benefits have in common that they incite action, and this is what is needed.

In your opinion, for a medical team, which is the most revealing and inspiring to act: this story or a banal: “When a baby under artificial respiration turns blue, you should systematically check her heart with a stethoscope so as to exclude a pneumopericardium?”

In every profession, we “talk shop”, often using obscure technical words the majority cannot understand. We tell one other small professional mishaps, as anecdotes, not failing to mention the technical details. These stories are more than a mere social function fulfilling the desire to share with other humans. They are used to share valuable information, to allow others to identify with the storyteller, to put themselves in his/her shoes, and to be able to solve problems more easily when they happen. These stories are often at once entertaining and instructive. They act as flight simulators, allowing to imagine a situation and to prepare for it without having lived through it.


This simulation works because we cannot imagine events without stimulating the same modules in our brain as those activated in actual activity. These simulations help us better manage emotions, and many phobias – air travel, spiders, talking in public, etc. – are treated using a method based on this technique. Simulations also facilitate problem-solving. A man who is trying to stop smoking and mentally projects a party during which friends offer him a cigarette – which he refuses – stands a better chance not to give in to temptation. More amazingly, mental simulation can also develop skills.

The summary of 35 studies gathering 3,214 participants has shown that sole mental training – sitting quietly, not moving and imagining oneself correctly completing a task from start to finish – significantly improves performances. This has been corroborated by many activities, from welding to ice-skating, as well as darts. However, sole mental training is more efficient for tasks involving more mental activity than physical activity. But overall, mental training alone can produce on average two-thirds of the benefits of the actual physical practice.

Therefore, if a mental simulation is not as beneficial as real practice, it is not far from it. And good stories are mental simulations.

But how can you make up stories that stick? Well, most of the time, you don’t even need to create them: you only have to spot them. How? Chip Heath and Dan Heath have analyzed hundreds of inspiring stories and have concluded that there are three types of elementary plots are these stories: The Challenge, The Bond and Creativity.

The Challenge

A classic of this genre – and even perhaps its archetype – is David against Goliath. A character triumphs over a formidable challenge and wins. There are many other variants, such as the Ugly Little Duckling, the poor man who becomes rich, the triumph of will over adversity.

The key element of these stories is that the hurdles appear insurmountable to the hero, but he ends up triumphant.

These stories inspire us by appealing to our perseverance and courage. They make us want to work hard, to take on new challenges and to overcome obstacles.

The Bond

The archetype of the bonding stories is the Good Samaritan:

“But he, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”

Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance, a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way, a Levite also, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he traveled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now, which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”

He said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:30 – 37)

At the time, the Samaritans and the Jews hated each other and there was a social chasm, which seemed to be impassable. This story tells us of people who create a bond by crossing a divide – be it racial, ethnic, social, religious, etc. This plot is ideal for love stories – think of Romeo and Juliet or Titanic.


Made to Stick

It is present in the story of the apple falling over Isaac Newton’s head, inspiring him the theory of gravity. This plot involves an individual making a revolutionary discovery, solving a very ancient enigma or tackling a problem in an innovating manner. It is the plot of MacGyver or The A-Team.

Chapter 7: Epilogue

In order for a story to stick, it must inspire the following in its audience:

  1. Attention
  2. Understanding and memorization
  3. Adhesion
  4. Implication
  5. Will to act

These stages are linked to the principles in the following way:

1 – Attention UNEXPECTED
2 – Understanding and memorization CONCRETE
3 – Adhesion CREDIBILITY
4 – Implication EMOTION
5 – Will to act STORY

The authors give a list of symptoms to detect the audience’s lack of attention and solutions to solve it.

Book critique of the “Made to Stick” :

Made to stick is simple, easy to understand, and provides a detailed guide to making ideas stick, in all areas one can imagine, from education to marketing, as well as sales or storytelling. The authors have carried out a survey, which they relate at the start of the book and which indicates that even complete beginners following the book’s precepts manage to create efficient commercials that stick. It is ultra-easy to check if our messages can stick and to choose the best one by using this table:











Use it for yourself! 😉

One of the authors is a scientist – Chip Heath, Professor of Psychology at Stanford – and it is obvious: the book is packed with references and notes about scientific surveys, a welcome element and rather rare in business books, which adds credibility to the overall work and allows to go deeper if need be.

As for faults, I found it at times repetitive, and I believe it could have been shorter to stick better. Overall, it is an excellent book. It explains its message in a clear and concrete manner, illustrating it with many stories, which are as many examples and images to help us understand better the concepts and to be tried out in our future communications.

Strong points of Made to Stick:

  • Simple and easy to understand
  • Many stories and examples to help us understand the concepts
  • Many references to scientific studies
  • Provides concrete tools – including the useful table – to improve the impact and the adhesion of our messages

Weak points of Made to Stick:

  • A little repetitive at times
  • Could have been more concise

My rating: clip_image004 clip_image006 clip_image004[1]clip_image006[1]clip_image004[2]clip_image006[2]clip_image007clip_image006[3]clip_image009

Have you read the “Made to Stick on Amazon“? How do you rate it?

Mediocre - No interestReasonable - One or two interesting paragraphsIntermediate - Some goods ideasGood - Had changed my life on one practical aspectVery Good - Completely changed my life ! (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)


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