Psychology & Communication

Made to Stick

Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

Made to Stick

One sentence-summary: Some ideas influence their audience, making a mark on their memory for a long time and even making them act; whilst others are forgotten having hardly been heard. The authors study the ideas which do stick and explain their adhesion mechanisms.

By Chip Heath and Dan Heath, 2007, 285 pages.

Note: this book being also very comprehensive, I am publishing its summary in two parts. This is the first. I’m afraid this will be the case for many books in the Psychology & Communication section 😉 .

Summary of “Made to Stick”:

You will never guess what happened to one of my friends’ friend – Frank, not to name him. He was in Seattle for an important meeting with a client. Once the meeting over, as he still had time before catching his flight home, he went to a bar for a drink.

He had just finished his first glass when an attractive young woman came by and offered him a drink. Surprised, but nonetheless flattered, he accepted. She returned with two drinks. Thank you, he said, and took his first sip. After this, it was a total blackout.

When he woke up, comatose, he was lying in a hotel bathtub, his body covered in ice. He looked around him, panicked, trying to remember what he was doing there. His attention was then drawn to a small piece of paper:


There was a cellphone on a small table beside the bathtub. He struggled to reach, his fingers numbed with the cold, and dialed the emergency number.

At the other end of the line, the switchboard operator did not sound surprised. “Sir, could you please reach your arm behind your back? Can you feel something? A catheter in your lower back?”

Worried, he did as she asked. There was indeed a catheter.

“Do not panic, Sir, said the young lady. You have just had a kidney removed. You are the victim of an organ trafficking network wreaking havoc in the city. The ambulance is on its way.


You have just read one of the most popular urban legends of the past fifteen years, which has gone round the Internet in every language and in many forms. A story easily remembered, a striking story, a story that sticks; albeit a completely fake story.

Let’s now look at an article published in the newsletter of a charity organization:

The communities’ make-up in the broader sense lends itself by nature to an equation of return on investment, which can be reproduced by referring to existing practices. […] The fact that, in order to maintain transparency, the donor organizations often have to target or classify into categories the donated sums, is a factor limiting the flow of resources towards our organization.

Now, do something for ten minutes, anything, and then call a friend and tell him the two stories. Which one do you think you will remember the best? And which one will you be able to explain to your friend in simple terms?

An urban legend on the one hand, a few lines from an article out of context on the other: the comparison between the two is indeed biased. However, it perfectly demonstrates the two extremes of what the authors call “the scale of memorability”. And it also perfectly illustrates that some stories stick and others don’t.

We could be led to believe that some ideas are inherently interesting – a gang of organ thieves – and others inherently boring – the financial strategy of a charity organization. This is certainly partly true. But in this nature/nurture debate as applied to ideas, Chip Heath and Dan Heath gamble on nurture: ideas are made to be interesting rather than interesting by nature.

In 1992, Art Silverman, an employee of the Center for Science in the Public Interest – a non-profit making organization aimed at educating consumers in the field of nutrition – was contemplating a packet of popcorn.

He had just received the test results of popcorn packets collected at a dozen cinemas in three major American cities. Everyone had been surprised at the results: a bag contained on average 37 grams of saturated fat. The recommended maximum amount was 20 grams per day.

The coconut oil, which was used at the time, was to blame, as it was full of saturated fat.

Something had to be done. This bag, which could easily be eaten between meals, contained in itself almost two day’s worth of saturated fat. But how was the public going to be informed? For the majority, “37 grams of saturated fat” does not mean much. Is it good or bad? And even if it were bad, would it be “bad bad”, like tobacco, or “normal bad”, like a biscuit or a treat?

And of course, the phrase “37 grams of saturated fat” is boring enough to make the consumers run a mile. No one is turned on by saturated fat.

There were many means of transmitting the message to the public. But it had to be something extravagant to match the extravagance of this nutritional aberration. So the CSPI organized a press conference delivering this message:

An average portion of popcorn sold at a local cinema contains more dangerous fat for the arteries than a breakfast with bacon and eggs, lunch with a Big Mac and fries, and dinner with steak and all the trimmings – all in one!

And this message was reinforced with visuals. A table crammed with all these fatty foods. An entire day of unbalanced diet on a table; beside it, a bag of popcorn.

The story was a hit and got the honors of television channels. Very soon, the consumers stopped buying popcorn and cinemas, hand on heart, declared that they would no longer use coconut oil to make their popcorn. The idea had stuck.

Note: I did some research on this precise point and it appears that the opinions are far from being unanimous on the actual harm caused by coconut oil and the scientific value of the CSPI. As is often the case, it is hard to find a unanimous opinion concerning nutritional recommendations, as the experts and organizations do not agree with one other and individual interests are hidden and nebulous. For examples of articles against the CSPI or the noxiousness of coconut oil, see here or there.

Looking at the stories that stick and the ones that don’t, the Heath brothers set out to search for the common characteristics which could explain why some stories stick and others don’t, studying in particular hundreds of urban legends and widely spread proverbs.

They drew six determining principles from their research. In order for a story to stick, it requires:

  1. Simplicity. A great barrister claimed: “If you put forward ten arguments, even if they are relevant, the jury will have forgotten them all when they return to the deliberation room.” In order to be simple, an idea must be stripped down to its core, relentlessly excluding superfluous elements.
  2. The unexpected. In order to draw attention, intuitions must be challenged.
  3. Something practical. The ideas that naturally stick are full of concrete images. This is where business communication often stumbles.
  4. Credibility. If a Health Minister talks about a health problem, we are prepared to believe him. But we are not always given such a position of authority. Our ideas must therefore themselves bear their own letters of credit.
  5. Emotion. In order to inspire passion for our ideas, the audience or the readers have to feel something. We are made to feel things for individuals, not for abstractions.
  6. A story. Listening to a story or an anecdote is like a flight simulator, preparing us to react more quickly and more efficiently when a similar situation occurs.

Having read this list, you may think that these principles make sense. We all more or less know that we ought to “be simple” and “tell a story”. Do you know many soporific gibberish enthusiasts?

But if it were that simple, why are we not flooded with brilliantly designed sticking ideas?

Well, there’s a real baddie. Not Dark Vador, but a natural psychological tendency, which makes the application of these principles very difficult: the curse of knowledge.

In order to fully understand this principle, let’s look at a scientific study carried out in 1990 at Stanford University. It featured two groups of participants: “drummers” and “listeners”. The drummers were given 25 famous songs – such as The Star-Spangled Banner or Happy Birthday. They had to choose one and beat the tempo with their finger on a table to a listener. The listener had to guess which song it was.

The results were edifying: over the 120 songs played, the listeners identified on average 2.5%, i.e. 3 songs. But this is not what was edifying: before the drummers would play, they were asked to predict the success rate of the listeners: they estimated it to be 50%.

The drummers therefore managed to convey their message once in every 40 times, but thought they would manage it once every two times. Why?

They had knowledge the listeners did not have: the tune playing in their heads. For the listeners, the beats may as well have been Morse code, but for the drummers they accompanied the tempo of the music. And this knowledge made them almost impervious to the listeners’ incomprehension.

This is a perfect illustration of the curse of knowledge. You can try the experiment for yourself at home 😉 .

We will see this curse again in all the above principles detailed below. Follow the guide.

Chapter 1: Simplicity

Every last move of the soldiers in the American army meets a very careful preparation, which originated with an order from the President of the United States and then cascades down all the grades of the hierarchy right down to the bottom.

The plans are detailed, pointing out the “pattern of maneuvers” and the details of what each unit will be doing, its equipment, its munitions, etc.

The problem is that no plan can survive contact with the enemy. It is as if you were implementing a detailed plan for a friend playing a game of chess. You cannot predict the opponent’s moves, and therefore the plan becomes obsolete in just a few moves.

Plans are useful in the army. They show that a planning process is in place and allows asking the right questions. But since they do not work on the battlefield, the American army introduced a new concept in the 1980’s: the Intention of Commandment. It is a simple and concise sentence describing the operation’s objective. It can be general and abstract at higher level, but the lower down the grades, the more it becomes precise and practical, like “My intention is to position the 3rd battalion on hill 4305 to liberate it and protect the flank of the 3rd brigade when it pushes through the line.”

Thanks to IC, the soldiers know their mission’s objective, they are free to improvise according to the circumstances in order to reach it.

No plan can survive with the enemy. This precept should speak even to those who have no military experience. Very often, no business plan can survive in contact with the customer. No lesson plan can survive in contact with the pupils, etc.

To make one’s ideas stick in a noisy, unpredictable and chaotic context is not easy. The way to success is simplicity. Not simple as in “simplistic” or “reductive”, but simplicity as in, the idea’s substantive spinal cord

The idea therefore has to be undressed, totally stripped down to its very essence, its core, and devoid of all superficiality. The trickiest thing is to set aside any idea that appears to be important but is not ultimately the most important idea. The Intention of Commandment makes the American army’s officers extract the most important objective in an operation. There can only be one priority, and only one IC.

Finding the essence of an idea is to set aside a large number of ideas to enable the most important one to shine. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote:

“Perfection is acheived, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Thus is the essence of Made to Stick. In order to make your ideas stick, there are two steps:

  1. Find their essence.
  2. Bring them alive with the help of the six principles.

No more, no less.

Chapter 2: The unexpected

The first issue of communication is to get the attention of those you are addressing. Sometimes we have the appropriate authority to demand attention – like parents with their children, for instance – but most of the time, we do not have this luxury.

One of the most basic elements to capture the attention is to break a pattern or a well-anchored model in our audience’s mind. We human beings get used to recurring patterns incredibly quickly. We soon no longer pay attention to the noisy computer, the purring fan, the picture on the wall… In order to become conscious of things, there has to be a change: the computer or the fan stops, the picture falls off the wall or we find its space empty, etc.

Our brain is therefore extremely sensitive to change. But once we have drawn the others’ attention with surprise, we must keep it by making their interest grow.

Surprise is linked to a facial expression common to many cultures, which the psychologists Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen in their book Unmasking the Face name “the eyebrow of surprise”.

The eyebrows are rounded and high… The skin underneath the eyebrows is stretched by the upward movement and more visible than usual.

When we raise our eyebrows, our eyes widen and our field of vision expands, making us see more. On the contrary, when we are angry, the eyes shrink so that we may concentrate on the issue. Often the surprise is such that we are left with our mouth open, our body paralyzed for a few seconds, our muscles at rest, as if the brain wanted to make sure we could not do anything that may prevent us from integrating this new piece of information.

Surprise therefore acts as an emergency neutralizer when our guessing machines are cut short. All our ongoing activities are interrupted and our attention unwillingly focuses on the surprising event.

The unexpected ideas are therefore more likely to stick because surprise makes us attentive and makes us think, and this extra attention imprints the unexpected events into our memory.

Sometimes this attention is short-lived, but in other cases surprise can lead to lasting attention. Some researchers looking into conspiracy theories have noticed that these are often born of unexpected events individuals do not comprehend, such as the death of beautiful young people. There are conspiracy theories for John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Kurt Cobain. The deaths of 90 year-old people do not provoke so much questioning.

Surprise is therefore a powerful instrument to use, but one should be careful not to overuse it. To understand this, read the following words:


Then ask someone else to read them and carefully watch their facial expressions. Normally, COMBINEMENT and BRAVITUDE make people frown more, whereas DAWG and HAUSPITALE make people raise their eyebrows.

DOWG and HAUSPITALE inspire surprise because their spelling is not familiar whereas the pronunciation is. We go “oh!” when we realize that DOWG is a bizarre way of spelling DOG and HAUSPITALE the incorrectly spelt equivalent of HAUSPITALE.

On the contrary, COMBINEMENT and BRAVITUDE appear to be bizarrely familiar, as they use a combination of existing words. But they do not actually exist and when we realize this, it annoys us because we have been struggling to find a solution that does not exist.

These two words are examples of gratuitous and hollow surprise, which does not stick and is frustrating. In order to be surprising, an event cannot be predictable, but for it to be sufficient, the surprise must be visible afterwards. The trick makes sense when we think about it but we didn’t perceive it at first.

Therefore, in order to make our ideas stick better, we ought to:

  1. Identify the central message, which must be communicated – the substantive spinal cord
  2. Discover what the message may have that is contrary to intuition
  3. Communicate our message in a way that fails the guessing machines of our audience in the essential, unpredictable dimension.

Once we have drawn the attention, we still need to maintain it. To this end we may use known techniques such as the open loop: starting with an enigma, stimulating intellectual curiosity and making us want to know the answer, in short, opening a loop which will only be closed at the end of the message.

Enigmas are indeed powerful, because they create the need for an ending. As the psychology professor Robert Cialdini says: “Have you heard about the Aha! experiment? Well, the Aha ! experiment is a lot more satisfying when it is preceded by the Eh? experiment” .

Chapter 3: Something practical

Aesop’s fables and their morals have travelled worldwide, generating many proverbs, such as those linked to his fable The Fox and the Grapes:

“A fox, having glimpsed a few ripening grapes at the top of a tree wanted to eat them. He tried hard to reach them, but realizing that all his efforts were in vain, he hid his sorrow and said, turning away, that he did not want to eat these grapes as they were too raw and sour.”

Such are some men, whose weakness prevents them from achieving and who blame the circumstances. It is easy to scorn what one cannot have.

If Aesop’s fables have travelled worldwide and survived for 2,500 years, it is of course because they communicate profound truths, but it is especially because the way they are presented make them ideas that stick. The fables conjure up concrete images, here the grapes, the fox, the scornful claim about the green grapes.

The world needs more fables. We are overwhelmed with hollow slogans, which do not mean and/or signify anything, in all walks of life:

  • Business:
    • Client-orientated visionary paradigm
    • Reciprocal reeingineering based on costs
  • Teaching:
    • Metacognitive competences
    • Pertinent portfolio evaluation in terms of development
  • Medicine:
    • Idiopathic cardiomyopathy (Cardiomyopathy means “there’s something wrong with your heart’ and idiopathic, “we have no idea what it is”) 

And I won’t even talk about the academic with their theses full of edifying jargon, I.T. technicians, mechanics, psychologists, scientists, politicians, in short, just about everyone.

Languages are often abstract, but life is not. Even the most abstract business strategy must translate into tangible human actions. And it is easier to adhere and understand tangible actions than the presentation of an abstract strategy.

Concrete means directly perceptible by the senses. A V8 engine is concrete. “Great performances” is not. Let’s not forget that abstraction also has a role, but it is the expert’s luxury and privilege. In order to teach an idea to beginners or neophytes, or even a group of people whose level of knowledge you ignore, concreteness is the only risk-free language.

The ideas that naturally stick are full of images and concrete words. The urban legend of the stolen kidney would probably have stuck less had the protagonist realized he’d been robbed of his self-esteem.

Chapter 4: Credibility

One out of ten people will have an ulcer in their lifetime. For a very long time, doctors believed that ulcers were caused by an excess of gastric acid eating away at the stomach’s wall, and that this excess was caused by stress, spicy food or too much alcohol.

In 1982, Barry Marshal and Robin Warren, two researchers from Perth, Australia, discovered that ulcers were caused by a bacteria, which would some years later be named Helicobacter Pylori. This discovery was considerable: if ulcers were caused by bacteria, then they could easily be cured: all we needed was antibiotics. Would the medical community cry out for joy, would they organize huge parties in honor of the researchers, were they thanked for this new hope they were giving for the health of hundreds of millions of human beings?

Absolutely not. No one believed them. And there were three reasons for this:

  1. The medical community firmly believed that nothing could withstand gastric acid, an extremely powerful substance, which can eat away at a piece of meat or even dissolve a nail.
  2. At the time of the discovery, Robin Warren was a mere pathologist in a Perth hospital and Barry Marshal was completing his residency. The case was understood: residents do not cure illnesses affecting 10% of the world population.
  3. The place. A researcher from Perth is like a doctor from Oregon. Science is science, but scientists are humans and they have the same tendency to snobbery as the rest of us.

Marshall and Warren did not even manage to have their research paper published. After two years of procrastination, Marshall, who could no longer wait, skipped breakfast, called his colleagues and swallowed in front of them a glass containing almost one billion H. Pylori bacteria. In a few days, he developed the symptoms of an ulcer and cured himself using antibiotics.

The game was not yet won, some researchers reproached him his method, but his demonstration had given a new breath of life to his theory, which then started to be widely studied. In 1994, the role of H. Pylori in ulcers was officially recognized and in 2005, Marshall and Warren jointly received the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discovery.

Here was the story of two men who make a discovery worthy of the Nobel Prize and one of whom had to poison himself in order to be believed!

Trying to convince a skeptical audience is very difficult, because we are waging a demoniac challenge against an entire life of teachings and social interactions. However, some absolutely unbelievable urban tales spread like gunpowder. What can make a message credible? Let’s look at various tools for this:

  • The authorities

Any message issued by an established authority within the message’s subject area is considered with more respect than a message coming from an average individual. By authority, we mean two categories of people:

  1. Specialists, who have authority in their given field, such as Stephen Hawkins for Physics, Alan Greenspan for Economy, Tony Robbins for personal development, etc.
  2. Stars or celebrities. Michael Jordan likes McDonald’s. Very well. He is neither a dietician nor a gourmet, but he is likely to make many people go to McDonald’s because many people would like to emulate him.

However, we rarely have the opportunity to have international specialists or celebrities defending our products or ideas (if so, you may skip this section 😉 ). Thankfully, it is also possible to call upon perfect strangers.

  • The illustrious unknown individuals who know what they’re talking about

Pam Laffin was the heroin of an anti-smoking campaign broadcasted on American television in the 1990’s (watch this video as an example). She was neither a health specialist nor a celebrity. Pam was a smoker. She was 29 years old at the time and a mother of two, and had started smoking at the age 14, “to look older”, as she said in the commercials. These showed her struggle against cancer, her operations, her scars, her terrible suffering. She died aged 31. These commercial had a considerable impact.

It was not evident at first that Pam Laffin, a perfect stranger, would influence the opinion. Yet she became a credible and respected source, because amidst the countless other sources talking about smoking, she exuded honesty and impartiality. The ordeal shown on television was hers, it was real. She really suffered. She really died.

  • The power of details

Often we cannot use an outside source of credibility to credit our message; most of time they have to have built-in credibility.

Scientific studies show that living and concrete details increase an idea or a story’s credibility, provided that not just anything is used and that these details symbolize and support the core of the message.

  • Illustrated statistics

Another way of making a message more credible is by using statistics. Statistics can often be boring and do not make an idea stick. It is better to illustrate them with images or clear comparisons, rather than using raw figures.

  • The principle of the human scale

Another way of giving life to numbers is by presenting them in a more human context. Let’s compare the two scientific developments below:

1. Scientists recently calculated an important physical constraint with an extraordinary accuracy. In order to picture this accuracy, imagine throwing a rock from the Sun to the Earth and hitting your target within a 500-metre radius of its center.

2. Scientists recently calculated an important physical constraint with extraordinary accuracy. In order to picture this accuracy, imagine throwing a rock from New York to Los Angeles and hitting your target within a 1.5-centimeter radius of its center.

Which one of the two claims appears to be the most precise?

In both cases, the degree of accuracy is rigorously identical, but in a study, 58% of the participants claimed that the first claim was “very impressive” against 83% for the second one.

It is easier for us to imagine the distance New York – Los-Angeles than Sun – Earth; this comparison therefore sticks a lot better and helps us perceive more clearly the scientists’ prowess. It is therefore important to change any figure or result that is too large to a human scale so that it may be concretely understood.

To be continued…

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