Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Made to Stick"

Brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath are the co-authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

Chip Heath is a Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Dan Heath is a Consultant at Duke Corporate Education, the world’s #1 provider of custom executive education.

They applied the "page 69 test" to Made to Stick and reported the following:
Made to Stick started with an observation: The world of ideas is unfair. Teachers spend hours upon hours thinking about their lesson plans. Public health officials spend millions of dollars trying to pound home very simple messages like “Don’t smoke.” Meanwhile, seemingly stupid ideas, like urban legends, propagate with no advertising budgets and no authority figures supporting them.

So we started doing research, and what we found — after studying urban legends, and great scientific theories, and ideas that transform industries or society — is that all sticky ideas have some principles in common. And our hope was that if we understand those principles, we would have a head start in making our own ideas stick.

The book discusses six principles of sticky ideas, one of which is that they are unexpected. Page 69 in our book comes at the beginning of the chapter on unexpected ideas. This page of the book is unusual because it focuses on an advertisement. Our desire was to write a book that would help teachers get across ideas to their students, or workers to their coworkers, or parents to their kids. But if we’re looking for some bad ways to use unexpectedness, we don’t have to look any further than advertisers:

p. 69: Researchers who study conspiracy theories, for instance, have noted that many of them arise when people are grappling with unexpected events, such as when the young and attractive die suddenly. We have conspiracy theories about the sudden deaths of JFK, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, and Kurt Cobain. There tends to be less conspiratorial interest in the sudden deaths of 90 year-olds.

Surprise makes us want to find an answer — to resolve the question of why we were surprised — and big surprises call for big answers. If we want to motivate people to pay attention, we should seize the power of big surprises.

Avoiding gimmickry

Going for big surprise, though, can cause a big problem. It’s easy to step over the line into gimmickry.

The late 1990’s was the heyday of the dot-com bubble. Venture-backed startups poured millions of dollars into advertising to establish their brands. With increasing amounts of money chasing a finite amount of consumer attention, ads had to work harder and harder to provoke surprise and interest.

During the Super Bowl of 2000, an ad ran that opened with a college marching band practicing on a football field. We’re shown close-ups of the band members as they execute their precision movements. Then, we cut to the stadium tunnel, which leads out onto the field — and, suddenly, a dozen ravenous wolves rush onto the field. Band members scatter in terror as the wolves hunt them down and attack.

What was this advertisement for? We have no idea. There’s no question this ad was surprising and memorable — to this day, we remember the tastelessly comic image of the wolves chasing around the terrified band members. But because the surprise was utterly non-germane to the message that needed to be communicated, it was worthless. If the product being advertised had been “mauling-proof band uniforms,” on the other hand, it could have been an award-winner.

This is a truly awful advertisement. But we sometimes get presentation advice that might lead us down a similar path. We’re advised: “Start your presentation with a joke or a story.” But if our joke or story doesn’t fit the message we really want to get across, we may end up with our own version of the ravenous wolves. People may remember our joke or story, but nothing else.

We’re better off using unexpectedness to highlight what is surprising about our core message. One of our favorite stories in the book is about a group of nutritionists who found that a typical medium movie-sized popcorn had 37 grams of saturated fat. They were experts and they knew that was a ludicrous amount. But they had to come up with a way to convey the ludicrousness to the rest of us. Here’s what they said: “A medium sized popcorn contains more fat than a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined!” That message is a perfect example of at least three of the principles in the book — it’s very unexpected, but it’s also emotional (how disgusting is that?) and concrete (we can picture all that food in a way we can’t picture 37 grams). And their message worked: Moviegoers stopped eating popcorn until movie theaters stopped popping in coconut oil which was the source of most of the saturated fat.

If the right message can get Americans to listen to a nutritionist, then there’s hope for all of us with our coworkers, neighbors, and kids.
Visit the official Made to Stick website and the authors' blog. Read an excerpt from the book.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Series.

--Marshal Zeringue