Review: Made to Stick

Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.

made 2 stickFor many of the people who will read this, coming up with ideas is a major part of how we make money. We work in an idea-based economy where intellectual property has value and the more people that know your ideas, the more influence you may have. Blogging, for example, works heavily in this fashion – if a person has a lot of good ideas and shares those ideas with others, that blog tends to become more popular over time.

Rather than focusing on presentation of the ideas or how to build a network of people to exchange these ideas, Made to Stick focuses on the ideas themselves. What makes an idea stick around to be shared by others? Why do we remember a story about a stolen kidney, but forget most of what we learned in economics class? Why are some ideas boring and forgettable and others exciting and memorable?

I read Made to Stick in one sitting a while back and put it aside to let the ideas rest within me. During this past week, I picked it up again to review it in detail and actually try out some of the ideas. Was it a worthwhile endeavor? What was inside that I found valuable?

Inside Made to Stick

Made to Stick defines six principles that contribute to making a successful idea. In order to really understand the concepts being presented here, I wrote six posts during the past week, each one focusing on one of the principles, then earlier today a seventh one that tried to incorporate several of the principles. In the discussion below, I’ll mention each one and explain how it applied to that post – and how you can use that principle in your own ideas and presentation of those ideas to make the things you talk about have more influence.

Chapter 1 – Simple
Many people have a lot of good ideas buried inside of them, but the difficulty comes in expressing those ideas. Quite often, they come out in a ball of complexity, half-expressed concepts connected to a bunch of extra baggage that within a minute or two makes you want to excuse yourself from that conversation. The ideas here are good, but they’re not simple. Take, for example, military planning. If you were to look at the complete military plan for the war in Iraq, down to the individual soldier, you would be drowned in details. On the other hand, if you focused strictly on the orders of an individual soldier, things would make a lot more sense. Why? The orders given to a soldier are broken down into simplicity. There’s no need to comprehend the grand scheme of the conflict at that level – one has simple orders to follow and follows them. It’s that idea, in the end, that gets executed, not a grand concept about the conflict.

On Monday, I attempted to apply the simple paradigm when writing One Thing You Can Do Today That Will Put You In Better Financial Shape Tomorrow. The idea of the whole post was incredibly simple and could actually be expressed in four words: don’t spend money today. I recast that incredibly simple idea as a major revelation intended to echo the simplicity of it. Why? Most people don’t do it. If they did, the average American household wouldn’t be buried in thousands of dollars in credit card debt. It’s such an amazingly simple concept that works so well that I felt it deserved a presentation as a grand concept, but one with a take home so simple that anyone can stick it in their pocket and keep it.

Chapter 2 – Unexpected
One time when I was in college, I stood up in front of a room full of two hundred people in a dining hall, shouted for attention (“Excuse me, everyone, I have something to show you!”), and proceeded to immediately remove my pants (no, no nudity – I was wearing running shorts). Why? I was attempting to get everyone’s eyes turned to me in the room so I could make a brief announcement (it was an election day, there was a voting area very near the dining service, and it would close in half an hour) that was very important at the time, and I knew that unless I did something unexpected, half of the people in the room would continue to talk and ignore the announcement.

I didn’t realize it then, but I was using the second principle of stickiness: the unexpected. People left the dining hall that day to tell their friends about what had happened. Unfortunately, I didn’t entirely follow through on this principle, because there are two parts to it: I used surprise to get their attention, but I was unable to connect that surprise to interest in what I had to say. So, instead of convincing a lot of people to go vote, I am now remembered by a hundred people as “the guy who took off his pants in food service.” I hadn’t quite figured this all out yet.

The unexpected works by violating the normal order of things that people expect (but doing it without being offensive or intrusive) – but what makes it work is being able to connect the unexpected to the idea you actually want people to remember. The book uses an example of the crazy dot-com ads that showed during the Super Bowl in 1999 and 2000 to illustrate the point. There were lots of unexpected and memorable ads there and we remember the ads, but we don’t remember the products. A better example is a seat-belt ad from a few years ago (I actually did remember this one) that showed what appeared to be a typical car advertisement from a minivan, except that when the van is going through an intersection, it is violenty wrecked by a pickup truck. The point? The people inside lived because they wore their seat belts – the screen fades to black and displays three messages: “Didn’t see that coming?” then “No one ever does” then “Buckle up. Always.” That’s how you use the unexpected to get your point across.

On Tuesday, I tried to use the concept of the unexpected when I wrote Why My Father Takes Out A Lighter And Burns $200 Each Month. The recklessness of the idea of just burning that much money (think of The K Foundation burning a million quid), especially on a personal finance site, tried to grab the initial surprise factor, and then I connected that headline to explaining how my father’s smoking addiction is costing my parents a lot of financial freedom. I actually used a later technique (see #6) to make this connection work, and I think it turned out to be a good article.

Chapter 3 – Concrete
One of the biggest reasons that I avoid political discussions is that politics is often as far from being concrete as possible. People discuss ideals, truths, beliefs, and theories without ever being able to put them in practice or show how they affect the child living two doors down. Personal finance, however, is often highly concrete – when you talk about money, particularly in small amounts, you talk about something many people have and many people relate to in their day to day lives.

Here’s a better example from the chapter of the value of concreteness. Two different people present on the issue of oral rehydration, a major health issue in poverty-stricken countries. One person talks about the fact that 1.5 million children die each year from diarrhea – this causes dehydration and the area they live in isn’t able to adequately rehydrate them. The other person holds up a salt packet and a sugar packet like you would find on a restaurant table, says that these two packets cost less than a cup of tea and can save a child’s life. The first one sounds more credible (which we’ll get to later), but the second one sounds far more concrete. A child just needs a packet’s worth of sugar and salt to be rehydrated? Concrete. I can donate just the cost of a cup of tea to help rehydrate a child? Where do I sign up?

On Wednesday, I used a concrete idea as the center point in Kicking My Candy Bar Addiction In The Foot – And Saving Big Money. It’s centered around a very simple, concrete idea: cutting out the twice-daily candy bar from my work routine. Going to the vending machine and buying a candy bar is a very common, concrete experience. From there, though, I built to the idea that by kicking the habit, I was saving myself about a dollar a day, and that with that dollar a day, I could save $12,000 for my daughter’s college education. It takes a simple, concrete idea – giving up the daily candy bar – and carries it out to an impressive financial conclusion.

Chapter 4 – Credible
The more credible an idea is, the more likely it is to be accepted and disseminated. For example, if Donald Trump and I made opposing statements on the New York real estate market, Trump’s statement is far more likely to be accepted than mine. It doesn’t matter whose statement has more backing research, people are going to listen to Trump. Why? He has credibility. He’s known for being a real estate investor in New York – I’m known for being in debt. On the other hand, if Trump and I both made statements about the experience of being deeply in consumer debt as a member of the middle class, I would likely have more credibility. Why? I have been a member of the middle class who has been deeply in consumer debt; Trump may know about debt, but he certainly has little concept of the day to day issues of fighting debt as a member of the middle class. That’s why Trump’s books are about The Art of the Deal and not about escaping credit card debt – he has credibility in one area and none in another.

Credibility comes down to several key factors. You can either get someone externally credible, like having Dennis Haysbert endorse your auto insurance (he has no connection to auto insurance, but he played President David Palmer on 24, a very strong and respected character in the mythology of that television show). Alternately, you can inspire your own internal credibility by using convincing details, using facts that are easily provable by others (like a simple financial model, for example), making your quoted statistics as accessible as possible, and by using what the book describes as the “Sinatra test” (basically, if it works in one situation, it will work in another similar parallel situation). All of these techniques boost the credibility of what you’re saying.

On Thursday, I attempted to use a few elements of credibility in Are Inflation Rates Accelerating? How Should I Plan For It?. I used detailed, verifiable statistics and simple calculations for a financial model. I then translated the results of this model into something simple that everyone can understand (overestimating on inflation now means strong financial security later). The result was an interesting article that makes a credible argument for thinking about inflation when thinking about retirement.

Chapter 5 – Emotional
This is perhaps the easiest to understand element of the six presented in this book. Make people care about an idea by appealing directly to their emotional sensibilities. Think about the things that can actually make you cry, or at least touch you in your heart. For me, it’s stories about young children – I am a complete sucker for information about parent-child relationships because I can easily connect it to something extremely emotional in my own life. Popular books and movies thrive on this – they appeal to several different emotions within you: a desire for excitement, a desire for love, and so on.

The book offers several techniques for doing this, from convincing people to care because of human plight to appealing directly to their identity. I particularly thought the “Don’t mess with Texas” story was appropriate: an anti-littering campaign used macho images of Texans who were clearly angry at people who littered in their state – “don’t mess with Texas,” indeed. The image of Randy White, a monstrous defensive tackle for the Cowboys, crushing a littered soda can in his hand and looking menacingly at a litterer took the tough Texas image and applied it to a good social concern – a great use of emotional appeal.

On Friday, I gave an emotional appeal a shot with The Connection Between Financial Choices And Personal Values: The Kind Of Parent I Want To Be. I told a story of two parents who have been dealt a much more difficult hand than we have, but because their financial goals and personal values are so much in alignment, they’ve managed to overcome some very painful obstacles. Why tell this emotional story? It illustrates the point that the closer the connection between your values and choices, the more hardships you can easily overcome.

Chapter 6 – Stories
If you want people to follow up on your ideas with action, the best way to get your point across is by telling a story. Stories function in two different ways to cause your ideas to stick. Some stories function by simulation – the story shows people how to act (think of one of Aesop’s fables). Other stories focus on inspiration – they encourage people to act (think of Jared, the Subway guy).

I tend to be an enormous fan of this method of getting ideas to stick. I love telling and retelling stories, both about myself and about others, and I really like narrative threads that inspire others to make changes in their life. This entire blog is a story intertwined with literally thousands of applicable tips, and I believe that it is the power of story that has made this blog successful – many blogs have stories, but this blog has a story with action points that are applicable to many lives.

On Saturday, I simply wrote another story about an experience in my life. Lessons From My Grandfather In The Garden tells the story of the last summer of my grandfather’s life as recalled by me; I was seven years old that summer. The basic idea here is that happiness doesn’t come from money and it comes through in a cavalcade of little stories and fond reflections of someone very important to me.

Epilogue – What Sticks
The book concludes with the idea that when you synthesize many of these techniques together, you can often hit a home run. You attract people to your idea, convince them to spread it to others, and cause them to go away from it with some action that they’ll actually follow through with.

I tried to actually pull off a piece of writing that used all of the elements here earlier today with How To Get A Free iPhone. It’s simple (basic personal finance can get you an iPhone), definitely unexpected, concrete (specific steps that lead to a tangible goal) and credible (the steps themselves are easily demonstrable), emotional (appeals to “technolust”), and tells a story in several ways (my own “technolust” and a nod to my Ric Ocasek obsession). Did it work? Is the post a success? I think it’s very entertaining and makes a good point.

Buy or Don’t Buy?

In my opinion, Made to Stick is an essential read for anyone working in an information-related field, or even follows one as a hobby. Office workers, bloggers, marketers, and so on can find many, many ideas in this book that can really change the amount of influence and value that their ideas have – and if you work in the information economy, the value of your ideas is very tightly knit to the value of you.

I found, though, that the book became much more applicable when I tried to apply the ideas. On my first read-through, I thought it was interesting, but nothing to jump up and down about. However, when I started taking the principles and directly applying them to things, particularly to articles on The Simple Dollar, I began to see how powerful some of the concepts in here really are. Simply put, if you’re involved in the information economy in any way, read this book – it will be infinitely valuable to your personal development.

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