May 2017

A Book Summary of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

By Ruoding Shi

All the information comes from Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House, 2007.



The central question of this book is how to make your ideas understandable and having a lasting impact on your audience opinions or behaviors. In fact, you just need to make a few ideas sticky in one year, such as your presentation and papers. So investing some effort to learn this is worthwhile.


To begin with, there are two common mistakes when you are trying to communicate your idea. The first is Curse of Knowledge. To illustrate this point, let me tell you a story in the book. In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped.  The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120. But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why? It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily recreate our listeners’ state of mind.

The second is Bury the Lead, which means you provide too much information that bury the core idea. Even for the authors themselves at some times, it is difficult to identify which information is the core, no doubt how hard the readers find. However, we should always remember that if you argue  ten points, even if each is a good point, finally your audience cannot remember any of them. Instead, we should focus on one or two points and make them sticky. According to the authors, there is a template for communicating an idea that is sticky, The template is called SUCCESs.

S: Simple

–Develop a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.

U: Unexpectedness

–Engage people’s curiosity by systematically “open gaps” in their knowledge, and then filling those gaps.

C: Concreteness

–Explain your ideas in terms of human action, sensory information and concrete things. Avoid abstract concepts

C: Credibility

–Sticky idea have to carry their own credentials.

E: Emotional

–Let people to care about your idea, you need to make them feel it.

S: Stories

–Let people to act on our ideas, we need to tell stories that people can mentally perform by themselves

s:  spot

–Spot great ideas is much easier than invent one by yourself. Observe the world and find it!

If you are interested, the following part summarizes some main points for each principal.



  • Before communicate your idea, you need to know what is the core of your communication.
  • Be a master of exclusion, we have to get rid of any interesting but irrelevant information, and avoid showing your expertise to the people who don’t understand
  • Practical examples: slogan, proverb, tomorrow’s mission, create a visual reminder to do a few things and do them well.


PRINCIPLE 2: Unexpectedness

  • To get people’s attention, you need to break a pattern or their guess machine. Remember, surprise gets our attention and interest keeps it.
  • To be surprise, an event can’t be predictable, but to be satisfying, surprise must be “post-predictable”. In other words, we need insight in surprise.

An example is Bat Overconfidence. Nancy Lowry and David Johnson studied a teaching environment where fifth and sixth graders were assigned to interact on a topic. With one group, the discussion was led in a way that fostered a consensus. With the second group, the discussion was designed to produce disagreements about the right answer. Students who achieved easy consensus were less interested in the topic, studied less, and were less likely to visit the library to get additional information. The most telling difference, though, was revealed when teachers showed a special film about the discussion topic —during recess! Only 18 percent of the consensus students missed recess to see the film, but 45 percent of the students from the disagreement group stayed for the film. The thirst to fill a knowledge gap—to find out who was right—can be more powerful than the thirst for slides and jungle gyms.


PRINCIPLE 3: Concrete

  • If you can examine something with your sense, it is concrete.
  • Examples: Use analogy to introduce a new concept. Bring something to your presentation to let people see, touch and feel.


PRINCIPLE 4: Credibility

Sources of credibility:

  • Expert, authorities or anti-authority
  • Vivid details: even irrelevant may affect people’s decisions
  • Statistics: number from some studies
  • Sinatra test: if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere
  • Testable statement: see for yourself

However, you need to make these number meaningful. One good strategy is human-scale principle. For example, Stephen Covey, in his book The 8th Habit, describes a poll of 23,000 employees drawn from a number of companies and industries. He reports the poll’s findings:

* Only 37 percent said they have a clear understanding of what their organization is trying to achieve and why.

* Only one in five was enthusiastic about their team’s and their organization’s goals.

* Only one in five said they had a clear “line of sight” between their tasks and their team’s and organization’s goals.

* Only 15 percent felt that their organization fully enables them to execute key goals.

* Only 20 percent fully trusted the organization they work for.

Pretty sobering stuff. It’s also pretty abstract. You probably walk away from these stats thinking something like “There’s a lot of dissatisfaction and confusion in most companies.” Then Covey superimposes a very human metaphor over the statistics. He says, “If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. Only 2 of the 11 would know what position they play and know exactly what they are supposed to do. And all but 2 players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent. The soccer analogy generates a human context for the statistics. As you see, when we use statistics, the less we rely on the actual number the better.



PRINCIPLE 5: Emotional

If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I took at the one, I will. – Mother Teresa.


In 2004, some researchers at Carnegie Mellon University decided to see whether most people act like Mother Teresa. The researchers tested two versions of charity-request letters. The first version featured statistics about the magnitude of the problems facing children in Africa, such as the following:

*Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children.

* In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42 percent drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated 3 million Zambians face hunger.

The other version of the letter gave information about a single young girl:

* Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a seven-year-old girl from Mali, Africa. Rokia is desperately poor and faces the threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed and educate her and provide basic medical care and hygiene education.

On average, the people who read the statistics contributed $1.14. The people who read about Rokia contributed $2.38 —more than twice as much. It seems that most people have something in common with Mother Teresa: When it comes to our hearts, one individual trumps the masses.

To make an idea emotional to others, we need to:

  • Associate something that they don’t yet care about with something they do care about
  • Use Maslow’s Pyramid: use more profound motivations rather than Maslow’s basement needs: physical, security and belonging

Do you know, people use two basic models to make decisions:

1) Calculating consequences (self-interest): choose the one that yields the most values

2) Based on our identity: What do people like me do in this kind of situation?

In this sense, appealing to self-interest and appealing to identity can help you to communicate.


PRINCIPLE 6: Stories

Story is part entertainment and part instruction.  It works because we can’t imagine events or sequences without evoking the same modules of the brain that are evoked in real physical activity. Overall, mental practice alone produces about two thirds of the benefits of actual physical practice.

Why the chicken Soup books are so popular? Here are common features of chicken soup stories:

  • The challenge plot: Obstacles seem daunting to the protagonist. They inspire us by appealing to our perseverance and courage
  • The connection plot: These stories often develop a relationship that bridge a gap: racial, class, ethnic, or otherwise. They make us want to help others, be more tolerant of others.
  • The creativity plot. They involve someone making a mental breakthrough. This type of stories make us want to do something different and new.


Final Point

We don’t always have to create sticky ideas, spotting them is much easier and more useful. Knowing this template will help you communicate your ideas to others, spot the ideas and stories that have potential to be sticky, and use them appropriately in different situations.

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