Sticking points

Made to Stick -- the coverI’ve been reading Made to Stick, which (as the cover makes clear) explores why some ideas survive and others die.

The Heaths identify six key qualities of such ideas:

  • Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotional
  • Stories

Okay, so they need to work on their parallelism (and maybe they didn’t write the copy on the back cover).  Made to Stick avoids the breathless fervor of pop panaceas.  It also delivers both examples and try-it-yourself exercises.

Here’s one.  You’ll need pen and paper, and some way to time yourself for fifteen seconds.  Go get what you need; I’ll wait.

Okay.  Your assignment comes in two parts, so try not to read ahead, and I’ll try to space things out.

Here’s the first part.  Begin as soon as you read these instructions:

In fifteen seconds, write down as many things as you can that are white in color.


(Don’t read past till you are.  No cheating, now; this is interactive.)

I don’t know about you; I tried this on my own, and had to time myself by tapping my feet on the floor.

All right.  Here’s the second part:

In fifteen seconds, write down as many things in your refrigerator as you can that are white in color.

There you go.

Now, compare the lists. Heath and Heath say the odds are your two lists are about the same size.  That was true for me.  (My first list had things like snow, polar bears, snow owls [hey, I was under pressure what with the foot-tapping].  Also Wite-Out — the office-supply kind, not the blizzard kind.  The second list included eggs, the butter dish, mayo, Muenster cheese, and the ice cube trays.)

The similarity in size is surprising because, as the Heaths say, our fridges don’t include a particularly large part of the universe.

Moses Asch, the legendary founder of Folkways Records, reportedly would invite musicians to informal sessions where they’d have to sing a song with, say, the name of a river, or with the word “horse” in it.  That nugget helped people recall things they didn’t know they knew.  (I’m no musician, but I can’t help thinking of Stewball and the Monaghan Gray Mare (a twofer!), A Horse Named Bill, The Last Trip Home, and An t-Each Ruadh [“The Red Horse,” though that might be cheating].)

I found a lot of “so what?” connections in Made to Stick — the good kind, I mean.  The Heaths roam widely to find examples that underscore their points.

They talk about Masuru Ikaba of Sony, which in the 1950s had been making rice cookers and repairing shortwave radios.  Ikaba came up with the idea of “a pocketable radio.”

Immediately after the name-white-things exercise, you learn of an entrepreneur whose concrete imagery helped win venture-capital funding.

And, perhaps most telling to me, they discuss the Curse of Knowledge: how hard it is, once you know something, to remember what it’s like not to know it.  They recall Elizabeth Newton’s experiments at Stanford.  She assigned people to pairs: one person would be a tapper, the other a listerner.

The tapper got a list of 25 songs (Happy Birthday, The Star-Spangled Banner, etc.) and chose one.  Their task was to tap the rhythm out on a table.

The listener’s task?  Guess the song.

Stop reading for a second and pretend you’re a tapper.  Think of some widely-known song, then guess how likely it is that someone would recognize it from your tapping.

Here’s what the Heaths say:

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….

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.

Chip and Dan Heath do a great job of making their own ideas stick.

One thought on “Sticking points

  1. I had almost twice as many things on my first list as on my second. Does this mean I have an unusual mind, or does it mean I need to go grocery shopping?

    List 1: snow, polar bear, egg, rice, cotton, bunny, moon
    List 2: eggs, milk, half and half, parmesan cheese

    Also, in my second list I used eggs, but then I realized the eggs in my fridge are actually brown. So I cheated a little.

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