Book review: Made to Stick

This has been a Summer of story for me. Back in June, I attended a workshop run by Shawn Callahan on “Storytelling for Business Leaders”. I was vaguely aware (from reading Shawn’s blog if nothing else) of the power of narrative, but he drew out the key elements really well. Now I realise that a lot of what I thought were stories were in fact limp examples. Even a good example can have some persuasive power, but a story with the right elements is by its nature indisputable.

Do not sit -- Haddon Hall

Towards the end of the workshop, Shawn referred positively to Made to Stick, which prompted me to move it from my wishlist and actually buy it. Written by two brothers, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, it draws out six characteristics of ideas that stick in people’s minds. (The archetype for sticky ideas is provided by a wealth of urban legends, which prove staggeringly resistant to rebuttal.) Pleasingly, the Heaths have made sure the initial letters of these characteristics form a neat mnemonic SUCCESs.

  • S: Simple
  • U: Unexpected
  • C: Concrete
  • C: Credible
  • E: Emotional
  • S: Stories

There is a bit of circularity here: the Heaths advocate the story form both as a container for the other characteristics and as a characteristic in itself.

The book is an easy read, because it is well constructed (naturally, it is suffused with stories and examples) not because it is simplistic. The authors make sure that we understand that there is some real analysis underpinning this work. In some respects, therefore, this can be read as a companion, practical, volume to Predictably Irrational. There is a close relationship between our human respect for stories and the behavioural economics of Dan Ariely. (And Ariely himself uses a lot of story-based examples.)

For me, the key message of the book (and of Shawn’s workshop) is that you can’t argue against a story — that is someone’s experience, not a carefully constructed debating point. That’s why we can’t make horses drink — all we have available to us is blunt persuasion — if we could tell them stories, we could engage more usefully with them.

Recently Mary Abraham highlighted a real issue we often face in convincing people that something is good for them in her post “The Four Chickens Problem.” She likens the problems we have persuading people of the merits of Enterprise 2.0 (although any “jam tomorrow” solution is likely to raise similar issues) to the challenges faced by organisations trying to eradicate malaria.

The most effective way to prevent death by malaria is by using long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets. Yet organizations that distribute these nets have discovered that the folks who receive the nets sometimes choose to trade them for four chickens rather than use the nets.

Why do they want chickens rather than nets? Because the immediate concrete need for food is more obvious than the future abstract goal of eliminating disease. Mary’s solution to similar problems in the business context centres on persuasion.

In order to achieve changed behavior (or adoption of a new tool) we must:

  • Educate people as to the actual cause of the problem.
  • Educate people as to the theoretical benefits of the proposed solution.
  • Prove the solution in such an obvious way so that you make the theoretical real.
  • Include monitoring and evaluation to keep proving your case as you implement the solution in their community.

Don’t just throw your nets (or E2.0 solution) at the nearest group of people. You can’t solve problems they don’t realize exist.

In a comment on Mary’s post, Jack Vinson proposes another approach, using a coaching model:

Even better than educating people is to lead them through a discussion of the core problems and mechanisms for their solution. It is so much more effective to have them come up with the solution, even if it is the same one you would have presented 30 minutes ago. Then you have a much better chance of challenging the solution and presenting its benefits / drawbacks, as you will have their general agreement that it is the right thing to do.

These answers are fine, but they depend on ensuring that the message you are selling actually resonates with the audience. If there is a powerful story to tell, the education piece will follow.

You may have noticed that I have been including images in my posts recently. In part this is just to please myself — apart from one (attributed) example, they are all pictures that I have taken. Largely, however, it is a distraction from my usually wordy posts. Selecting the image can be a bit of a challenge — I like to see a link between the image and the text.  This one was easy.

Earlier this month, we took advantage of the sun to visit a bit of local history, Haddon Hall (famous for being the backdrop to a number of period dramas). Like many such places, they need persuade visitors to be careful with the historic furnishings. The normal approach to this problem is to rope things off or to put notices on chairs telling people not to sit on them. Instead, what they have done at Haddon Hall is simply to place a dried teasel on the chairs and benches. Nobody would sit on a teasel, would they? Without an unsightly rope or notice, they have communicated an important message to visitors. A message made to stick.

So, if you have ideas you need to communicate, Made to Stick will help immensely — it is certainly a worthwhile purchase for people in a range of roles. For those interested in storytelling as a leadership tool, Shawn is running a webinar “Three Questions We Usually Get from Leaders About Storytelling: Reflections, Discussion & Tools” with Terrence Gargiulo next month. (The webinar is running twice, to make the most of timezones.)

Are your leaders great storytellers? And, why should you care anyway?

With over forty years of combined experience, two of the world’s leading narrative consultants divulge some of what they have learned. Join Shawn Callahan of Anecdote and Terrence Gargiulo of for a 45-minute rousing interactive discussion rich with examples and practical tools.

I will be attending the webinar to continue my Summer of story; I’m looking forward to it.

2 thoughts on “Book review: Made to Stick”

  1. Thanks for the mention. I also appreciate the synthesis of the book. You’ve brought the concepts alive in a succinct and effective way.

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