‘Sticky’ Stories and ‘Save the Darfur Puppy’

From Gini Nelson’s Blog Engaging Conflicts

Made To Stick:Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die… by Chip and Dan Heather (who are brothers) identifies six principles at work to create ideas that stick, ala Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I read it last week, and reviewed my notes yesterday, intending to begin my posts about the book. I found myself again amazed at how valuable and useful the book is… there was so much in even just my notes, that I could not get to the posting until today.


Here’s from the book’s website:

Mark Twain once observed, “ A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.” His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus public-health scares circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas—businessmen, educators, politicians, journalists, and others—struggle to make their ideas “stick.”

We need to understand and apply the principles if we do, indeed, want the public “beating down the doors” of mediators and other conflict specialists. Chip and Dan created an anacronym summarizing the principles:

S – Simplicity
U – Unexpectedness
C – Concreteness
C – Credibility
E – Emotions
S – Stories
s – (well, this is just thrown in to make the word)

Simplicity means simple and profound, as in Aesop’s fables and proverbs, not something dummied down or simplistic.

Unexpectedness uses surprise to capture attention and then generates curiosity to keep attention, and does not mean gimmickry.

Concreteness means based on the senses and not on abstractions, to ensure that the idea means the same thing to everyone in the audience. One of their biggest points, of particular relevance for us, is that “[a]bstraction is the luxury of the expert.” We experts forget how much we know, and don’t remember what it was like when we were novices. We forget what it is like to not know.

Credibility can come from three seemingly rational and also seemingly irrational bases: (1) authorities (of two kinds, experts, and celebrities and other aspirational figures); (2) internal credibility through use of details, statistics, and “the Sinatra Test” (to paraphrase, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”); and (3) credentials that can be directly tested by the audience (”see-for-yourself” ala tha old Wendy’s hamburger commercial, “Where’s the beef?”).

Emotions refers to the need to make messages “emotional” in order to make people care, because feelings inspire people to act. From the book:

Everyone believes there is tremendous human suffering in Africa; there’s no doubt about the facts. But belief does not necessarily make people care enough to act. Everyone believes that eating lots of fatty food leads to health problems; there’s no doubt about the facts. But the belief does not make people care enough to act.

They conclude that “empathy emerges from the particular rather than the pattern” and repeat one of Mother Teresa’s quotes:

If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.

Their research on this point includes research recently cited in New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof’s May 10th column, “Save the Darfur Puppy”, concerning compassion fatigue on Darfur (TimesSelect subscription required). From the column:

“Our capacity to feel is limited,” Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon writes in a new journal article, “Psychic Numbing and Genocide,” which discusses these experiments. Professor Slovic argues that we cannot depend on the innate morality even of good people. Instead, he believes, we need to develop legal or political mechanisms to force our hands to confront genocide.

Now I’m getting off the main point of Made To Stick, but the issues discussed in Kristof’s column and research into genocide and morality are among the most important to me, and the Emotions chapter in Made To Stick is, consequently, the most fascinating. I have always been moved by the Edmund Burke quote: All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing. For me, a critical question is: “What facilititates good people doing nothing in the face of evil?” Because knowing that gives tools — and, thus, for me, the value of Made To Stick — for facilitating good people to take action.

Stories, the 6th principle, is “Humanity 101 — we want to talk to other people about the things that we have in common.” It’s also a fascinating chapter I’ll write more about. Chip and Dan identified three basic plots that show up again and again as inspirational: the Challenge plot, the Connection plot, and the Creativity plot.

The Heath brothers extracted some of the Made To Stick points for a ChangeThis manifesto published February 6, 20007, which if freely available both at the ChangeThis website, and by direct download by clicking here:

Talking Strategy: Three Straightforward Ways To Make Your Strategy Stick.


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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