Change Agents: Are You Sticky?

A psychologist and an education expert explain how to get people to pay attention to what you say

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You know Jared. He's the guy in the Subway commercials who lost 100 lbs. in three months by eating two subs a day. Now here's a question: Why do you know Jared? Of all the stories out there, why did Jared's land on Oprah, get a book deal, help push Subway sales up 18% in one year--why does it persist in the pop lexicon seven years later? Or, more to the point of anyone in the business of selling ideas (manager, fund raiser, coach, parent): How do you get your message to resonate as loudly as Jared's?

Those are questions brothers Chip and Dan Heath parse in their upcoming book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The exploration follows from a class Chip, 43, a professor of organizational behavior, teaches at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. He comes to the topic by way of research into urban legends and conspiracy theories--ideas that are wrong but so annoyingly sticky they just won't go away. Dan, 33, draws his interest from working as an education consultant and trying to figure out what makes some teachers so effective.

Together they find that the key to creating traction is to take your idea, whatever it may be, and present it as a Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Story. "We were a little embarrassed when it turned out that we could summarize it with SUCCESS," quips Chip. Breathe easy: the hokeyness quickly passes.

The Heaths trumpet the notion that certain ideas are "sticky"--a term plucked from The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell's tome about how ideas and behaviors catch on in society. Gladwell, whom the Heath brothers revere, writes about "the stickiness factor" but never fully fleshes out what makes an idea sticky. That's where Chip and Dan come in. Finding insight in fields as disparate as psychology, politics, screenwriting, economics, folklore and epidemiology, they deconstruct sticky ideas--from Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign classic "It's the economy, stupid" to the way Jane Elliott taught the civil rights movement to third-graders in an all-white Iowa town (see next page). At the same time, they lay out a blueprint for engineering your own sticky ideas, whether your goal is to stop teen smoking, sell more soap or get your boss to take you seriously. Says Dan: "We tackle the notion that having the idea is enough."

What makes this approach to sticky sticky is that underpinning the Heaths' advice is an avalanche of social-science research. Simplicity, for example, is intuitively attractive--Southwest's goal of being the low-fare airline is elegant in its minimalism. The Heaths push beyond what sounds like it should work and explain why it actually does.

Psychology research shows that choice can hinder decision making. In one experiment, college students were given the option of studying or attending a lecture by an author they admired. Only 21% opted to study. Yet when a third option--watching a movie--was thrown in, 40% chose studying. The need to pick between two fun outings made students twice as likely to have no fun at all.

Could Southwest include positions on customer comfort and safety ratings in its mission statement? Sure. But that extra information might hinder, not help, employees looking to the corporate ethos as a guide for making decisions.

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