Friday, September 4, 2009

Sticky Ideas

Duct tape on a book cover? Tim Lewis, my husband, was reading "Made to Stick" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath and he commented later that it was an interesting book. I asked him to write a brief summary of the book for this blog. Tim writes the following as he brings home some grains from the book:
"A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on." Charles Spurgeon on[1]
Why is it that "lies, urban legends, conspiracy theories and bogus public-health scares circulate effortlessly" while important ideas seem to struggle?
To what reason do we attribute the difference in the spread of the two types of messages? Is it the message it self? Is it the speaker ? Is it the hearer? Chip and Dave Heath in their book, "Made to Stick" [2], analyze the reasons for certain ideas, and more specifically, reasons for presentation of certain ideas make them more likely to "stick" in our minds. They give several explanations and examples to demonstrate those reasons. In summary, they identify six key characteristics of such ideas and they dedicated a chapter to each of these.

1. Simple This is finding the core of our idea which means "stripping an idea down to its most critical essence." How long do you have to speak before they get your idea?

2. Unexpected How do you generate curiosity and interest? When your idea is predictable you will loose their interest before you get your idea across. “The most basic way to get someone’s attention is this: Break a pattern. Humans adapt incredibly quickly to consistent patterns. Our brain is designed to be keenly aware of changes." (pp. 64, 65)

3. Concrete Make your ideas clear. Use concrete images when describing your idea like a flat-screen television, red rose, oak table, or a real person with a name. Our brains remember those things. Concepts that are already established are more readily remembered than those that are abstract.

4. Credible Make your ideas believable. Very few people will entertain ideas that are not accurate. “How do we get people to believe our ideas? We’ve got to find a source of credibility to draw on. A person’s knowledge of details is often a good proxy for her expertise. Think of how a history buff can quickly establish her credibility by telling an interesting Civil War anecdote. But concrete details don’t just lend credibility to the authorities who provide them; they lend credibility to the idea itself.” (pp. 138, 163)

5. Emotional Get people to care about you ideas. Make them feel something. Bridge the gap between your idea and the things that they already are passionate or care about. These are "strategies for making people care: using associations (or avoiding associations, as the case may be), appealing to self-interest, and appealing to identity. All three strategies can be effective but we've got to watch out for our old nemesis, The Curse of Knowledge, which interferes with our ability to implement them." (p. 199) Once we know something so well, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. So we tend to talk in ways that assume that the other person has already taken all of the mental steps that we have taken.

Imagine tapping out the rhythm of a song with your fingers on a table and trying to get someone else guess what song you are tapping? It is extremely frustrating because you can already hear the song in your head, but the other person just can't seem to get it. That is the "Curse of Knowledge". Scientists for example, spend so much time working and discussing with fellow scholars about a subject matter that they can't imagine an audience that doesn't know. Frustrating for them! Frustrating for the audience!

My wife Helen was coached, when presenting her research work to "assume that they don't know what you know." Listeners need to take the journey from where they are now to where they need to be.

Pastors may also fall into this trap when preparing a sermon. They spend hours and hours poring over the text and thinking about the deep ideas. Then, on Sunday morning, they are confronted with the congregation and they must now help those folks make the same journey. But because the pastor has been changed by his study and meditations, he can easily forget how it is for those listening. This is "The Curse of Knowledge" and generates blank stares, boredom, and doodling.

6. Stories Convey your idea through a story. "Stories have the amazing dual power to simulate and inspire." (p.237) Jesus told many stories to convey spiritual realities, because the drama inherent in the story pulled people towards the conclusion Jesus wanted them to read.

To test "stickiness", go back to the gospels and watch Jesus in his parables. Take the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). It had one simple point: Who is your neighbor? It was unexpected: The Samaritan, the "undesirable", is the good guy! It was concrete: the road to Jericho, the bandits, the coins, the salve-they were everyday items. It was credible: people recognized Jesus as rabbi and the situation was plausible. It was emotional: the traveler's plight. And, of course, it was a great story. It was sticky.

Now try a more recent story: Susan Boyle, the surprising voice talent. But look at her story and how it invaded a household that never turns on an "Idol" or "Talent" TV show. I heard about Susan Boyle two days after her performance through an email sent by a church mate which prompted me to check out a YouTube clip. The story was simple - local woman hits it big. Her performance was unexpected because she didn't fit the stereotype of the silky voiced diva; flummoxing Simon Cowell who is normally so quick to snipe at contestants. The emotion of the underdog who surprises a nation. That story drew many of us in for a few weeks as we watched the drama to see if this Cinderella story could last.

We are ambassadors of the gospel. But it is tossed like junk mail when we take the message of God and hide the significance by the way we talk. Paul even killed someone with his preaching (Acts 20:7-11) and God had to perform a miracle. That's why he prayed: "Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me.." (Ephesians 6:19) How to make the gospel stick? Knowing and idea is half, but showing is the other half.

Make your ideas stick for God.

[1] Sermon preached April 1st, 1855.
[2] "Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die", Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Random House, 2007)

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