When I saw this book I laughed. But when I started to read...

October 10, 2011

“Made to stick” is a book about sticky ideas. It seems most relevant to marketers. But, the message that it conveys would be useful to anyone. Its all about story-telling, and who doesnt need to tell stories?
The authors advice: in order to communicate a message for maximum recall, we should not rely on facts or figures, but should instead tell stories. Even if not telling a story, we should include some story-like aspects, which are identified as the following:

Simplicity - finding the core of the message. And making it compact.

  • “Its the economy, stupid” = What you remember from Bill Clintons presidential campaign. Even if you didnt see the campaign.


  • Get attention by breaking a pattern. Were good at recognising patterns, and dealing with them without giving them much attention. Break this system!
  • Create mystery; highlight a knowledge gap.

Concreteness - Minimise abstraction in factor of examples

  • Dont fall prey to the curse of knowledge. A successful story will naturally be an over-simplification. But people can only learn things one at a time. The abstractions that an expert can deduce from experience will not be meaningful to someone without those experiences.
  • The Velcro theory of memory - the more hooks, the better
  • Sour grapes - the best explanation of cognitive dissonance. From Aesops ancient fable, The Fox and the Grapes


  • Showing convincing evidence. If you believe that h.pylori bacteria causes ulcers, then drink a solution full of them and see what the result is! This may not be sensible, but the result is convincing. One way or the other.
  • Having external credibility. As a doctor, your medical advice would be credible. But, the smoker with lung cancer also gains credibility through their experience of making the wrong decisions. Or how about the Financial Pro Who Lost his House, he has both types of external credibility!
  • Minor, quirky details make a story more believable, as well as more memorable.
  • To show competence - use examples that pass the Sinatra Test: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere
  • Make your claim easy for people to verify. The logic doesnt have to be perfect. “Wheres the beef?”,leads people to judge a burger by the amount of beef in it.


  • If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will act. We are easily overwhelmed; keep things simple, and on a scale we can hope to tackle. Ask for donations to a single child, or village, in a starving nation, not to solve the entire problem.
  • Appeal to self-interest. But, the noble forms of self-interest are the most powerful, self-actualization and so forth. We all have needs described by Maslows hierarchy, but in fact we tackle them all simultaneously.
  • “They laughed when I sat down to play the piano. But when I began to play” = one of the most successful marketing slogans of all time. Its aspirational.

  • Appeal to Identity. How to stop macho Texans from littering? The message:Dont mess with Texas! , delivered by Texan sport stars.

Why should we want to use stories? Well, firstly, for inspiration: if we see that Jared (of Subway fame) was able to lose so much weight, we feel our problems should be easy to solve. And, to give guidance as how to act; particular cautionary tales will stick in our minds so we dont make the same mistakes.

It is a good book. I dont have too many quibbles. The main criticism would be that none of the advice is that surprising. But, it does do a good job of identifying important issues and showing how often we fail to address them. And, the book mostly tries to follow its own advice, which is reassuring. This book is a useful pointer in the right direction. It makes sense that pairing stories with ideas will make for much more effective communication. Indeed, it seems to unify a lot of ideas about good exposition that I had started to identify through experience.