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Made to Stick- Book Review

1 July 2021
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

"Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive, and Others Die" is a compelling first entry in a series of enlightening books by Chip & Dan Heath. Published originally in 2007, with a new edition in 2018, this seminal work examines the vital ingredients that allow a message to resonate powerfully with its intended audience. A question of universal relevance, it explores what makes a message effective enough for people not only to understand and remember it, but also to act upon it.

In their comprehensive analysis of numerous ideas and messages, the authors distill six essential principles that are key to making an idea 'sticky'. These principles form the acronym SUCCESS:

The book delves into the concept of the "curse of knowledge" - the difficulty that experts face when they have to explain their complex knowledge to novices. This profound idea encourages introspection for anyone aiming to communicate effectively.

Written in an engaging and accessible style, "Made to Stick" is a valuable resource replete with concrete examples, thorough explanations, and insightful advice. It covers substantial ground in strategy and teaching, making it particularly useful for anyone in a leadership or educational role. However, it emphasizes that there's no foolproof formula for success - its guidance aims to enhance one's understanding and inspire meaningful action.

One of the key takeaways from the book is that to displace a strongly held idea, simply waiting isn't enough - a more persuasive alternative idea is required. This sheds light on the tenacity of good ideas that have firmly taken root in our minds.

The Heath brothers' book is a must-read in its entirety. Its summary offers a tantalizing glimpse of its insights, but the full experience of reading the book is highly recommended.

Each of the SUCCESS principles is explained in detail:

  • Simplicity encourages the stripping down of an idea to its core, reducing it to one key message that's both compact and profound. It discusses how to deal with complex messages effectively, ensuring they resonate with the audience.

  • Unexpectedness deals with grabbing and holding the audience's attention through surprising elements and meaningful content. It discusses techniques to generate curiosity and build interest.

  • Concreteness emphasizes the power of sensory details in making an idea memorable and relatable, leading to shared understanding among the audience.

  • Credibility explains how to build trust in a message, highlighting the importance of external authorities (like experts and celebrities), internal evidence (such as detailed information, statistical support, and real-life examples), and past experiences.

  • Emotional impact is crucial in making people care about an idea. The book suggests ways to forge emotional connections, appeal to self-interest, and align with the audience's values and affiliations.

  • Storytelling provides guidance on using narrative to inspire and motivate, explaining different story templates and highlighting the elements that make a story compelling.

With its blend of research, anecdotes, and practical advice, "Made to Stick" is a treasure trove of insights for anyone aiming to communicate effectively and leave a lasting impression.


The principle of simplicity emerges as the standout starting point of the book. While subsequent principles delve into the methods of idea communication and transmission, the principle of simplicity hones in on the very fabric of the content itself.

The principle of simplicity encapsulates three key elements:

  1. Core: This pertains to the integrity and essence of the core message that one aims to convey. It requires a deep dive into the critical components of the idea to seize its very essence. On occasion, utilizing metaphors can assist in achieving this core precision.

  2. Singularity: The power of a singular message cannot be overstated. A proliferation of messages can lead to information overload and ultimately dilute the impact. While every message may carry importance, it becomes necessary to sift through them and settle on just one. The decision to prioritize a single message, while challenging, is crucial.

  3. Brevity: The message must be succinct yet meaningful. Consider a proverb, an epitome of a succinct, core message. To deliver such a message, one can leverage familiar symbols or phrases that trigger associations in the listener's mind with the intended message, thus conveying the idea with minimal details while still ensuring comprehension.

Notably, complex messages can also be communicated effectively. It's possible to articulate intricate ideas through a step-by-step approach that involves relaying simple messages that cumulatively construct the more complex narrative.

For instance, the phrase "America Online airline" communicates the idea of being "THE low-cost airline online". Here, the spotlight is solely on the cost. It's not that quality is sidelined, but rather, cost becomes the key differentiator that influences consumer decision-making and distinguishes this airline from others.

The ultimate objective is to craft a compelling message that successfully resonates with the audience.


As alluded to earlier, the remaining five principles, commencing with "unexpected," concentrate on efficacious strategies for conveying a simple message.

The principle of "unexpected" consists of two parts:

  1. Surprise: The inclusion of surprising elements is vital to engage the audience's attention. Given the pace of modern life, simply delivering sound messages isn't enough to captivate attention. Surprises disrupt the ordinary, snapping individuals from their automated routines into a state of heightened awareness. This disruption creates a curiosity gap that incites a quest for answers.

  2. Substance: To retain the audience's focus, the introduction of substantial content is indispensable. Merely surprising them won't suffice to hold their attention for long. Thus, the message must encompass elements of interest. It's prudent to avoid gimmicky tactics that promise much but deliver little of substance. Evaluate the message, taking into account its unique or unconventional aspects and their implications. These elements will form the backbone for refining the message. By creating these "gaps," you not only generate surprise but also pique interest, encouraging the audience to stay engaged. Strategies such as mysteries or riddles can be effective in sparking surprise, but it's essential to lead the audience through a narrative that sustains their interest past the initial shock. This narrative should engage them in a plot where they eagerly await the subsequent developments and the unfolding of the story. At times, steering them towards an expected outcome, only to pivot abruptly, can be an effective technique for fostering interest.

For instance, a company aiming to underline their customer-centric philosophy shared stories of their employees gift-wrapping purchases for customers who had shopped at rival stores. This unexpected gesture reinforced their unwavering commitment to prioritize the customer above all else.

The overarching objective is to not only seize but also sustain the audience's attention throughout the entire message or process.


The "concrete" principle is the second element that contributes to the success of conveying a message effectively.


A concrete or tangible message is one that can be perceived through our senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, or smell). In contrast, an abstract message, as previously mentioned, has its own advantages but lacks stickiness. There are several advantages of a tangible message:


1. Understandability: It is easier for us to comprehend a tangible idea compared to an abstract one, which can be challenging to understand.


2. Synchronization: An abstract idea can be interpreted differently by different individuals. In contrast, a tangible message allows for better synchronization and a shared understanding among the audience.


3. Memorability: We tend to remember things that we can connect to familiar memories. When different senses are associated with a tangible message, such as taste or smell, it strengthens our ability to remember.


What makes an idea or message tangible?


- Association: For other tangible ideas, it is preferable to incorporate elements that involve our senses.


- Connection to specific people's needs: It is important to establish a connection with the needs of the target audience of the message. Putting yourself in their shoes and formulating the message in a tangible way can be effective.


Example: A company wanted to promote a home pasta machine with 11 different configurations. After observing families in their homes and understanding the challenges faced by a mother multitasking with a child in her arms, a phone in hand, and dinner preparations, the needs became concrete. The company simplified the machine to only 2 configurations in response to these specific needs. The result was reduced costs and an 11% increase in sales.


The goal is to achieve deep understanding and the ability to remember the message.


For a message to gain traction and be perceived as credible, it must align with our sense of belief. Several factors influence what we perceive as believable:

  1. Positive Experiences: If we've had a positive experience with a particular subject in the past, we are inclined to believe in it.

  2. Social Influence: Our beliefs can be shaped by the influences of our parents, friends, and the broader environment in which we exist.

  3. Religious Alignment: If an idea aligns with our religious upbringing and values, we tend to place more trust in it.

  4. Trust in Authority: The level of belief in a message can be influenced by the degree of trust we place in the authority figure delivering it.

Authority coefficients, which influence credibility, can be broken down into external and internal factors:

External Authority Coefficients: These relate to the individuals conveying the message. We are more likely to trust a message when it emanates from:

A. Experts B. Celebrities C. Inspirational Figures D. Simplistic, Anti-Establishment Figures (who are perceived as authentic).

Internal Authority Coefficients: These hinge on the content of the message. A message is deemed trustworthy if it incorporates:

A. Detailed information. For instance, instead of saying, "The man offering to buy a car," a more impactful statement would be "The man in the hat, offering to purchase a gray car."

B. Statistical Evidence and Data. It's wise to use data that aligns with familiar information for the listener or analogies to clear concepts, ensuring the data's meaning is fully comprehended.

C. Real-World Examples. Offering relatable examples, such as "Even in New York they drive like this," can reinforce the credibility of the message.

Tip: It is recommended to test the message on a sample audience before a public release to ensure the tools employed effectively enhance its credibility.

The ultimate aim is to engender belief and agreement from the audience regarding the message's content.


When discussing statistics and large numbers, it is important to pause and examine the details behind those numbers. Statistics stimulate analytical thinking, while individual people and their life stories stimulate emotional thinking.


Emotional thinking evokes care and compels us to take action. So, how can we arouse people's care?


A. Associations: There's no need to start from scratch; we can create associations between the message we want to convey and another area where people already have a perception of emotion and caring. By doing so, we can transfer their feelings from that other field to our message. However, it's important to be cautious about overusing the same examples, as it can lead to clichés and diminish the emotional impact we desire.


B. WIIFM (What’s In It For Me): Appeal to the self-interest of the individual or the public in front of us. People naturally care about themselves, so if they perceive that implementing an idea will directly benefit them, they will care about it and be inclined to adopt it. Using illustrative terms, such as "imagine that...", reinforces the concept of WIIFM.


Tip: When considering WIIFM, it's helpful to think broadly about all five needs as defined by Maslow's hierarchy of needs, particularly the need for self-fulfillment.


C. Benefits to the group or company we feel a part of: We are positively responsive to issues that contribute to the social principles we believe in. When a message aligns with our group or affiliation, we respond with care. For example, a campaign launched years ago to stop littering on roads - "Don't mess with Texas."


The goal is to evoke a sense of care in the listener towards the message, encouraging them to pay attention and act.


Storytelling is a time-honored tool, utilized for generations as a vital part of social and cultural exchanges. We naturally gravitate towards stories, effortlessly integrating them into our lives.

The potency of storytelling is twofold:

A. It guides the listener towards the intended outcome. B. It spurs and fuels action.

Stories fulfill varying purposes in our lives. They may serve as a source of entertainment, like bedtime stories, or as instructive guides, wherein teachers or sages share stories imbued with lessons and wisdom. Often, these two aspects intertwinely coexist in a single story.

Several story templates aid in conveying a message effectively:

A. Resolution of Challenges: This template narrates a story wherein a conflict or challenge is surmounted. An example is the biblical tale of David and Goliath.

B. Bridging Individuals: This template centers around individuals who mend a gap, whether it's cultural, social, religious, or otherwise. An exemplar is the parable of The Good Samaritan.

C. Creativity: This template comprises unexpected twists or creative elements. An example is the tale of an apple falling on Newton's head, thereby inspiring the solution to a physics conundrum.

What renders a story impactful?

  • Conflict and Drama: These elements pique interest and captivate the audience.

  • Relatability and Vivid Illustration: Stories that resonate with real-life experiences and provide striking illustrations bring the audience closer to the narrative and reinforce their emotional engagement.

  • Inspiration: Inspiring stories kindle motivation and prompt us to act.

Tip: Crafting new stories from scratch can be daunting. Instead, it's more manageable to stay observant and gather stories that fit into one of the three templates above. These stories can then be employed when the occasion calls for them.

Notably, the authors extensively discuss the role of storytelling in fostering and advancing knowledge management initiatives at the World Bank in the early 2000s.

The ultimate aim is to inspire and motivate individuals to act in harmony with the message conveyed through storytelling.


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