Dan Heath – If you don’t have a story, don’t expect anyone to listen

If a single tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?

Whether you are in leadership, marketing, communications or just someone trying to be heard, if you don’t have a compelling message don’t expect anyone to listen.

Over the past 3 days I have had the immense pleasure of working with author of Made to Stick and Switch, Dan Heath and listening to his presentations on how to have sticky ideas.

Many of you may have already read his books, but I thought I would take a moment to put down some of the main thoughts that I took away from his presentations:

Along with his brother Chip, Dan has done research on why some ideas, communications and messages have a lasting impact and why others simply fade away or fail at the first hurdle. Taking the intro from his website:

A sticky idea is understood, it’s remembered, and it changes something. Sticky ideas of all kins – ranging from the “Kidney thieves” urban legend to JFK’s “Man on the Moon” speech – have six traits in common. If you make use of these traits in your communication, you’ll make your idea stickier. (You don’t need all 6 to have a sticky idea, but it’s fair to say the more, the better!)

The 6 principles are:

  • Simple – What is the core of your message
  • Unexpected – Violate the schema
  • Concrete – Use sensory language, paint a mental image
  • Credible – using human-scale statistics, outside authorities or vivid details
  • Emotional – People care about people, not numbers
  • Stories – stories help people remember your message

Dan explains that having a simple idea means that you need to be clear on what you are trying to communicate and don’t be afraid to cut things out. For example the idea of an inverted pyramid is commonly used in journalism. You make your most important point in the headline of an article and filter down to the least important ideas the further through the article you go. In business the concept is similar: In your company, what is the most important aspect of your product or service that separates you from the competition? What is it that will make people stand up and listen to your communication above all others? Dan explains a story about a lawyer in America who said that a jury will only take in a few factual bits of information about a case before making their decision. If you present 10 different points to make your case, the jury will forget them all. If however, you make 2-3 main points and explain them clearly that is a far more effective way of working. What is the core of your message?

People have information overload in today’s society, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep you are constantly bombarded with advertisements, statistics and data in a variety of forms and your brain will filter out what it does not want. To make your message heard, do the unexpected. People create a schema around everything the experience…for example – say you see an advert for BMW, your mind automatically complies what it knows about that brand; Luxury, reliable, German, technically excellent etc etc. Try and have your message break the schema, do something unexpected….before your message can stick your audience has to want it. Dan also explains to be careful about what schema you break though….if you are a bank, your schema will be about being responsible, trustworthy, solid…these are things that people come to expect and are associated with your brand for a very good reason and so be careful not to break these intangible expectations.

Here is a video that breaks the scheme not once, but twice:

Your message should also be concrete, use sensory language to relate to your audience. The example of the urban legend around the “organ harvesting” is know across the world because it creates an emotional attachment to the story with its listeners through its shocking concept and the idea that you can actually imagine and visualise the person waking up in a bath full of ice cold water with a tube in their back.

Ideas also need to be credible. If you can demonstrate why your product or service is better than the competition then more people will listen. A simple example would be the range of diet products out there…how many of them use real life examples in their communications to put their message across. An image of a man before and after his diet regime showing off his size 52inch waist trousers now looking slimmer and healthier in his size 32’s. People respond to things that they can associate to and not jargon or numbers, Dan gives an example of bottled water. If a bottle of water costs $1.35 and tap water costs $0.0022 for the same amount can people really put that into perspective if you communicated that in your campaign? Probably not, but if you said it would take you 10 and a half years worth of filling up a bottle with tap water to cost the same as one bottle of bottled water that is a concept that people can understand. If you go into any electrical store, you will notice that all of the HD TV’s have vivid videos and images to show off their capabilities. They don’t just leave them all with the same programme on and a data sheet that tells you how many pixels they have, or how fast the frame refresh rate is…they want you to be able to see it for yourself.

Remember that people care about people, not numbers. As with credibility, you can thrown statistics and information at your audience, but they are much more likely to relate to something or someone that impacts them on an emotional level. Here is an outstanding video that demonstrates this:

The last and probably the most important principle of having a sticky idea is telling stories. Throughout his presentation, Dan used a number of stories to demonstrate and convey his message. If you have a key message to communicate, a simple, prioritised point, and back it up with statistics and information it will be hard for people to recall that message at a later date. If however, you can create a story around the message, it allows people to build a mental image and sensory attachment to that message in their minds which they can recall at a future date. They could in essence forget the actual message, but build it again from the story that was used to communicate it. This is a concept that is used by memory experts across the globe. You have probably seen, or are aware of people who can recall an entire pack of cards by creating a mental mind palace in their head of the cards, associating the order of those cards with a story which they then play back which in turn allows them to repeat the exact order of said cards. Analogies are also a great way to build a compelling story and sticky idea. As with schema’s people associate ideas with others that they can relate to from their own experiences, memories and already established concepts.

To finish up, Dan also explains that having a sticky idea costs nothing, if when creating a marketing communication, an advert, campaign or message the creators took 10% of their time evaluating if their idea has some or all of these 6 principles above then the likelihood of their message being listened to and remembered if vastly increased..sure it may take money to implement the idea, but that would be the case if it were sticky or not.

Dan has a number of video’s on Youtube around the Made to Stick concept and I urge you to take some time to go and seek them out and perhaps let me know which ones resonates the most with you?


One response to “Dan Heath – If you don’t have a story, don’t expect anyone to listen

  1. Pingback: Quote of the Day from Dan Heath | Newbons Blog·

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