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Made to Stick Part Three: Sticky Ideas are Unexpected

ChairsQuick--which chair do you notice in this photo?

Odds are, it's the red chair. But why does it  stand out? Because in a sea of gray chairs, all the same size and shape, the larger red chair is unexpected. It violates the pattern set by the other chairs and our brain immediately notes that there's something different in the photo.

Our brains are wired to notice novelty, to take note when something is different than what we expect. If something fits into our general pattern of expectations, our brains will blip right over it, saying in effect "I've seen this before, no need to pay attention to this." But if something stands out, then our brains will immediately pick up on the change telling us to pay attention, this is something we need to consider.

Because we are wired to notice and record the unexpected, surprise is a key factor in making an idea "sticky." According to Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick, once we've honed an idea to its essential core, making it simple and profound, then we need to answer two important questions:

  • How do I GET someone's attention?
  • How do I KEEP their attention?

Getting Attention
To get someone's attention, you use the element of surprise, the violation of their pattern of expectations. As the Heath's explain:

"Common sense is the enemy of sticky ideas. When messages sound like common sense, the float gently in one ear and out the other. And why shouldn't they? If I already intuitively 'get' what you're trying to tell me, why should I obsess about remembering it? The danger of course is that what sounds like common sense often isn't. . . It's your job, as a communicator, to expose the parts of the idea that are uncommon sense."

So we need to look at the core idea and find the things that are counter-intuitive about it, the aspects of the idea that are NOT common sense.

Like, "Did you know that the "healthy" juice that you're giving your kid is actually nothing more than sugar water, with  juice used only as flavoring?" 

It's "common sense" that juice is healthy for you--that's our expectation. But if you tell someone that the juice they thought was healthy is nothing more than empty calories, that violates their expectation. That gets them to pay attention.

Keeping Their Attention

Getting attention is one thing, and if you're presenting a relatively simple idea, getting attention may be enough. But for more complex ideas, you have to look at how to engage people's curiosity for a longer period of time. You do this by exposing gaps in people's knowledge and then helping them close those gaps. You tease them to draw them into asking questions, wanting to solve a mystery, and then providing them with the information that helps them do that.

News teasers are a good example of this approach--"What if there was a drug that made you sexier AND could get you a raise? Watch Action News at 11 to find out about how one new medication may do both."  To make our ideas sticky, we need to do the same thing. Find the surprising information, the questions in the material, and ask those to create curiosity. Those questions should be relevant and engaging to the audience. And your "sticky idea" should help them answer those questions.

Think of the best teachers you've had. They asked important questions and then helped you solve the mystery behind those questions. And today, years later, you probably still remember the lessons that were taught. Those are some sticky ideas. That's where you want to be.

So . . . simple ideas presented in unexpected ways will get people's attention. The next time I write on this, we'll look at strategies for making ideas concrete.


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