Book Review: Made to Stick

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Random House,  2007.

made to stick book cover image A man wakes up after a night of drinking in a bathtub with a kidney missing. A bird in the hand is worth two in a bush. Halloween candy spiked with razor blades. What do these urban legends and proverbs have in common? They are all ideas or stories that stick with us; easy to remember, easy to retell, and requiring no evidence or advertising for them to remain in the public consciousness. For example, the proverb "Where there's smoke there's fire" is found in 55 different languages. Where did it come from? Why does it resonate throughout dozens of languages and cultures? Why do we remember it?

The question of why some ideas stick in our mind and others do not is deftly explored by brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their fascinating 2007 best-seller Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Interested in understanding how they could develop and identify successful ideas, Chip, a Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, and Dan, a consultant and entrepreneur, have written an easily accessible and highly engaging book that draws upon numerous examples from the business world and evidence gathered from the scientific literature. Made to Stick will be of particular help to librarians involved in instruction, and any librarians responsible for creating and transmitting ideas (e.g., strategic plans, policy changes, communications, etc.) to others.

Defining an idea that sticks as one that is remembered, understood, and has a lasting impact, the book offers the simple acronym SUCCESs to both create and identify "sticky" ideas. Very briefly, the acronym formula is:

1) Simple: Locating the core of an idea and then translating that core. It is not about using fewer words or dumbing down a concept. The use of analogies or schemas is helpful; proverbs are an excellent illustration of this. 2) Unexpected: Often the simplest way to get attention is by breaking away from a pattern. Present ideas that create some mystery. Studies have shown that by leaving a gap in someone's knowledge, people are more likely and more inclined to seek out the answer. 3) Concreteness: When ideas are presented in the abstract they are much harder to grasp. Grounding the idea by eliminating ambiguity and using numerous examples assists people in grasping new or unfamiliar concepts. 4) Credibility: When ideas come from people we trust, their stories become more believable. Using vivid details helps increase credibility. 5) Emotional: Make your idea or topic something that people care about. Explain to them the real benefit of learning a new idea (what is in it for them?). 6) Stories: Stories are a different medium for sharing knowledge. They help us to simulate knowledge in our minds, and can demonstrate relationships between ideas we may not have known existed.

Each of these sticky traits is explored in depth by the authors, and the book contains rich examples. Demonstrating that their formula works, the numerous stories help to clearly illustrate concepts and make them much easier to remember for future use. The authors posit that the Curse of Knowledge is tightly linked with the SUCCESs formula, and is a primary reason why the transmission of ideas and concepts from a teacher to a student can be troublesome. As described in the book, the Curse of Knowledge is what makes ideas hard to stick; once we know something, we have difficulty imagining what it is like to not know it. Since we have trouble imaging that state of not knowing, we struggle with the ability to recreate our learnersÕ state of mind. As the authors fully delve into explaining the characteristics of the SUCCESs formula, overcoming the curse and making ideas memorable is what drives the remainder of the book.

While many of the ideas/strategies presented in the book are famous examples of successful marketing or communication (e.g., Jared of Subway Restaurants fame), the Heaths argue that any idea, even if it is not groundbreaking or exciting, can be made to stick using the formula. This is especially important to those in the library world as many of the ideas we are trying to convey, while perhaps lacking the sensationalist factor, are still important. Equally important, especially for those who are not strong public speakers, is the discovery that the skill of the speaker has little correlation with their ability to make an idea stick.

One of the most helpful and beneficial parts of the book is the supplementary material available via the Heath brothers website. Included on the site (registration, which is free, required) are pdfs of the SUCCESs framework, the sticky formula as applied to powerpoints and teaching, podcasts on how to create your own urban legends, and how to make yourself standout and be sticky in job interviews. Furthermore, the book itself also offers various tools for applying the SUCCESs formula, including an easy reference guide and Idea Clinics which demonstrate, step-by-step, how to take an idea and make it stickier.

Ultimately, the Heath brothers have written a captivating book that will be useful for all librarians involved with instruction and communication in some shape or format. While particularly relevant for NMRT members who are still struggling to find their voice and become engaging and informative instructors, it will also be an aid to more experienced teachers who are looking for fresh ideas and ways to make their instruction more memorable.

Reviewed by: Mê-Linh Lê, MA, MLIS, Health Sciences Librarian, Health Sciences Library, University of Saskatchewan.