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The Secret Behind Why Ideas 'Stick'


Having a good idea is nice, but if you want to get it out there, you have to make it stick - which is the idea behind the book "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die." Authors and brothers, Chip and Dan Heath say most people don't know how to frame their ideas in a clear and compelling way. They say a classic sticky idea is one put forth by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: I believe that his nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the man and returning him safely to the earth.

MONTAGNE: That idea energized the country and brought the world the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. Dan Heath says Kennedy's pledge had all the qualities of an idea that was made to stick.

Mr. DAN HEATH (Co-author, "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die"): Sticky ideas cut across lots of domains. We studied everything from "Aesop's Fables" from 2,500 years ago; to sticky history lessons thought by a high school teacher; to urban legends, which are frankly some of the stickiest ideas around. One of our favorites is the legend, maybe you've heard this one, of the business traveler who accepts a drink from an attractive stranger and next thing he knows, he wakes up in a bathtub full of ice and his kidney has been removed.

Mr. CHIP HEATH (Co-author, "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die"): This is Chip. And the question is could we steal the playbook of these ideas to make our own idea stick with our co-workers or our kids? So one of the principles that we talk about is being concrete. I mean that image of winding up in an ice-filled bathtub calls to mind a very visual image, it's sensory, you can imagine shivering in the ice. Urban legends inevitably have a concrete image associated with them. You know, we're talking about weeding your idea down to its fundamental essence. I think...

MONTAGNE: And you do speak about something called the curse of knowledge in your book.

Mr. C. HEATH: That's right. The curse of knowledge is the arch villain in our book. And what it says is, the more we know about something, the harder it is for us to imagine what it's like not to know that.

MONTAGNE: There's an experiment that you have in the book that demonstrates the curse of knowledge, and that's a tapping experiment.

Mr. C. HEATH: So, in 1991, a graduate student at Stanford, named Elizabeth Newton, ran a very interesting game called tappers and listeners. And the way this work is she would pair off two people, one would be the tapper and one would be the listener. Now, the tapper was given a slip of paper and on the slip of paper was a well-known song like "Happy Birthday To You" or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." And the job of the tapper was to tap out the rhythm of that song to the listener, who, in the end, would try to guess what song was being tapped.

So, let me give you an example of how this feels to be listener in this experiment. I'm going to tap out the rhythm of a well-known song. Here it goes.

(Soundbite of tapping)

MONTAGNE: So what's the song?

Mr. D. HEATH: The was song was...

Mr. C. HEATH: Was, very clearly, the "Star Spangled Banner."

(Soundbite of laughter)

And when you're tapping it out, you hear the entire instrumentals, you hear the vocal accompaniment, that was Mariah Carey on vocals, in case you didn't recognize her. And so, the tapper is hearing the whole message. And the listeners were lousy at this.

Out of 120 songs tapped out in the experiment, they only guessed three. That's the curse of knowledge. The tapper is hearing everything and what the listener is hearing is a disconnected set of Morse code, dots and dashes.

MONTAGNE: Leave us with a quick list of the six principles of making an idea stick.

Mr. C. HEATH: The first three are simplicity, unexpectedness, and concreteness. So John F. Kennedy's Man on the Moon Speech: it was a simple idea. It was incredibly unexpected, I mean, putting a man on the moon seems like science fiction at the time. But it was also incredibly concrete. Nobody could quibble about man, moon or decade, or what those terms meant.

The final three are credibility, emotional, and story. So back to the JFK form, it was credible because it came from the president of the United States, and it was an emotional story. It appealed to the nation's sense of yearning for the next frontier. What's our next zone of exploration? And it was that powerful emotional mission that kept us captivated for the better part of a decade.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much for joining us.

Mr. D. HEATH: Thank you very much.

Mr. C. HEATH: Thanks so much.

MONTAGNE: Chip Heath is a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. Dan Heath is a consultant at Duke Corporate Education, and co-founder of Thinkwell - that's a new media textbook company. They're brothers and they are the authors of "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Renee Montagne
Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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