Welles: Sticky ideas

If you want your ideas to make a difference, try these tips for couching them in appealing terms.

When it comes to communicating your ideas, a little stickiness goes a long way.  That’s the premise of the book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” by Stanford University professor Chip Heath and Duke Corporate Education consultant Dan Heath. 

“A little focused effort can make almost any idea stickier, and a sticky
idea is an idea that is more likely to make a difference,” the authors wrote.
“The more expertise we gain, the harder it is to communicate what we know,”  the authors added. “Our specialized knowledge makes it difficult to understand what it’s like for others who lack that knowledge.” 

This “curse of knowledge” is the villain of stickiness. “Making an idea sticky makes it available to anyone, not just people who have your expertise,” the authors wrote. 

Concerning ideas, the book gives six principles to follow. 

1. Strip an idea to its core, usually a short phrase. For example, we know that exposure to the sun is dangerous. But how can we warn people who think that tanning is a status symbol?  Instead of saying that ultraviolet rays cause burning of the skin, skin cancer and premature aging, or that skin damage is cumulative and can’t be undone, consider this sticky idea. Sun exposure: how to get old prematurely.

2. Use surprising facts to grab people’s attention. You use only 10 percent of your brain. Engage people’s curiosity by opening gaps in their knowledge and then filling those gaps.

3. If you use concrete images, an idea will mean the same thing to everyone.  For example, an inventor of early laptop PCs gave a presentation to venture capitalists unfamiliar with technology terms. By tossing a leather folder on a table and calling it a computer, he started the conversation that led to funding.

4. Statistics add credibility if you bring them to a human level. “If I tell you this is a program that spends roughly $380 million, it’s hard to visualize what that means. But if I say that the program costs about $1 annually for every man, woman and child in the U.S., it helps you understand,” the authors wrote. 

5. Associate ideas with things that people care about. People are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region. 

6. Tell stories to help people act on ideas. The authors said the Army’s innovations in using electronic medical records can be described as: “We want to kick off a comprehensive initiative to maximize universal access to medical data in a variety of situations.”

The authors say the sticky way to phrase that is: “Imagine that Army medics on the battlefield have PDAs and can make and edit patient records right there on the field and transfer them back to the hospital before the patient gets there.” 

Like gooey candy, this book sticks with you, and the storytelling makes it hard to put it down.

Welles is a retired federal employee who has also worked in the private sector. She lives in Bethesda, Md., and writes about work life topics for Federal Computer Week. She can be reached at judywelles@1105govinfo.com.