Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath (thanks, Dy-Anne and Kim!), so I went with it. We’re also required to share our “book report” in a way that incorporates technology, which means that this post is serving both as an assignment and as communication to my regular audience.
Introduction and summary
Chip and Dan Heath are brothers who came together from different backgrounds to write an effective book about how to communicate ideas so that they “stick.” Dan’s field of work is education, having founded a text publishing company called Thinkwell and having researched the best ways to make effective instruction stick. Meanwhile, Chip’s focus as a Stanford University professor is social marketing. This diversity in backgrounds and their common interest in researching communication resulted in a range of examples peppered throughout the text: “sticky” ideas from fields of education to urban legends and from the entertainment industry to business strategy.
In the introductory chapter, the authors introduce their acronym for successful ideas: a SUCCESs, which stands for a Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story. Throughout the rest of the book, they expound upon each of those items (i.e. the first chapter is titled “Simple” and so on), both telling what they mean and showing through a variety of examples. Additionally, a common thread - the book’s villain, if you will – is what the writers call the Curse of Knowledge; simply put, this means that you can’t unlearn what you know which makes it difficult to place yourself in an unknowing audiences’ shoes.
A couple additional features worth mentioning are the easy reference guide and the post-epilogue addition of trade-specific sticky advice, including a section titled Teaching that Sticks. The easy reference guide is a five-page appendix with a brief list of key principles and illustrations for each chapter. It was useful in writing this report, but I also expect it to be useful as a resource in the future. And while the book has teaching examples throughout it, the aforementioned section contains 15 pages that specifically unpack the author’s ideas for teachers.
Examples of effective communication
The author’s excelled in presenting well-researched exemplars for each principle, which made it a challenge for me to select a few key examples. One that stands out is the story of Nora Ephron’s journalism teacher (pp. 75-76) who used an assignment with a surprise element to teach students how to write a lead for an article. She presented facts about an all-faculty conference on the upcoming Thursday and asked the new students to take a stab at the lead. All students honed in on the details, but none wrote the real lead for the story which could be derived from the facts: that there would be no school for students on Thursday. This example, used to illustrate the communication principle “Unexpected,” showed how a lesson by a journalism teacher stuck with a future screenwriter by utilizing an unforeseen twist.
In the chapter about emotion, the authors explain how credibility isn’t enough when it comes to motivating youth not to smoke; they know the facts, but many still do it. Emotional campaigns, though, ones that put faces on victims or pile up body bags (like the Truth campaign does in their commercials), stuck with teenagers. Another key example provided, in the chapter titled Stories, is that of the Jared campaign for Subway, which not only conveys how a story makes a message stick but also points out that sticky ideas often need to be found rather than created. An advertiser heard about Jared’s story from a store manager and produced the ads for free when Subway’s corporate offices weren’t initially interested. This reaped great benefit once Jared’s story caught on and hit national news (causing Subway executives to swallow their pride), but the manager and creative director didn’t have to hold a brainstorming session or any other creative endeavor to come up with the idea. They just had to recognize it and take some risks to get it out to the public.
Ways that communication strategies could be applied in education
The example of Jared applies to teachers as well: often we don’t need to create new strategies or lessons or ideas but rather need to network and collaborate with others who are already using them. Jared’s example isn’t education-specific, but it applies well. However, I don’t need to reach far to find other examples from the book that make sense in education, given that one of the authors is involved in education. As mentioned above, an entire section of the book’s appendix speaks directly to ways that these principles could be used in the classroom. Not only does it add additional examples of each principle in practice in a classroom setting, it also refers the reader back to ranges of pages that are specifically applicable to teachers.
That appendix provides an example of a teacher using simple visual cues to help students remember the key points in his digital signal processing course (pp. 266-267). Another illustration (pp. 80-82) describes how an astronomer unexpectedly used mystery in an article about frozen dust on Saturn’s rings to hook a non-scientific reader, a strategy that could be used to teach disinterested students. The authors mention ten pages later that a detective plot could be used by a chemistry teacher to engage students in a lesson about the periodic table by telling the story of Mendeleyev’s work to organize the elements (p. 92). Later (pp. 104-106) they offer an analysis of strategies used by teachers in East Asia and the United States and found that teachers in Japan were more likely to use concrete examples to teach subtraction. Each chapter includes a clinic in which an example or non-example are contrasted; for the chapter called Emotional, three examples are provided – one poor, one mediocre, and one exemplar – to answer the question, “When are we going to use algebra in the real world?” One provides a trade organizations list of answers, which are meaningless to anyone outside of the field; another provides a list of relevant reasons for students but doesn’t compel students beyond a survival reasoning of having to study it for school. The final one surprises students, declaring that they’ll never, or at least rarely, use it in real life but that they will benefit from the mental weight training, using a football metaphor to drive that point home.
Despite the extensive teaching-related examples, this isn’t an education book. Neither of my friends who recommended it work in education. However, I would love to see this integrated in pre-service teacher training or in-service professional development. Thus my first action step for other teacher is simple, though not unexpected if you’ve been reading all this time: Read it! (And if my non-ECU friends are still reading, I would recommend this in other fields as well, including non-profits, business, and ministry. It’s good stuff.)
Whether you read it or not (and you should!), you can use these concepts both to plan for your ideas to stick on the forefront of lesson planning and to evaluate whether lesson plans already written meet the criteria for “stickiness.” (Is it simple? Unexpected? Credible? Concrete? Emotional? Story-based?) It doesn’t have to meet all the criteria – few of the examples in the book met all six – but ideas stick best when they meet as many as possible. In other words, you don’t have to force a lesson to meet all six, but your students will benefit if you hit more than you miss.
The one thing this book won’t help teachers (and others) do, though, is determine what points are the must-stick ones in your content area, but once you figure that out, this can be a valuable resource.