SUMMARY: Made to Stick — By Chip Heath & Dan Heath

“Anyone interested in influencing others—to buy, to vote, to learn, to diet, to give to charity or to start a revolution—can learn from this book.”—The Washington Post


“All creative ads resemble one another, but each loser is uncreative in its own way.” That’s the premise of this book. The ideas that make people care, that persuade, that stick, are all alike. They have certain secrets which make them stick…


Why do some ideas survive and others die? They have SUCCESs:


  1. Simple – Easily understood.
  2. Unexpected – Capture attention.
  3. Concrete – Clear.
  4. Credible – Trusted.
  5. Emotional – We care.
  6. Story – We act and remember.


These six principles form each of the six main chapters of this New York Times Bestseller, Made to Stick.

[The summary below is partly copied from the book and partly rewritten (to condense an idea) by me. But you can be certain, everything insightful and useful are the ideas and words of Chip and Dan Heath.]



Commander’s Intent

In the 1980s, the U.S. Army created Commander’s Intent. It’s a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order, specifying the plan’s goal—the desired end-state of an operation. It gets everyone from Generals, to infantry to mechanics focused on the same goal—without requiring instructions from superiors.


That doesn’t sound very Army does it? When we think of the Army, we picture finely trained robots that do whatever their commander programmed them to do. Hell, they’ll sweep the sunshine off the pavement if they’re told too.


But, in the 80s something changed. Commander’s Intent allowed everyone from cooks to battalion commanders to think for themselves. In warfare this is invaluable, since “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”


For example, the intent of an Army captain may be written as; “My intent is to have Third Battalion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of enemy, with only effective remnants remaining, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through.” So, if there’s one soldier left in Third Battalion on Hill 4305, he can improvise to meet the overarching aim of protecting the flank of Third Brigade.


Finding The Core

Commander’s Intent is about finding the core. What matters. What people care about. It’s not about “dumbing down”. As the Heath brothers write, “You don’t have to speak in monosyllables to be simple.” Finding the core is stripping an idea to its most critical essence.


Colonel Tom Kolditz, the head of the behavioural sciences division at West Point, explains why finding the core matters. “Suppose I’m commanding an artillery battalion and I say, ‘We’re going to pass this infantry unit through our lines forward.’ That means something different to different groups. The mechanics know that they’ll need to repair support along the roads because if a tank breaks down on a bridge the whole operation will come to a screeching halt. The artillery knows they’ll need to fire smoke or have engineers generate smoke in the breech area where infantry unit moves forward, so it won’t get shot up as it passes through. As a commander, I could spend a lot of time enumerating every specific task, but as soon as people know what the intent is they begin generating their own solutions.”


Finding the core is as important in the military as it is in the classroom. The following example can be found in the Unexpected chapter, but is given here as it exemplifies the benefit of finding the core.


As students sat in front of their manual typewriters, Ephron’s teacher announced the first assignment. They would write the lead of a newspaper story. The teacher reeled off the facts: “Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverley Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school facility will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Robert Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund ‘Pat’ Brown.”


The budding journalists sat at their typewriters and pecked away at the first lead of their careers. According to Ephron, she and most of the other students produced leads that reordered the facts and condensed them into a single sentence: “Governor Pat Brown, Margaret Mead, and Robert Maynard Hutchins will address the Beverley Hills High School faculty Thursday in Sacramento… blah, blah, blah.”


The teacher collected the leads and scanned them rapidly. Then he laid them aside and paused for a moment. Finally, he said, “The lead to the story is: There will be no school next Thursday.”

Core and Compact

When you say three things, you say nothing. Finding the core is about letting go of good ideas so the great ideas shine—you can’t have five north stars.


For example, Disney wanted their employees to be more than just worker-bees. They wanted them to be part of the guest’s theme park experience. So they didn’t hire ‘employees’. They hired ‘cast members’. That simple idea instantly communicated how they were meant to act in their job. Everyone from performers to cleaners became committed to giving guests positive interactions whenever they had the opportunity. They weren’t working in the theme park, they were the theme park.  



Worm Burgers

Since the 1960s, McDonald’s were fighting the rumour that they used earthworms as fillers in their burgers. The truth, that their burgers were all beef, didn’t catch on.


In 1992, McDonald’s most famous CEO, Ray Kroc, came up with a better approach. He said, “We couldn’t afford to grind worms into meat. Hamburger costs a dollar and a half a pound, and night crawlers cost six dollars!”


The unexpectedness of his response made it memorable, dispelling the earthworm rumours once and for all. We take notice of unexpected ideas.


Science writing is a dry subject. Usually. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, noted an example, of science writing that made him want to read on. It began with a puzzle.


“How can we account for what is perhaps the most spectacular planetary feature in our solar system, the rings of Saturn? There’s nothing else like them. What are the rings of Saturn made of anyway?” He continued, “[and] how could three internationally acclaimed groups of scientists come to wholly different conclusions on the answer?”


The answer unfolded like a war between giants. Scientists from Cambridge proclaimed they were gas, MIT knew they were dust particles, and yet Cal Tech could see they were ice crystals. In the end, it’s revealed Saturn’s rings are made from dust particles covered in ice. That’s not innately fascinating, but the story is fascinating to read because the questions and mystery made readers feel the need for answers.


Cialdini realised that the “Aha!” feeling you get when you learn something new, is much more satisfying when it’s preceded by the “Huh?” feeling of not knowing something. Mysteries are powerful says Cialdini, because they create a need for closure. But mysteries are only part of a wider theory…


The “Gap Theory” of Curiosity

George Loewenstein is a behavioural economist at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1994, he came to a conclusion; “Curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge.”


For example, stories work by posing questions and opening situations. Movies cause us to ask what will happen? Mystery novels cause us to ask, Who did it? Sports contests cause us to ask, Who will win? Pokemon cards cause us to wonder, Which characters am I missing?


To make people interested, we must open gaps in their knowledge. We must show people they’re missing something. It’s like our phone. If we think it’s missing, it’s the most important thing in the world.


We must resist our natural urge to tell people what we know. To share facts. Instead, we must make readers curious by highlighting what knowledge they’re missing. Here’s what you know. Now here’s what you’re missing. This method of communication resembles flirting more than lecturing.


Problems getting people to pay attention to a message

Symptom: “No one is listening to me” or “They seem bored—they hear this stuff all the time.”


Solution: Surprise them by breaking their guessing machines—tell them something that is uncommon sense. (The lead is, There will be no school next Thursday!)


Symptom: “I lost them halfway through” or “Their attention was wavering toward the end.”


Solution: Create curiosity gaps—tell people just enough for them to realise the piece that’s missing from their knowledge.



Why are the Grapes Sour?

One hot summer day a Fox was strolling through an orchard. He saw a bunch of grapes ripening high on a grape vine. “Just the thing to quench my thirst,” he said. Backing up a few paces, he took a run and jumped at the grapes, just missing. Turning around again, he ran faster and jumped again. Still a miss. Again and again, he jumped until at last he gave up out of exhaustion. Walking away with his nose in the air, he said, “I am sure they are sour.”


That fable, “The Fox and the Grapes”, is one of the stickiest stories ever told. People in Hungary say savanyu a szolo (sour grapes in Hungarian), the Chinese say “The grapes are sour because you cannot reach them, and the Swedish express the sentiment with “Surt sa raven om ronnbaren.” We know, if the story was only “Don’t be such a bitter jerk when you fail”—no one would remember it.


Sticky Like Velcro

Memory is not a filing cabinet we can neatly file information in. It’s more like Velcro. Velcro on one side is a series of loops, that’s our brain. On the other side, is a series of hooks. If we make our ideas sticky, the easily they’ll hook into the loops of our brain.


The Real Challenge

It’s easy to slip into abstractspeak—the language of experts who forget other people don’t know what they know. Experts see things on a higher level but forget others can be at a more basic level. The chess master talks about complex strategy while the beginner is wondering why the bishop is moving diagonally. Experts need to talk in a language everyone can understand.


In the 1960s, Boeing set a goal that was deliberately concrete: to build a plane that seats 131 passengers, flies nonstop from Miami to New York City and land on Runway 4-22 at LaGuardia (a runway less than a mile in length). The concreteness of this goal directed the actions of Boeing’s entire company. Engineers knew the required range and designers knew how many seats to fit. It was much more effective than if they’d given the abstract goal  “to build the best passenger plane in the world.”


“Trying to teach an abstract principle without concrete foundations is like trying to start a house by building a roof in the air.”


Problems Getting People To Understand And Remember

Symptom: “They always nod their heads when I explain it to them, but it never seems to translate into action.”


Solution: Make the message simpler and use concrete language. Use what people already know as a way to make your intentions clearer, as with a generative analogy (like Disney’s “cast member” metaphor).


Symptom: “We have these meetings where it seems like everyone is talking past each other” or “Everyone has such different levels of knowledge that it’s hard to teach them.”


Solution: Create a highly concrete turf where people can apply their knowledge. Have people grapple with specific examples or cases rather than concepts.



Australian Doctors Aren’t Credible?

In the 1980s, in Perth Australia, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered something that had eluded the best medical professionals in the world: ulcers are caused by bacteria. And they can, therefore, be cured with a few days treatment of antibiotics.


However, no one in the medical world believed them. How could a staff pathologist and internist in training cure a disease that affects 10 percent of the world’s population? They had no credibility. That is until they tried something radical.


One morning Marshall skipped breakfast and drank a glass filled with a billion of the bacteria he believed caused ulcers. Within a few days he was developing an ulcer, and he then quickly cured himself with a course of antibiotics. People began to notice.


Yet it took 10 years before the National Institute of Health in the U.S. endorsed the idea that antibiotics were the preferred treatment for ulcers. Finally, in the fall of 2005, Marshall and Warren received the Nobel prize in medicine for their efforts.


We trust the recommendations of people whom we want to be like. Unfortunately, those in the medical community didn’t want to be like a staff pathologist and internist far removed from the prestigious medical institutions of America.


Statistics Aren’t Sticky

One problem with Marshall and Warren’s hypothesis was they were proving it with correlation, not causation. That allowed those in the medical community to quickly discount them.


But even with causation, they would have still encountered trouble using statistics to convince the general community. Statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves. Statistics will, and should, almost always be used to illustrate a relationship. It’s more important for people to remember the relationship than the number.


If You Can Make It There, You Can Make It Anywhere

Jain works at the Indian company Safexpress, a secure delivery service. When Jain was trying to land a new client, he could’ve used statistics, “98.84 percent of our deliveries arrive on time.” But we know that number will be quickly forgotten.


Jain could have also used a testimonial from a CEO of a multinational company to convince her client. But she didn’t.


Instead, Jain told a story. Safexpress handled the release of the fifth Harry Potter book—every Potter book in every bookstore in India had been delivered there by Safexpress, an insanely complicated delivery: All the books had to arrive in stores by 8 a.m. on the morning of the release. Not too early, or the bookstore owners might try to sell them prematurely and the secret would be blown. And not too late, or the bookstore owners would be irate at lost sales. Also, the Potter books needed the same piracy protections as the studio’s films—there could be no leaks.


His story makes you think, “If Safexpress can make it there, they can make it anywhere.”


Problems Getting People To Believe You Or Agree

Symptom: “They’re not buying it.”


Solution: Find the telling details for your message.


Symptom: “They quibble with everything I say” or “I spend all my time arguing with them about this.”


Solution: Quiet the audience’s mental sceptics by using a springboard story, switching them into creative mode. Move away from statistics and facts toward meaningful examples.



Real Texans Don’t Litter

In the 1980s, Texas had a serious littering problem—the state was spending $25 million a year on clean-up. Campaigns like “Pitch in” and “Please, don’t litter” had no effect.


Even though people knew they shouldn’t litter, it didn’t stop them. Nothing stopped them. That is, until the “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign. This campaign realised that littering wasn’t a rational decision, it was emotional. To change behaviour, they’d have to change how people feel about littering.


The best way to impact their behaviour is to convince them people like them don’t litter—”real Texans don’t litter”. Their campaign featured Dallas Cowboy players, a Houston Astros pitcher, Houston Oilers quarterback, George Foreman and even Willie Nelson. Texans. By appealing to Texans identity rather than attempting to guilt them into stopping littering, they stopped littering.


Embedded in this story are two important insights. Identity and group interest are more motivating than self-interest, and we can influence people more by targeting emotions rather than rationale.


Feeling Beats Thinking

Researchers primed one group of people to feel and another group to think before reading a story about a 7-year-old African girl named Rokia. Those that were primed to feel then went on to donate an average of $2.34 while those that had calculated gave $1.26.


Advertisers already knew emotion rules over intellect. It’s why they focus on benefits, not features. “An old advertising maxim says you’ve got to spell out the benefit of the benefit. In other words, people don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures.”


Advertisers often use this knowledge to make more money, but it can also be used to help people. If we want to stop teens smoking, we must target their emotions. Teenagers want to rebel. The Truth Campaign was designed to get teens to stop smoking. It painted big corporate tobacco companies as manipulative, greedy companies—“The Man”. Naturally, teens wanted to rebel against “The Man”, and teen smoking decreased.

We Think Everyone Else Is Living In Maslow’s Basement, While We’re In The Penthouse

Let’s say you’re trying to persuade someone to take a new job in a department that’s crucial to the company’s success. Here are three possible pitches for the new job:

  1. Think about how much security this job provides. It’s so important that the company will always need someone in this job.
  2. Think about the visibility provided by this job. Because the job is so important, a lot of people will be watching your performance.
  3. Think about how rewarding it will be to work in such a central job. It offers a unique opportunity to learn how to company really works.

Most people say No. 3—an appeal to Learning—would be most motivating for them. These same people predict that others would be most motivated by No. 1 (Security) and No. 2 (esteem).


Problems Getting People to Care

Symptom: “They are so apathetic,” or “No one seems fired up about this.”


Solution: Remember the Mother Teresa effect—people care more about individuals than they do about abstractions. Tell them an inspiring Challenge plot or Creativity plot story. Tap into their sense of their own identities, like “Don’t Mess with Texas” ads, which suggested that not littering was the Texan thing to do.


Symptom: “The things that used to get people excited just aren’t doing it anymore.”


Solution: Get out of Maslow’s basement and try appealing to more profound types of self-interest.



Fact: Facts Suck

Often we think of the story in our heads but only communicate the conclusion. We must constantly fight that temptation to skip the story and tell the facts. People remember stories, not facts.


The problem with facts is that when you hit listeners between the eyes they respond by fighting back. The way you deliver a message to them is a cue to how they should react. If you make an argument, you’re implicitly asking them to evaluate your argument—judge it, debate it, criticise it—and then argue back, at least in their minds. But with a story, you engage the audience—you are involving people with the idea, asking them to participate with you.


Stories work better than facts and abstract ideas because they provide context. They move from common sense to uncommon sense. Memorable stories have something new.


But you don’t need to create every story yourself. If you’re a great spotter, you’ll always be a great creator. Why? Because the world will always produce more great ideas than any single individual.


Here are three types of stories to look out for…


Once Upon A Time, There Were Three Story Plots…

1. The Challenge Plot

The story of David and Goliath is the classic Challenge plot. A protagonist overcomes a formidable challenge and succeeds. David fells a giant with his homemade slingshot. There are variations of the Challenge plot that we all recognise: the underdog story, the rags-to-riches story, the triumph of sheer willpower over adversity. Challenge plots inspire us to act.


2. The Connection Plot

The Connection plot is about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap—racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise. The Good Samaritan is the classic Connection plot. A Jewish man is lying hurt after being robbed. Three Jewish people see him and walk by. But a Samaritan, one who is ordinarily disliked by Jews, offers him help, paying for his accommodation and looking after him.


The Connection plot doesn’t have to deal with life-and-death stakes, it can be trivial. A scrawny young white fan encounters a towering famous black athlete. A bottle of Coke links them. Connects them.

All Connection plots inspire us in social ways. Where challenge plots involve overcoming challenges, Connection plots are about relationships with other people. They make us want to help others, be more tolerant of others, work with others, love others.


If you’re telling a story at the company Christmas party, it’s probably best to use the Connection plot. If you’re telling a story at the kickoff party for a new project, go with the Challenge plot.

3. The Creativity Plot

The third major type of inspirational story is the Creativity plot. The prototype might be the story of the apple that falls on Newton’s head, inspiring his theory of gravity. The Creativity plot involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way. It’s the MacGyver plot.


The famous explorer Ernest Shackleton faced such enormous odds in his explorations (obviously a classic Challenge plot) that unity among his men was mission-critical. A mutiny could leave everyone dead. Shackleton came up with a creative solution for dealing with the whiny, complaining types. He assigned them to sleep in his own tent. When people separated into groups to work on chores, he grouped the complainers with him. Through his constant presence, he minimised their negative influence. Creativity plots make us want to do something different, to be creative, to experiment with new approaches.


Problems Getting People To Act

Symptom: “Everyone nods their heads and then nothing happens.”


Solution: Inspire them with a Challenge plot story (David and Goliath). Make sure your message is simple and concrete enough to be useful.