Made to Stick

This week in Product Book Club, we read Made to Stick by Heath brothers. This was one of those books that was in my must read category but never prioritised reading it. I learnt why some ideas stick and many don't. Most importantly I learnt the formula for idea adhesion.

If you care about influence, persuasion, storytelling and make your ideas stick (understood and remembered) with a lasting impression, this book is for you.

The book has about 291 pages and 87000+ words. By typical calculations, it takes about 4.5 hours to read that too if you read at 300 wpm speed. Believe me, it takes much lesser than that to read this book. The reason being, it is filled with sticky stories and their analysis.

If you don't have that kind of time, spend 15 mins to read (2600 words) about the most important ideas I gathered from the book below. Treat this as a cheat sheet of sticky ideas. Let's dig in 👇

There are interesting ideas and boring ideas out there. The question to ponder is, is the idea interesting by nature or by nurture? The authors argue that we can nurture sticky ideas.

The book starts with the striking story of Kidney Heist. It is an urban legend (albeit a fake one) for decades now. The story is remembered in utmost detail for a long time. In other words, the story is made to stick.

The author contrasts the Kidney Heist story with a (boring) financial strategy of a not-for-profit and proves that we remember the fake story better than a real financial strategy that helps millions. The stickiness is real. But now I was stuck to the book, reading further.

One more interesting story that stuck to me, was the popcorn ad campaign.

Popcorn made with coconut oil has high saturated fat. It is bad for heart health. We all know this fact. But would anyone stop eating popcorn because of the fact?

A sticky ad campaign made them to stop eating popcorn made in coconut oil by this 👇

“An average portion of popcorn sold at a local cinema contains more dangerous fat for the arteries than: a breakfast with bacon and eggs, lunch with a Big Mac and fries, and dinner with steak and all the trimmings — combined!”

The story was a hit and captured the attention of television channels. Very soon, consumers stopped buying popcorn. Cinemas, hand on heart, vowed that they would no longer use coconut oil to make their popcorn.

The idea above was well-crafted and clearly made to stick.

Is it possible for all of us to make well-crafted, sticky ideas? Is there a formula to make sticky ideas? The answer is YES. Remember it as SUCCESs formula.


No plan can survive when faced with the enemy. No product plan can survive when faced with the customer. No learning plan survives when faced with the pupil.

To make an idea stick in a noisy, unpredictable and chaotic context is not easy. The way to success is simplicity. The idea you are trying to convey has to be undressed, totally stripped down to its very essence, its core, and devoid of all superficiality.

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

How to

  1. Strip the idea to the core.
  2. Exclude Superfluous Elements.
  3. Find the essence.
  4. Bring them alive using SUCCESs formula.
  5. No more, No less.


Our brain is extremely sensitive to change. So get the attention by breaking a pattern in the audience mind. Surprise is a great way to draw attention. It acts as an emergency neutraliser when our guessing machines are cut short. All our ongoing activities are interrupted and our attention unwilling focuses on the surprising event. Surprise makes us attentive. It makes us think. You can see the surprise in the face "the eyebrow of surprise".

“Why am I learning this Algebra? When am I ever going to use it?” was a question from a 9th grader.

The most sticky answer by the teacher was: “Never. You will never use it.” The teacher continues to explain- "if people lift weights, it is not to prepare in case they are attacked in the street one day. You lift weights so that you can knock over a forward at football, or to carry your shopping bags, or to keep fit, or to lift up your grandchild without feeling stiff the following day. You do Math to improve your ability to reason logically, in order to become a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison guard, or even a parent.

MATH IS FITNESS TRAINING FOR THE BRAIN. It is a means (for most people), not an end. The message is that- by studying algebra, we realize our potential better.


Avoid such gratuitous and hollow surprise. The words don't exist and it is just a trick to play with our brain. It will not stick and it is frustrating. Playing such tricks works in that moment but when we think about it, it is irritating.

Instead, start with an enigma, stimulate intellectual curiosity that makes us want to know the answer, and open a loop to keep their attention hooked, only closing it once the message communication is complete aka Open Loop Technique.

How To

  1. Identify the central message, the essence to be communicated — the substantive spinal cord
  2. Discover what about the message is contrary to intuition — what is the element of surprise we can use
  3. Communicate our message in a way that breaks our audience’s guessing machines and surprises them.


Concreteness and practicality matters. If an idea can't be full of concrete images, it cannot stick. Take Aesop tales for example. They communicate profound truths. The fables conjure up concrete images (like the fox, the grapes, the scornful claim about the green grapes etc).

V8 engine is concrete, Great performance is not.

Concrete means it is directly perceptible by the senses. Even the most abstract business strategy must translate into tangible/concrete human actions. It is easier to adhere and understand tangible actions than the presentation of an abstract strategy. Abstraction has its place in messaging but it is at the disposal of an expert communicator's privilege to use.

Being Concrete isn't that hard. The barrier is, we forget that we are slipping into the abstract world. The curse of knowledge makes us forget that other people don't know what we know.

1- Imagine throwing a rock from the Sun to the Earth and hitting your target within a 500-metre radius of its center.

2- Imagine throwing a rock from New York to Los Angeles and hitting your target within a 1.5-centimeter radius of its center.

58% and 83% resonance respectively. Change any figure or result that is too large to a human scale so that it may be concretely understood.

How To

  1. Present ideas in term of sensory information. Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea means the same thing to everyone in the audience.
  2. Speak to the novice. Novices perceive concrete detail as concrete detail; an expert sees concrete details as symbols of a pattern.
  3. Think in concrete images. Think what would your audience see and do?


What makes people believe in ideas? We base it on authorities (Specialists and Stars/Celebs). Authority brings credibility. But most times, we don't have access to authority, in that case how to make credible ideas?

There are several ways to do it

  • Use concrete details: Our ideas must have “internal credibility”. A person’s knowledge of details is often a good proxy for expertise. For example, a study revealed that potential jurors were more likely to grant custody in a case where they had lots of essential and scanty details (even though irrelevant details like the type of toothbrush a child used).
  • Use anti-authority: You can use a dying smoker to make the point that smoking isn’t good for you. Or, consider the scientist that could not get anyone to believe him that bacteria was causing ulcers: He swallowed the bacteria himself and demonstrated his theory to be correct (In 2005, Marshall and Warren jointly received the Nobel Prize for Medicine for their discovery that Ulcer is caused by bacteria and not gastric acid). Honesty and Impartiality is telling the raw truth brings the authority.
  • Use statistics: This is a honoured and standard way to make a point, but needs to be used correctly. 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. Use them as input, not output. Present numbers in human context.
  • Use Sinatra test: Frank Sinatra song New York, New York has a line “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” The authors suggest this same idea applies to making ideas credible. They advocate looking for the one test case that make your idea completely credible.
  • Use testable credentials: This challenges the consumer or receiver of the idea to test for themselves the idea. The prime example of this was the “Where’s the Beef” commercials in the 1980s from Wendy’s. The ads suggested that the hamburgers at Wendy’s were larger than other chains, and that the other chains had more bun than burger.


Make your audience feel something about the idea. We don't and can't feel for abstractions.

If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will. - Mother Theresa

We don't donate to "Poverty in Africa" but we donate to that child suffering in poverty. Seeing an individual suffer, and knowing that we can do something to soothe their ordeal, is quite different.

Appeal to what is in it for them.

Instead of saying, “People will feel safe with Goodyear Tires”, say “You will feel safe with Goodyear Tires”. It works.

When people imagine making things happen, it concerns them.

  1. Imagine what $1,000 means: a deposit on a new car, or the new kitchen you’ve been dreaming about for a long time.
  2. Think of how reassuring it would be to know that you had $1,000 aside in case of hard times.
  3. Think of what this $1,000 represents: the company acknowledges the role you play in its global performances. It is not wasting its money.

The majority answered the first proposal. They could imagine and the benefit could come alive in their imagination.

How to

  • Make people take off their analytical hats and appeal to their emotional hats: We create empathy for specific individuals; or we show how our ideas are associated with things that people already care about, or we appeal to their self-interest, although we also appeal to their identities- not only to the people they are right now, but also to the people they would like to be.
  • The Power of Associations: The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t care about and something they do. We all naturally practice the tactic of association.
  • Self-Interest: Another way to make people care about ideas is to appeal to their self-interest. A common error is to emphasise features over benefits, e.g., tell people you have the “best seed”, instead of that it will give them the “best lawn”, which is what they truly care about. In general people selling an idea resist talking about self-interest: Yet an appeal with the word “you” throughout, instead of a generic “people” is always much more successful.
  • Appealing to Identify: In defining self-interest it pays to not focus narrowly on money and other tangibles — often intangibles such as self-esteem or a sense of duty form an important motivator.
  • Often people make decision in irrational ways — they don't write down all alternatives and look at pluses and minuses — but instead they make them based on identity. They ask questions like: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? And what do people like me to do in this type of situation?


It’s well-known that a good story is very sticky. The power of a good story is that it provides inspiration. It moves people to take action. A story prepares you for reality.

Sounds simple but why are we not doing it? The answer is simple: The curse of knowledge stops you being simple, concrete and emotional.

The nurse exclaimed: "It is the heart" when a baby stopped breathing. But her colleagues point at the heart monitor showing that the baby’s heart is beating normally.

She rushes to the baby with a stethoscope: Not a sound. The heart is not beating.

“Pneumopericardium. Prick the heart.” The Neonatal surgeon ordered. They saved the baby's life. The rest is history.

The heart rate monitor was measuring the electrical activity commanding the heartbeats, and this had not stopped: the heart was simply unable to respond to it because of the air pocket pressure.

It’s the story of a woman (nurse) who was not afraid to come out of her role, who did not give up despite the group’s pressure, who saved a life by rejecting the hospital’s hierarchy; a nurse who gave the correct diagnostic to a neonatal surgeon. It shows both simulation – showing how to act – and an inspiration – motivating to act. Stories are excellent learning tools.

A key to making an idea sticky is to tell it as a story. Stories encourage a kind of mental simulation or re-enactment on the part of the listener that burns the idea into the mind.

The hard part about using a story is creating it. The authors share the 3 major types of stories to look for.

  1. The Challenge Plot: This is the classic underdog, rags to riches, or sheer willpower triumphing over adversity. The key element of the Challenge plot is that the obstacles seem daunting to the protagonists. eg: Harry Potter
  2. The Connection Plot: A story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap — racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, or otherwise. All connection plots inspire us in social ways. They make us want to help others, but more tolerant of others, work with others, love others. eg: Titanic
  3. The Creativity Plot: This involves someone making a mental breakthrough, solving a long-standing puzzle, or attacking a problem in an innovative way. eg: Dangal

Here’s how a story helps rid one of the Curse of Knowledge. When explaining how to solve problems someone might say “Keep the lines of communication open.” They are hearing in their heads a song filled with passion and emotion.

They’re remembering the experience that taught them those lessons — the struggles, the political battles, the missteps, the pain. They need to share the story of their trials.

In fact, stories usually automatically meet other criteria for making ideas sticky: They are almost always concrete, they are often emotional and have unexpected elements. The real difficulty is to be sure they are simple enough. Sometimes you don't even have to create. You only have to spot them.

Sticky ideas shared certain traits that made them more likely to succeed and be remembered by people. Here are the 6 principles again:

  • Simple — unraveling the idea down to its core
  • Unexpected — surprise always grabs attention of people
  • Concrete — clear thoughts in form of sensory information are absorbed easily by human mind
  • Credible — ideas which can be put to test are more credible and reliable
  • Emotions — ideas must be wired around feelings to make people care about it
  • Stories — ideas crafted in the form of stories act as theatre for the mind and they get effectively imbibed in the mind of the listeners.

Apply this formula and make your ideas stick.

🥂 to stickiness!

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