Have you ever had chewing gum stuck in your hair?
It’s memorable, isn’t it?
It certainly was a memorable for my little friend Inge and her mum. Inge and I were playmates at preschool. She had beautiful, long, platinum-blond hair. Her mum was proud of how beautiful her little princess looked. Until something unfortunate happened.
See, one day we were experimenting with chewing gum – and suddenly a big gob of gum got stuck in Inge’s hair. I tried to wash it out. Didn’t work. I tried to brush it out. Didn’t work. Then I cut it out. That worked fine. Except, I wasn’t very good with scissors yet, and I somehow managed to create a big bald patch in that glorious head of hair. As you can imagine, Inge’s mum wasn’t very happy with me…
So, that’s what gum does to hair.
Imagine you could write something that had the same effect on our minds. It would stick so well that people wouldn’t be able to get it out. Without having a lobotomy, that is.
There are writers who’ve done that.
Andrew Marvell, the 17th century English poet, created a celebrated line: “A green thought in a green shade”. And here is a contemporary slogan, also ultra sticky: “Just do it” I bet you’ll know what brand that is!
There’s an interesting book by brothers Chip Heath and Dan Heath, called Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die In it they identify six key principles of stickability: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories. These six compress neatly into the acronym SUCCESs. Let’s take a closer look at them:
Reduce every message to its bare essential meaning.
Surprise will get interest right away. But to sustain interest, you need to stimulate curiosity. A good way to do that is to ask questions.
Use examples. Use concrete images and shun abstractions. The Heath brothers suggest using proverbs in order to transform abstract concepts into memorable language.
I must admit, I don’t use proverbs much. But I’m going to mend my ways. Here is a Sengalese proverb for you: “What’s the use of consulting a dead man’s horoscope?” I hope that was helpful…
Back up your words. Give examples, and quote other sources to give credibility. [I was just going to write ‘… to lend credibility’, but that means you have to give it back!]
As a writer I need to make you feel something. That’s not really possible if you relay data. I think there are three things we can do to make the reader feel emotions. Tell stories (that’s the next point), use evocative words, and … [please come up with a third point and share it in the comments]. I’m hoping that asking you to come up with the third option is going to make you feel interested, awake, curious, creative, puzzled, or at least indignant.
When you tell a story, you take people on a journey. I recently wrote an article about wisdom on Goodlife Zen and used a story to illustrate it. The story had evocative ingredients, a homeless woman sheltering from severe frost in an underpass , my son – just seven at the time, but wise – urging me to be compassionate. Like all stories, this one served to draw the reader deeper into the human dimension of the theme.
Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, Stories – these six point seem quite straightforward, don’t they?
Why do most people fail to use them?
Chip Heath and Dan Heath identify one main reason why people fail to craft sticky messages. The call it the ‘Curse of Knowledge’.
The Curse of Knowledge
A friend of mine recently showed me her press release. She’s a health scientist and had just completed a paper on an obscure point of diabetes intervention. I puzzled over her press release.
“I don’t understand a single word of this.”
“But,” she said, “I’ve rewritten it three times in order to dumb it down!”
“Well, it’s not yet dumb enough for me!”
The Curse of Knowledge is a condition where the writer can’t imagine what it would be like not to possess her or his background knowledge about a given subject.
Here’s an example that the Heath brothers used in their book. Compare these two messages which address the same idea:
“Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.”
“…put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”
The first example is from a Nasa bulletin, the second on is from a speech by John F. Kennedy in 1961.
One way to combat ‘the curse of knowledge’ is to test what you’ve written. Choose someone who has no idea at all about your theme and see if they can relate to what you’ve written.
So, what do think about these six principles of stickability?
I think they’re like fairy dust. When you sprinkle it over your writing it becomes sticky by magic. Whereas the ‘curse of knowledge’ is what happens when the bad witch comes along and casts a spell over your writing – it instantly becomes forgettable.
How do you want your writing to be – sticky or forgettable?