Think Small. Just Do It. The Marlboro Man. Why are these the campaigns that we talk about for decades and why are there thousands, probably even millions of others that disappear down the dustbin of history? Is it because these were divinely inspired? Is it because people like me keep jamming them down your throats? Or is it because of something else? Do they have some qualities that make them easier to remember, more compelling, more resonant? That make them, as it were, stick?
Chip and Dan Heath think so.
Chip, a professor of organizational behaviour at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, and Dan, co-founder of Thinkwell and a consultant at Duke Corporate Education, have analyzed why and how our brains hold on to certain stories, ideas and even urban legends, and why usually they don’t. In the process they have given us a book that is, while perhaps not revolutionary, at the very least distills some very smart principals down to their essence, providing a handy guide for practical use. Often it does much more than that.
After pouring through research and analyzing the things they themselves tend to remember, the Heaths have identified six key principles for creating something that will stick in our brains: Keep it simple – don’t overcomplicate your story; make it unexpected – surprise is a key component of jokes which are generally easier to remember than non-jokes; make it concrete – anyone who’s endured a political argument knows what a hard time people have with the abstract; make it credible – people dismiss that which they don’t believe and align with that which they do; make it emotional – do you remember the things you love or hate more than the things you aren’t moved by at all? Really? What a surprise; and finally, use the structures of a story to organize – because after millennia of telling each other tales, the form has become hardwired in our brains.
The Heath brothers back up their observations with data and research, and also illuminate them with stories and anecdotes in which form and content are cleverly merged; the content of the story illustrates the point while the fact of the story itself proves the form’s value.
They’ve also made the book infinitely easy to use as a resource after you’ve read it, with chapter summaries at the front and a reference guide at the back so you can reacquaint yourself with some of the principles you might have forgotten as you strive to make your work as memorable, or sticky, as possible.
But is it accurate? Let’s take a look at one of the “sticky” examples I mentioned at the top of this essay – Volkswagen’s “Think Small” ad.
Is it simple? Can two words and a picture of the car get much simpler? So yes, it’s simple. Is it unexpected? In the context of car ads of 1959 is was so unexpected that it looked like a printer’s error. So, again, yes. Is it concrete? Without doubt – the headline makes a very specific and concrete claim about a very specific product.
Is it credible? Ah, well, that’s an interesting question. Did it trade on the reader’s existing knowledge of Vokswagen as a smaller than expected car? Or did it intrigue them enough to compel them to check out the claim – to find out for themselves whether it was credible or not? Either way, it’s clearly using the question of credibility to its advantage, so I think we can put it in the “yes” column. Is it emotional? Curiously, no. It’s ironic, I think, and clever, but I don’t think it connects emotionally – or if it does, it does by a very circuitous and ironic route. And does it tell a story? The body copy certainly does – it fairly outlines the history of Volkswagen within the context of the headline. But how many people recall the body copy? So perhaps we call that one a draw.
So four yes’s, one draw and one no. Pretty good stats for the brothers Heath, along with a valuable reminder that just as slavishly following creative rules will not guarantee better work, great work does not always follow the rules. Because, to quote Mike Doughty, you gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.
You remember what that’s from, right?
And now you know why.