Why do we read books, listen to music and binge watch TV shows? Because we want to gather around and hear a great story, of course. But not all ...

How to tell sticky stories

Why do we read books, listen to music and binge watch TV shows? Because we want to gather around and hear a great story, of course. But not all stories are created equal. Some ideas survive, others die. Here’s how you can make your marketing messages stand out from the crowd and be remembered.    

The research brothers Dan and Chip Heath were fascinated by urban myths. They wanted to understand the characteristics behind this phenomenon, and in doing so, they learned the science of telling sticky stories that stand out and make an impact.

In their book Made to Stick, the authors found six governing principles:

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Stories

Together, they read S.U.C.C.E.S.(S).   

Principle 1: Simple

Simplicity is about prioritisation, and about saying a lot with a little. Consider Hollywood pitches (Speed is like “Die Hard on a bus”) or journalists who work with the inverted pyramid, a storytelling technique where the most important information comes first.

Too many messages confuse your audience, which is why you need to sort through your ideas. It can be difficult, but it’s a necessary part of the process. To be effective in your communication, you need to identify the core of your message. What’s it going to be? Simplicity is hard work in disguise.

Principle 2: Unexpected

What are Saturn’s rings made of? 

The example above is what the Heath brothers call ”a curiosity gap”. It’s a useful trick to keep the attention of your audience since the brain can’t help but to close the void.

(Want to close the gap yourself? Check this out.)

The unexpected catches our attention, no doubt. To succeed, marketers have to break common patterns. Let’s say you’re arranging a picnic. We often eat our picnic on a blanket, outside in the sun. If we want to break that expectation, we could instead arrange a picnic where we eat ants, or sit inside a gigantic picnic basket. You get the point.

To create the unexpected, we must break people’s expectations and take advantage of curiosity gaps.

Principle 3: Concrete

Use a sensory language. Get your audience to see, hear, taste and feel. “A bathtub full of ice” is easy to visualise and may even cause a few chills down your spine.

Paint a mental picture. Remember JFK’s speech to “land a man on the moon”. Aesob’s Fables teaches abstract moral lessons by being concrete. Teaching kids to “tell the truth” is done through the story “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.

The more concrete our story is, the stickier it becomes.

Principle 4: Credible

Your audience has to believe your story. For that, you must be credible.

To establish credibility, you can rely on experts, statistics and other authorities. Anti-authorities may also work on some occasions, like for instance in anti-smoking campaigns.

But there are many ways to establish your credibility in the marketplace.

A classic marketing approach is to offer a free trial period. This way, your customers can decide if the product or service works for them. Word-of-mouth is a lot more credible than if the praise comes straight from the company’s mouth.

In Made to Stick, the authors emphasise that you must put numbers in everyday terms that are easy for the audience to understand and relate to. It makes the message more powerful and lends it more weight.

For example, instead of saying “please donate 3 dollars”, you say “for the price of a cup of coffee”. Wikipedia and many other organisations apply this “human scale principle” as part of their marketing strategy.

Principle 5: Emotional

To make a sticky story, people have to care.

Mother Teresa observed:

“If I look at the one, I will act. If I look at the mass, I will not.”

The emotional work consists to a large part about identifying deeper motivations and highlighting individuals. A why that moves us, a person we can connect with.

People make decisions in two different ways. Either they act out of rational self-interest (the so-called consequence model) or they base their decisions on their identity (the so-called identity model):

  • Who am I?
  • What situation am I in?
  • How does a person like me act in this kind of situation?

The latter model can have great impact. In the end of the 1980s, Texas Transport Department ran a campaign to reduce littering by the highways. “Don’t Mess with Texas” became a successful campaign because it convinced the inhabitants of Texas (especially men aged 18-35) that littering went against their identity. Between 1986 to 1990, littering was reduced by 72 per cent.

The emotional aspect of communication has gained ground in later years, in particular after Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize in economy.

Principle 6: Story

Stories work like flight simulators for your brain. They both instruct and inspire.

Research shows that when people share stories with each other, they also teach each other valuable lessons. Think about ER nurses sharing experiences with each other, or construction workers discussing common mistakes on the site.

Mentally, the audience thinks about how they would handle the situation if the same thing was happening to them. This explains why stories are such an important learning tool, and broadly used when training professionals in various professions.

Make stories that stick

A great story makes people gather around. It gets told, is remembered and becomes the starting point of something new.

If you use these six S.U.C.C.E.S(S.) principles in your communication, you make sure your marketing messages stand out from the rest. Some stories catch on, others don’t. What stories will you tell around the campfire?