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How do you make your ideas stick? That is, what makes people remember some messages — and promptly forget others? In their new book Made to Stick (2007), Chip and Dan Heath analyze why some ideas survive and others die. The authors talked by e-mail with Legal Times Robert Rogers about how these ideas about stickiness might help lawyers and lobbyists. (Full disclosure: Rogers and Dan Heath worked together at their college newspaper a decade ago.) Below are extended excerpts from this conversation.
Q: What is your new book about? A: Our book describes the traits that make ideas stick. By “sticky idea,” we mean an idea that people understand when they hear it, that they remember later on, and that changes the way they think or act. Stickiness is a high standard — how much can you recreate from what you read in the newspaper yesterday? And you probably couldn’t fill an index card with what you recall from high school chemistry. So making an idea memorable is hard, but even that’s not enough — it also has to be useful. You may remember all kinds of trivia — the capital of Uruguay and the actors’ names from “The Brady Bunch” — but the knowledge doesn’t change anything. You don’t act differently or have different beliefs. What we discovered was that sticky ideas of all kinds share six traits in common: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and the story form. In the book, we unpack those traits and show people how to use them to make their own ideas stickier.
Q: How did you develop this idea? A: We studied a panorama of ideas — everything from Aesop’s Fables 2,500 years ago to modern-day urban legends. We looked at political campaigns, college science lessons, and advertising. And we were puzzled and somewhat disturbed by the fact that lots of junky ideas succeed in the world while lots of important ideas fail. It seems like everyone on Earth has heard lots of urban legends, which spread with no resources behind them. We decided that we’d investigate these kinds of “naturally sticky” ideas and steal their playbook so we could put it to use for people who have important ideas to share. Chip comes from the academic world — he’s a professor at Stanford Business School, and he has researched what makes urban legends succeed in the marketplace of ideas, and why stories from Chicken Soup for the Soul are so inspiring. Dan comes from the education world — he started a textbook publishing company and now works in executive education at Duke.
Q: Tell us about the Curse of Knowledge. How might that apply when a lawyer talks to nonlawyer clients? A: The Curse of Knowledge is the arch-villain in our book. The Curse of Knowledge says that once we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine what it was like not to know it. It makes us communicate to others like speakers of a foreign language. We forget to translate. Think of the IT guy in the office who can’t give you a clear answer to something. Because of the vast amount of experience he has with computers, he’s unable to fathom the way his mind once felt without that knowledge. So when he talks to you, he talks in jargon and abstractions that you can’t follow. Eventually you turn to your neighbor and she shows you which three buttons to click, and that’s that. Right? Because she speaks your language and the IT guy doesn’t. And the tragedy of it all is that the IT guy has so much knowledge to share! Obviously this is not an “IT issue.” It applies to all of us. As we gain expertise — in other words, as we gain wisdom and thus acquire lessons that other people could benefit from learning — we simultaneously become less equipped to communicate it in a way that sticks. That’s why knowledge is a curse. There is no question that lawyers suffer from this problem. How could you not? You have three years of schooling and years of experience in arcane areas of law, when the average person is doing well to follow an episode of “Judge Judy.” So you will, unconsciously, make assumptions about how much other people know. You’ll use vocabulary that they won’t understand. You’ll leave out three links in a chain of logic because those links are such second-nature to you.
Q: What are some steps lawyers can take to help their message stick with juries? A: A few of the principles of stickiness are particularly important for lawyers: Simplicity: James Carville, a veteran of many political campaigns that have the back-and-forth flavor of the courtroom, says that in his election run for president, Gov. Bill Clinton didn’t want to cede any issues to any other candidate. “He said, �I’ve been talking about these things for two years, why should I stop talking about them now because Perot is in?’ Our response, and it was not easy to confront the governor with this was, �There has to be message triage. If you say three things, you don’t say anything.’ “ That’s exactly what we mean by making an idea simple. It doesn’t mean dumbing down, it means finding the core of your message, the indispensable part of it. And that’s painful, because it means you have to downplay or discard lots of really interesting and substantive points that aren’t absolutely critical. Stories: Most lawyers know the importance of storytelling in making their cases. We are zealots about stories, though. Stories shouldn’t be garnish, they should be the entr�e. A good story serves as the jury’s cognitive skeleton of the case. We all know stories are easier to remember than facts and abstract principles. So, to the extent that juries need to consider facts and principles, it’s essential that you hook them to stories. Jurors confront masses of facts, presented in a scrambled sequence, with substantial gaps in the record, filtered through the obvious personal biases of witnesses. How do they deal with this complexity? It turns out they spontaneously construct a story (or stories) to account for this welter of information, then match their personal story with the stories told by the prosecution and defense and choose whichever side tells a story that best matches their own. In one study in this area, Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie [then of the University of Colorado] showed that verdicts shifted based on how easy jurors found it to construct a story, even when identical information was presented. When prosecution evidence was presented in order of witnesses, and defense evidence was presented in the order of an unfolding story, only 31 percent voted to convict the defendant. When exactly the same information was presented, but the defense presented witnesses out of order and the prosecution presented witnesses in story order, 78 percent voted to convict. Participants felt most confident in their decision when both sides presented in story order — people like to understand both stories, to have a clear view of the evidence, and then decide. Concreteness: All legal cases hinge on the credibility of the arguments made. And research tells us that ideas are more credible when they contain concrete details. A study conducted by Jonathan Shedler and Melvin Manis of the University of Michigan asked jurors to assess the fitness of a mother at a fictional trial. And they tested the response of jurors to the same arguments made in vivid and nonvivid ways. For instance, a non-vivid point was: “Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime.” And the vivid version of that point added this: “He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.” No substance is added by the “Darth Vader toothbrush.” And yet these “vivid” (though legally irrelevant) details made a substantial difference to the jurors’ decisions. The concrete details add credibility because it’s easier for me to picture the boy diligently brushing his teeth in the bathroom using his Darth Vader toothbrush, which in turn reinforces the notion that Mrs. Johnson is a good mother.
Q: Would these principles work in a lobbying or public-relations campaign? A: Yes, think about the success of the MADD campaign against drunk driving — it was built on a series of vivid, horrible stories about mothers who’d lost children to drunk drivers. There was a rapid, radical shift in public opinion on that issue as a result. Or think about the way that opinion has shifted on global warming. A few years ago, the talk was always about statistics — the gradual warming of the Earth, as compared to centuries past. Now you’ve got Al Gore showing before-and-after photos of Mount Kilimanjaro — it used to have a snow cap, now it doesn’t. Here’s Glacier National Park — and soon it won’t have any ice. When you see enough of those concrete images — and you hear the stories of polar bears who drown because they have to swim too far to get to another piece of ice — you can’t help but accept the reality of global warming. Concrete images will always hit us in the gut more than data, even good data.
Q: If an opposing advocate has used these principles to create a sticky message, how would a lawyer go about countering that? A: The power of sticky ideas is that they endure, so there is no easy way to unstick a message. Your best strategy is to counter with other sticky ideas that reframe the issue — or simply contradict the other side’s points — in an effective way. Think of the age-old conflict between cigarette companies and public-health groups. Cigarette companies, for years, have been successful at making the idea stick with teens that smoking is cool. And for many years, public-health groups have tried to respond with messages about the dangers of smoking. Remember the black-lung campaigns from years ago? That’s par for the course. But teens don’t do things because they’re healthy — they do things to rebel or impress peers. So, finally someone figured this out. The Truth campaign runs spots where young people are sticking it to cigarette companies, who are painted as the villain. A typical TV spot shows grainy footage of a gang of teens piling up (fake) body bags on the front lawn of a corporation. The body bags represent the number of people killed daily by cigarettes. So that’s how you combat one sticky idea with another. The first sticky idea is: Smoking cigarettes is rebellious and therefore cool. The second sticky idea is: Protesting cigarette companies is rebellious and therefore cool.
Q: Would these ideas apply no matter how sophisticated the audience? What if you’re talking only to a judge, not a jury? A: The judge will understand legal jargon where a jury would not, and a judge might have enough expertise to allow her to juggle more legal arguments. But lawyers know better than to assume that a judge is exempt from the normal quirks and foibles of human psychology. There’s no reason to think that judges wouldn’t be impressed by vivid details, or that they wouldn’t use stories as cognitive skeletons, just like jurors. The danger, when experts talk to experts, is that both sides have the illusion that they’re communicating when they’re not. This is particularly common in the business world — love of abstraction. Say three executives sit around a conference table and agree on the need for “improved customer service.” They think they’re in synch, but John thinks the company should hire more customer service reps, Craig thinks their current reps should smile more, and Sally thinks the reps should do better at giving high-value customers more service than low-value customers. The abstraction of “improved customer service” is a cover for a fundamental disagreement, which will only manifest itself if articulated in concrete terms. Lawyers run the same risk when they communicate abstractly with judges. Using the principles of stickiness takes a bit of extra energy and effort, but it’s worth it. We’re fortunate to have thousands of years’ worth of “idea history” that we can learn from. We know what sticks and what doesn’t. And what we know is that making ideas stick isn’t just a matter of what you say, but also how you say it.

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