Tip 1: Break expectations. Your audience will walk in with certain assumptions about your message. If you believe those assumptions are mistaken, you’ve got to confront them directly. Effective teachers do this well. Imagine an eight-grade science class: “The earth feels pretty solid, right? But it turns out that the surface of the earth rides on large moving plates, and if we understand how they move, we can understand the shape of the continents on the globe and we can understand how mountains and volcanoes are formed.”
Tip 2: Create a “proverb.” We tend to look down on soundbites, thinking that “shortness” must mean oversimplification. But use proverbs as your inspiration. Proverbs are short phrases that carry profound meaning — think of the wisdom that is packed into a short sentence such as, “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”
Tip 3: Be concrete. Being concrete helps people make decisions and take action. The Saddleback Church in California has defined a fictional couple, Saddleback Sam and Samantha, who embody the prototypical traits of the kind of community member that the church wants to reach. It’s easier for the members to plan outreach activities when they have “Sam and Samantha” in mind, as compared to a more abstract description, such as a “dual-income, upper middle-class, professional couple.”
Tip 4: Use stories. People will remember your stories, not your pontifications. Aesop’s Fables have endured for centuries, but Aesop’s Thesis Sentences wouldn’t have made it 10 minutes. Choose your stories carefully, so that after the fact, your audience can reconstruct your core meaning, just like we can do with “The Fox and the Grapes.”
Tip 5: Use an analogy. You can get across complex ideas quickly by making use of what people already know. That’s what analogies do — they create links between new ideas and ideas that people have already learned. Movies in Hollywood, for example, are pitched in terms of analogies to other movies. The movie that became Alien was pitched as “Jaws on a spaceship.” That pitch conveys a tremendous amount of information in four words.
Tip 6: Allow people to test for themselves. People love to try before they buy. The same is also true with your ideas. Give people a “test” that allows them to confirm, for themselves, whether your idea is credible. For instance, the Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” campaign depended on the customer’s ability to see that Wendy’s meat patties were larger than those of the competition.
Tip 7: Create a curiosity gap. Research says that we feel curious when there’s a gap between what we know and what we want to know. You should tease your audience with what they don’t know. For instance, think of how your local evening news programs promote themselves: “There’s a drug sweeping thru high schools — and it may be in your medicine cabinet!”
Tip 8: Focus on individuals, not the “big picture.” Mother Teresa once said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Many charities attract our support by focusing on specific human beings — “For $20 a month, you can sponsor Rokia, a 7-year-old girl, in Kenya” — rather than huge abstract causes, such as African poverty. This phenomenon works just as well in business contexts. Don’t talk about “improving customer service,” talk about how specific people should behave differently.
Tip 9: Use human-scale statistics. It is hard to make numbers stick, but when you must use statistics to boost your argument, make sure to frame them in a way that they can be understood. For instance, it’s hard to picture the scale of a $300 million government program. But it’s easier to picture the scale when you describe it as a program that spends about a dollar annually on every man, woman, and child in the United States.
Tip 10: Say 1 thing, not 5 things. A famous trial lawyer said, “If you say five things, you say nothing.” It’s vital that we strip down our idea to its core. A famous example of useful simplicity was the theme of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign, written by James Carville: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Copyright © 2009 Chip and Dan Heath co-authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Chip Heath, co-author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, is a professor of organizational behavior in the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. He lives in Los Gatos, California.
Dan Heath, co-author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, is a Consultant to the Policy Programs of the Aspen Institute. A former researcher at Harvard Business School, he is a co-founder of Thinkwell, an innovative new-media textbook company. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.