Sticky Messages: Developing Learning Content that Sticks
by Glynn Jung
It ain’t what you do……it’s the way that you do it. So goes the old song and in my mind this includes getting your message across so that it sticks in people’s minds. Broadcasters, coaches, teachers and trainers, business leaders, politicians, line managers … everyone can benefit from simple improvements to the way they communicate so that what they say is “sticky”.
The recent visit to London of Dan Heath prompted me to pick up a remarkable book by Dan and his brother Chip: yes, the names give it away they are American – it doesn’t make them bad people. Oh and no, this isn’t about NLP or Emotional Intelligence… it’s the result of years research and interviews into why we remember some things so easily and forget others so quickly. The book is ‘Made to Stick’ and it’s been on my desk for four years now.
Here’s the main thrust of this brilliant and entertaining book.
By ‘sticky’ they mean: understandable, memorable and effective in changing thought or behaviour.
The keys to stickiness are: SIMPLE – UNEXPECTED – CONCEPT – CREDIBLE – EMOTIONAL – STORIES.
And the villain is …the curse of knowledge. The more you know about something the less likely it is that you can get the core message across in a way that sticks. This has big implications in the use of experts for training.
Experts can take a long time to get to the key, compelling bit of information. Journalists call this “Burying the message”.
- Simple. To be simple, determine the single most important thing. Link it to what’s already in the recipients’ memory.
- Unexpected. Like a bus conductor or railway guard making an intercom announcement grab our attention so we’re actively involved rather than hearing passively. Then hold our attention…maybe create a mystery ,use the theory of curiosity.
- Concrete. Avoid abstractions. The Velcro theory of memory is that the more “hooks” in your idea, the better . Find common ground at a shared level of understanding (really tough that one) and set common goals in tangible terms.
- Credible. Not just authoritative sources but convincing details. Use INTERNAL CREDIBILITY – make statistics accessible, put them in a human context and use testable credentials “Try before you buy” rather than wear people down with force of argument.
- Emotional. Make People Care. Use the power of association and appeal to best self-interest. But don’t assume that others care at the same level as you.
- Stories. Get people to take action with stories. Inspirational stories give people the energy to act – learn how to spot inspirational stories and how to use them.
So what does this mean for the world of learning?
Well let’s just look at a couple of the Heath Brothers’ research findings… starting with the ‘Gap Theory’. George Loewenstein, a behavioural economist, says that curiosity arises when we feel a gap in our knowledge. Loewenstein argues that gaps cause pain. When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap. We sit patiently through bad movies, even though they may be painful to watch, because it’s too painful not to know how they end.
One important implication of the ‘Gap Theory’ is that we need to open gaps before we close them. Our tendency is to tell students the facts. First, though, they must realize they need them.
One trick for convincing students they need our message, according to Loewenstein, is to first highlight some specific knowledge they are missing. You can pose a question or puzzle that confronts them with a gap in their knowledge: One recent book had a curiosity gap as its title: “Why do men have nipples?” A science teacher in Colorado asked his students: “Have you ever noticed that, in the winter, your car tyres look a little flat? So where did the air go?” The book Freakonomics makes brilliant use of curiosity gaps: “Why do so many drug dealers live with their moms?”
I’ll leave it there for the moment but at the very least it’s worthwhile visiting the Heath Brothers website www.heathbrothers.com/ … maybe sign up to their free resources.