Book review: how to make people remember what you say

A friend of a friend was on a business trip to London. He meets a beautiful lady in the hotel bar, and the next thing he knows he wakes up in a bath of ice, with his kidneys missing.

We’ve all heard a version of that story. Made to Stick investigates why people remember some ideas regardless of whether they are true.

All of us who have been involved with the Liberal Democrats know the frustration of meeting members of the public who don’t know Lib Dem policies that we’ve been banging on about for years. Or we’ve met voters confused by smear campaigns against us by other parties. For this reason everyone in the Liberal Democrats needs to read Made to Stick.

Made to Stick outlines six things that made an idea memorable.

Simple

When Bill Clinton’s campaign team had ‘It’s the economy stupid’ on their wall in the 1992 election it was meant to ensure that they all focused on the most important policy area in the campaign.

More importantly the authors of Made to Stick, Chip & Dan Heath, run through the psychological research that shows that complexity reduces the chances of people remembering an idea.

Lesson for the Lib Dems: An election campaign where we stress five ideas will be less likely to be successful when we stress one.

Unexpected

Surprising or unexpected ideas are obviously easier to remember. In the late 1940s Sony was a small struggling company. Their top inventor proposed a radio that could fit in your pocket. At the time it sounded crazy – radios were huge. But by giving a vision to the company it articulated a vision that inspired their employees, and in time gave birth to the predecessors of the Walkman.

David Cameron has confronted the Conservative weakness of being nasty with a lot of fluffy insubstantial policies. But the surprisingness of a Conservative hugging a huskie has been one of the most memorable issues of his leadership.

Lesson for the Lib Dems: We should be confronting expectations about the party. If our opponents see us as weak on crime we shouldn’t run from the issue, we should confront the issue by showing we are more effective than the other parties.

The prisons crisis means that inevitably some violent criminals will be inappropriately released, while ‘safe’ criminals are in jail. Why not major our attacks on the risk to the public from violent criminals let out of jail. Honest, liberal and memorable.

Credible

We instinctively believe people who seem qualified to tell us something. At this point it seems worth mentioning that Chip & Dan Heath are well qualified to write Made to Stick. Chip Heath is a Professor of organisational psychology at Stanford, while Dan Heath works at Duke Corporate Education, one of the world’s top executive education providers.

Lessons for the Lib Dems:Our friends and allies in the outside world will often be more credible than us, and our politicians will be more credible when we stress their outside world performance. Menzies Campbell’s Olympic career and Vince Cable’s job as Chief Economist at Shell stand out among our MPs. But so do the careers of many of our friends and allies – we should use them more.

Concrete

In the US the Nature Conservancy gives bits of land it buys for conservation names like the Mount Hamilton Wilderness, even if they don’t have a pre-existing name, rather than ‘1,875 square miles of environmentally critical ecosystem’. A concrete handle that conjures a picture makes the message memorable.

Lessons for the Lib Dems: Everything we ever communicate should be in concrete terms. Rather than ‘ID cards that diminish your liberty’ we should be talking about ‘Government plans to make it illegal to go down to the shops and buy a newspaper without an ID card’.

Emotional

Emotional messages appeal far more to us, because they tap the most basic parts of our brains.

Lessons for the Lib Dems:When our opponents use fear we shouldn’t just respond with reason. If they play on people’s fears of ayslum seekers then we will most effectively respond by telling the individual stories of refugees who have been tortured and killed.

Stories

Chip Heath has a great story about one of his classes at Stanford. He gives a bunch of his students some crime statistics and they each make a brief presentation. The class then votes on the best students – and the best is always an eloquent, charming native English speaker. Chip then distracts the class for ten minutes by playing them a Monty Python sketch. He then asks everyone to write down what they can remember about the presentations they’ve heard only ten minutes beforehand. The messages that stick have virtually nothing to do with presentation. In fact they remember relatively little. What they do remember is the stories that presenters told.

Lessons for the Lib Dems:We should be telling every policy failure of the government, and every success of our councils through the stories of the individuals involved.

Further reading

Made to Stick is a superb read. And if you want more their blog is a great read with a steady stream of good ideas.

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in Books.
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5 Comments

  • Rob Blackie 9th Aug '07 - 1:46pm

    Absolutely not – it’s just that our brains have evolved to process information in a particular way. It doesn’t change the substance of our policies at all this – it’s simply about how we communicate them most effectively.

  • Lib Dem member 9th Aug '07 - 10:06pm

    A very interesting review thank you.

    Mr Letterman – having read your 100% self-confidence in your own views many times, I am sure there is no book that could bring you any enlightenment.

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