in leadership, medium

a surprisingly effective message delivered in three minutes

I had an opportunity this weekend to practice the simple rules of creating a ‘sticky message’ (‘Made to Stick’ by Chip & Dan Heath) and the principle of ‘intrinsic motivation’ (‘Drive’ by Dan Pink).  The results were quite surprising.

I was asked to do a short three minute talk to a group of young people, ranging from ages 5 to 18, about any topic that I thought would be relevant to them.  This is a practice done at my church every week early in the service.  Because I volunteer on most Friday nights with a group that mentors young men, the expectation was that I had something of value to share to young people.

My original inclination was to give admonitions like the dangers of non-stop texting, or the perils of not listening to your parents, or maybe a little something about how your eyes will fall out if you watch too much TV! – the usual kind of thing young people are used to hearing about I guess.  But then I rethought my approach and realized that the majority of speeches they hear use a ‘carrot and stick’ approach which tries to teach them something by highlighting negative consequences.  My experience is that the best way to motivate a teenager to do something is to tell them it is not good for them!

So I took a different approach and tried to examine what type of message would focus on their internal motivations and play upon ideas that they already accepted as true.  Since most youth are pretty self-absorbed, I picked the topic of ‘unique purpose’ – the idea that everybody has a unique purpose which they alone are designed to fulfill.

My challenge with this message was it is somewhat abstract to talk to young people about ‘purpose’ so I needed a way to make the message more ‘sticky’.  In come the SUCCESS factors from ‘Made to Stick’ (I used five of the six):

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

To make the message SIMPLE, I focused on the core idea of being ‘good’ at something.  I asked them to all raise their hands if they were good at something.

To make it CONCRETE and EMOTIONAL, I asked them to close their eyes and imagine themselves doing that thing that they were good at.  I let this sink in for a moment so that by seeing themselves doing the thing they were good at, they could physically feel that sense of mastery and satisfaction that comes from excelling at an ability.

Next, I asked them to turn to the person next to them and tell them what they were good at and listen to what that person was good at.  This made the experience CREDIBLE because they had now not only visualized, but they had also verbalized what they were good at.  They ‘owned’ the information since everybody is their own best ‘witness’.

Then came the UNEXPECTED.  I asked them all to raise their hands if they had told a person next to them that they were good at something and the person was good at the same thing.  Out of about 60 youth, only about one or two raised their hands.  The reason this was unexpected is that usually when a speaker asks them to raise their hands, the objective is to get as many people to raise their hands as possible.  In this instance, I wanted as few hands as possible.

I could see the wheels turning.

To help them put it all together, I verbalized what they were thinking, “Not that many huh?”

I told them that what the exercise meant was:

  1. We are all good at SOMETHING
  2. Different people are good at DIFFERENT things

Therefore, their focus should not be so much on what other people are doing (external motivation) but rather what they (internal motivation) are specifically good at and how they can be the very best at that thing (mastery).  This was a simple way of saying that everybody has a unique purpose which can only be fulfilled by them.

I left them with the thought that they should think of their lives as a puzzle that only they can solve … so their life should be a constant process of discovering the mysteries of that puzzle as they develop their gifts.

The reason I say the results were surprising is that after this very brief talk I had countless parents come up to me and tell me how inspiring the message had been to them.  Without really meaning to, by making the message so accessible, I had made the message stick with a larger audience than I had originally intended!