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!

are you making your messages effective by making them ‘sticky’?

[Modified from a post I did on my internal blog at work on 5/4/2010.]

I recently read ‘Made to Stick‘ by Chip Heath and Dan Heath which examines the elements that make some ideas stick in our minds for ages, while others die off almost as soon as we are exposed to them.  The premise of the book is that making an idea ‘sticky’ requires the use of one or more of the following six factors:

  1. Simplicity
  2. Unexpectedness
  3. Concreteness
  4. Credibility
  5. Emotion
  6. Stories

Two of these factors resonated with me:

The authors talk about what they call ‘The Curse of Knowledge’, when a speaker knows infinitely more about his topic than his audience and therefore forgets that his audience doesn’t have the same level of understanding.  This causes a disconnect between his message and the audience because his assumptions are wrong.  As a business analyst, I often catch myself doing this when dealing with the business and I have to force myself to step back and get back into their shoes and simplify what I am saying.

Simplifying without ‘dumbing down’ though – that’s the trick.  And we do so by knowing and exploiting the ‘core’ of our idea.

Ideas exist in a large marketplace of other ideas competing for the attention of your audience and one of the ways in which you can make your idea stick is by going against the grain of people’s expectations.  The authors tell the story of a flight attendant who makes the following safety announcement at the beginning of a flight:

If I could get your attention for a few moments, we sure would love to point out these safety features. If you haven’t been in an automobile since 1965, the proper way to fasten your seat belt is to slide the flat end into the buckle. To unfasten, lift up on the buckle and it will release.

And as the song goes, there might be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only six ways to leave this aircraft: two forward exit doors, two over-wing removeable window exits, and two aft exit doors. The location of each exit is clearly marked with signs overhead, as well as red and white disco lights along the floor of the aisle.

Made ya look!

When was the last time you actually paid attention to what the flight attendant was saying at the beginning of the flight?  I bet you would have paid attention in this instance!  So the flight attendant was successful in capturing the passengers’ attention because she moved away from the normal script (while still keeping all the key safety information) and injecting humor.

There isn’t an obvious opportunity to be unexpected at the moment, but I will be looking out for it.

Applying to Work
For my day job, I work in Banking IT.  Banking is inherently an industry of ideas – we don’t make any widgets.  A stock is an idea, a derivative is an abstraction … and so on and so on.

Outside of the hardware component, IT is primarily a profession of ideas.

So at work I deal with ideas about ideas and abstractions.  So to be trully successful, I really need to be more sticky!

How about you?