Eduvation Blog

May All Your Messages Be Sticky…

Ken Steele applies lessons learned from Chip & Dan Heath’s bestselling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (New York: Random House, 2007), to higher education.


Chances are, if you’ve seen this book on a shelf, you remember it: it’s bright orange, with silver duct tape embossed on the cover. Its authors are practicing what they preach, with a simple, unexpected, and concrete visual metaphor.

The brother-authors, Chip and Dan Heath, have combined findings from the worlds of marketing, psychology, urban legends and Aesop’s fables, to argue very convincingly that there are 6 key principles that make your ideas “sticky” — whether you’re teaching in a classroom, managing a team, writing a viewbook or an alumni case for support. You want Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories for SUCCES in communication.

Every college and university campus has dozens, if not hundreds, of SUCCESful stories to tell. Communication officers, recruiters, and development staff don’t need to invent the stories, they just need torecognize them when they see them. If we all did a better job spotting the sticky stories, there would be a lot better media releases, viewbooks, ad campaigns, and alumni magazines out there!


Effective communication demands that we be “masters of exclusion,” relentlessly prioritizing not multiple key messages but one single core message: “If you say three things, you don’t say anything.” A simple, profound “Commander’s Intent” can guide an organization for decades, as did JFK’s vision of the moon landing, or Southwest Airlines’ mission to be “THE low-fare airline.” The biggest obstacle to simplicity is what the Heaths call “The Curse of Knowledge,” forgetting that we know more than our audience.

Simplicity is perhaps the most elusive quality in PSE communications. Campuses are complex, multi-faceted places filled with academics who revere subtlety, nuance and abstraction. But messages will stick better if simple messages are layered gradually over time, and “generative metaphors” can communicate complexities quickly and memorably. (eg. the producers of Alien pitched it to studio execs as “Jaws on a spaceship.”) Build gradually on what your audience already knows, and give them just enough to be useful, and move them along to the next step. This is why most PSE recruiters find that a sequence of small, paced mailings to prospective students or applicants get better results than a single massive viewbook. And why a sequence of newspaper ads communicating a single message each is better than a double-truck spread trying to say it all at once.


The stickiest messages are surprising and counterintuitive, opening our eyes wide and attracting our attention. Even university presidents can’t command attention to their prefatory comments, so they need toattract attention with surprising, arresting headlines. And if surprise catches attention, curiosity sustains it. Sticky communication opens “gaps in knowledge” that the audience then wants closed, like mystery stories or well-written screenplays of any kind. That’s one reason why questions often make such powerful headlines. The Heaths argue that sticky messages shouldn’t be predictable, but they should be “post-dictable” — your mission is to “break someone’s guessing machine and then fix it.” Start with a “Huh?” and follow it with the “Aha!”

The Heaths provide the example of a successful science professor who presents every lecture like a mystery, starting with the question, perhaps getting students to guess the answer, and then gradually unrolling more and more of the answer through an adventure story. This is lecture a la The DaVinci Code, a page-turner that keeps students late to know how it turns out. Far more memorable and engaging than simply jumping to the facts.


While your stakeholders may have vastly different levels of knowledge (and interest) about particular subjects, usually you can be sure of one thing — they’re all likely human beings. For messages to truly stick, they need to be readily comprehensible to the human mind. Statistics need to be reduced to a “human scale.” (Hence the wildly successful campaign by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest, to raise awareness of the perils of coconut oil in movie theatre popcorn. Instead of statistics or graphs, they laid out a full day’s worth of greasy foods for the media cameras, and explained that the total equaled the fat found in one container of popcorn.) Concrete things can be examined by human senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste. Huge numbers, vast distances, or theoretical ideas must be made concrete, as Aesop made “sour grapes” concrete in his fable of the fox, which has lasted in human culture, across languages, for millennia.

Because “abstraction is the luxury of the expert,” it is popular in academic environments, as efficient shorthand and to demonstrate expertise. But whether the audience is sitting in a lecture hall or reading a scientific article, many will be quietly praying for a concrete example so that they can make sense of the abstractions. This is one reason why the case study method is so effective for teaching business principles. And it is also why, as prospective students compare institutions, most of whom spout the same abstractions about “academic excellence,” “collaborative community,” “interdisciplinary research,” and “vibrant student life,” they should be forgiven for latching onto concrete signals like clean hallways and sidewalks as tangible proof of abstractions like campus safety, or school spirit.


The Heaths argue convincingly that few messages will be received, and believed, simply because they summon the credibility of an authority, a celebrity, or an aspirational figure. Sometimes it’s possible to quash the skepticism of our audience by invoking a “Sinatra Test” (“If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere”), like providing security systems to Fort Knox, or batteries to moon missions. But in the 21st century, our society has fewer and fewer authorities who command immediate credibility, and sticky ideas need to “carry their own credentials.” The public (much as teenagers always have) distrusts authority figures, and increasingly, effective social marketing campaigns leverage the credibility of the “anti-authority” — the victim of second-hand smoke, not the surgeon general’s warning.

Centuries of academic and scientific training have made most campus communities places that revere complexity, abstraction, and scholarly authority without question. This means that the Heaths’ messages of simplicity, concreteness, and credibility will be fighting an uphill battle with academic advisory committees. But to the extent that campus communications and marketing professionals can argue persuasively for these principles — or slide them by unnoticed — your recruitment marketing, advancement communications, branding and even internal communications efforts will be far more effective, and “sticky.”


If you want a message to be sticky, you want people to care about it. And the fact is, human beings are hard-wired to feel things for people (and especially themselves), not abstract ideas or inanimate objects. That’s why you want to leverage personal testimonials from students, alumni, and employers in your materials. (Sorry, faculty are a distant fourth choice.) That’s why tests repeatedly show that a direct mail appeal presenting a single starving child will be far more effective than a description of a massive human catastrophe. (In fact, observe the Heaths, as soon as you trigger analysis and calculation, people get far less charitable.) It’s also why Subway’s story of Jared losing weight on an all-sub diet is more memorable than statistics about the number of subs with less than so many grams of fat. People respond to tangibility, not magnitude. That’s why it’s easier to get young people angry about the “duplicity” of big tobacco companies, than about the long-term health consequences of smoking.

Recruitment marketers should pay particular attention to the concept of self-image, which the Heaths raise almost as a sidebar in this chapter. They observe that voters seldom make their selections based on straightforward self-interest, but instead based on “group interest”:

“People make decisions based on identity. They ask themselves three questions: Who am I? What kind of situation is this? And what do people like me do in this kind of situation?”

As prospective students visit your campus, review your website, and leaf through your viewbook, you already know that they’re not really evaluating your library collections, faculty/student ratios, program offerings or security protocols. They’re inevitably struck by the tangibles like parking, recreation facilities, classrooms and above all residence rooms. But when they say that institutional reputation is the number one decision factor, perhaps what they really mean is reputation among their group. And the PSE decision process isn’t so much about deciding what university to attend, but about deciding what kind of person they consider themselves to be, and what group to join. That’s why students place so much weight on whether they feel like they will “fit in” on campus, and why they search viewbook photos for subtle cues about the kinds of students who attend your institution. I think, if we start looking at recruitment marketing in this light, it transforms our thinking and our decisions, while also burdening us with much greater responsibility. We’re not so much helping students choose a university or college, as helping them to choose themselves.


If you have a message that is simple enough, and flowing from a sufficient authority, it can become sticky enough to transform society and outlast generations. (Think “the Ten Commandments” here.) But to leverage suspense and surprise, arouse curiosity, portray vivid concrete detail, and present human characters about whom your audience can care emotionally, you need to tell a story. (Think New Testament parables here.)

The Heaths argue that telling stories can engage an audience without raising resistance or skepticism. Stories create a mental simulation that leave lasting learning, and can “single-handedly defeat the curse of knowledge.” And stories allow audiences to participate in the creation of meaning, seemingly arriving at their own conclusions, which have greater credibility and power than any voice of authority in the modern world. But to “make it stick”, communicators need to avoid the inevitable temptations to complexity, brevity, abstraction, authority, and rational argument, and instead stick to Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories.

Please feel free to post your own thoughts and comments here!

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