“I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
This final note of the speech of President John F. Kennedy to the US Congress on May 25, 1961, mobilized a nation and its resources for a very specific purpose. This note has 6 features: it is simple (let’s take a man to the Moon), it is surprising (in 1961 this was an unexpected challenge), it is concrete (its success is easily measurable), it is credible (it was announced by President of the USA), it is emotional (it announced sending a man and not an automatic probe ) and is also a good story (everyone could imagine the adventure of going to the Moon).
Why do ideas like those stick and others do not? That is the basis of the book “Made to Stick ‘written by the brothers Chip and Dan Heath. According to the authors, the 6 attributes highlighted Kennedy’s speech are common to ideas that stick:
1. Simplicity (S)
2. Unexpectedness (U)
3. Concreteness (C)
4. Credibility (C)
5. Emotional (E)
6. A Good Story (Ss).
These 6 attributes can be ordered to create the word SUCCESs.
The simplicity rule forces us to focus on the main point of the idea. This is important because if everything is important, then nothing important. A message must be effectively reduced to its essence and it cannot be lost on what is secondary.
The surprise is a way to get people’s attention, but it is necessary to stimulate their curiosity to keep them alert. Asking questions makes people aware of gaps in their knowledge. The ideas that answer those questions have a better chance to be remembered.
Although it is often necessary to convey abstract concepts, concretizing them in simple examples has usually a greater chance of success. A good example is a proverb like “Better a bird in the hand than two in the bush”, giving the listener the chance to find the abstract message conveyed by the concrete example.
The stickiness of an idea is also associated with the credibility of the messenger or the facts that support the message. However, the use of statistics or survey results can be difficult to visualize. For example, to say that the battery of an MP3 player lasts an average of 5 hours is less effective than announcing that you can listen to music continuously on a flight from Lisbon to New York .
Humans are emotional beings and the degree of the emotion of the message is an important factor in its effectiveness. Being known that the rationality and emotion are associated with different brain regions, mixing them in the same message diminishes its relevance. For example, the anti-smoking campaign that the American tobacco industry was forced to conduct was based on the phrase: “Think. Do not smoke.”. The competing campaign in which teenagers piled up bags of body bags in front of the headquarters of a tobacco company had, understandably, more impact.
Telling a story is one of the most effective ways to convey an idea. The fable “The Fox and the Grapes” is still told 2500 years after Aesop’s death, and the meaning of the expression “sour grapes” is still well understood. Any teacher knows that she can quickly grab the attention of her students, even in the middle of the explanation an abstract mathematical concept, if she tells a related story. In the minds of the students, the history and the concept will be linked together and will be remembered for a longer time.
The major obstacle in designing a winning message is the so-called “Knowledge Curse“. If the message of President Kennedy was announced by a space scientist he would probably say: “We think that, within a period of 9 years, we will be able to develop the technology needed to build a rocket weighing about 6 billion pounds that can reach the speed of 11 km per second, the escape speed of the planet Earth, which can carry a passenger compartment with the capacity to sustain human life in space and with a lunar landing vehicle, with enough fuel to return back to Earth.”