Do you have a really good idea which you want to go viral? Is there a behavior you’re trying to modify in your blog readers, such as encouraging them to save, eat healthy, or start an exercise program? Are you looking for ways to persuade readers to purchase an affiliate product you’re promoting? If your answer is “yes” to any of these, then you need to make your writing stickier. In this post I’m going to share with you six principles which you can begin to apply right away to make your articles as sticky as urban myths, Aesop’s fables, the “Don’t mess with Texas” slogan, and JFK’s “man on the moon” speech.
In the bestseller “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die”, the Heath brothers, Chip and Dan, explain that sticky ideas–ideas that spread, that are remembered, and that people act upon–have six traits in common. Sticky ideas are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and they’re told as stories (the authors use the acronym “SUCCESs”, with the last s omitted). Here’s an explanation of each of these principles:
Keep It Simple: It’s the Economy, Stupid
In order to make your message sticky, it has to be simple. This means that it has to convey a single, core idea that is meaningful and easy to understand. You need to make sure that your core idea stands out clearly from the very beginning, instead of being buried under an avalanche of facts, details, and abstractions. Keep in mind that simplifying your message doesn’t mean that you dumb it down; it means that you strip an idea to its most critical essence.
In addition, you need to prioritize. Psychology research shows that choice can hinder decision making. In one experiment cited by the Heath brothers, researchers took a group of college students who were planning to spend their evening studying and offered them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend a lecture by an author they admired. Almost 80% decided to skip the study session and attend the lecture instead.
However, when a second “fun” choice was added—watching a foreign film that was getting great reviews-only 60% opted for one of the “fun” choices and 40% chose to study. That is, when students had to choose between two “fun” options, more students chose to study as compared to the scenario in which they only had one “fun” option.
When you have several good ideas about a topic it’s difficult to pick the single most valuable idea and make it as sticky as possible, but that’s what works. Successful trial lawyers know that if they argue ten points, even if they’re all good, when jurors get back to the jury room they won’t remember any of them. James Carville summarized the most critical issue of the 1992 U.S. presidential election when he said: “It’s the economy, stupid”. Narrowing the issues to that one sentence stuck with voters and helped Clinton get elected.
Another way to keep it simple is by using analogies so that you can capitalize on what your readers already know. Think about the following movie pitch: Speed is “Die Hard on a bus”. How can you compare your idea to something your audience is already familiar with to help create hooks so that they will remember your idea more easily? Analogies allow you to say a lot with a little.
Make it Unexpected: Lose Weight by Eating Fast Food
With all of the information that’s available, one of the biggest hurdles you’ll have to face is capturing your readers’ attention. You can get their attention by taking an unexpected approach. Then, you hold their interest by making them curious. Behavioral economists argue that when we have a gap in our knowledge, we strive to resolve it. We’ve all stayed up late at night reading to discover who did it in a murder novel, or watching a movie to see how the conflict is resolved. Make your readers curious from the very beginning of your article by raising questions they don’t know the answer to, and then gradually filling in the gaps as they read along.
As an example of doing something unexpected, Chip and Dan refer to City Year. City Year is a nonprofit organization which offers 17 to 24-year-olds the opportunity to engage in 10 months of full-time community service. Here’s a slogan that they use: “We envision a world in which, one day, the most common question asked of a 17-year-old in this country will be, ‘Where are you going to do your year of national service?’” That’s a powerful, unexpected view of what the world could be like, and it gets people’s attention.
Another message that was unexpected was the one used in the Subway Guy marketing campaign. Jared was a college student who weighed about 430 pounds; he created a “subway diet” for himself and started walking every day to his local Subway Restaurant to have a subway for lunch and one for dinner. With this diet, Jared lost over 240 pounds. Subway came across Jared’s story and they turned it into a marketing campaign which was incredibly successful and which increased their sales dramatically. People were captivated by Jared’s story, in part, because of the unexpectedness of someone losing weight by eating fast food.
Make it Concrete: What Do 37 Grams of Fat Look Like?
In order to make sure that an idea can be grasped and remembered later, you have to make it concrete. If you describe something in a way that allows your readers to see, touch, or imagine it in their mind’s eye, the chances are much better that you’ll communicate successfully with them.
In 1961 U.S. President John F. Kennedy announced the following: “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 Earth”. This was a concrete vision: it was very clear about what it required—get a man on the moon and bring him back safely–and when it would happen. It captured the imagination of the American people for almost a decade.
The Heath brothers explain that Kennedy’s speech would have had much less impact if he had said something abstract like the following: “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity’s future.” What does that even mean? Make sure that you make your ideas tangible, instead of delivering them in abstract, difficult to understand terms.
Here’s a second example offered by the Heath brothers of how to be concrete: A health organization was trying to convey to the movie-going public how incredibly unhealthy movie popcorn popped in coconut oil was. A typical bag of popcorn contained 37grams of saturated fat, nearly double the recommended daily allowance. But movie-goers weren’t interested in statistics. The health organization had to find a way to turn the abstract “37 grams of fat” into something concrete which would get the public to stop eating the harmful popcorn.
So what did they do? They called a press conference and laid out all of the following in front of the television cameras: a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings. Then they explained that a bag of popcorn had more fat than all of those meals, combined. If you think this was tangible enough to get the public to demand that movie theatres stop popping their popcorn in coconut oil, it was.
Make it Credible: The Surgeon General says . . .
If a message doesn’t seem credible it will be discounted, even if it’s perfectly true. Credibility can be achieved through status–such as citing a study conducted by a Nobel Prize winner–through prior performance, through the use of convincing detail, or through the appropriate use of statistics. When you use statistics, contextualize them in terms that are more everyday and human. A good example of making statistics more accessible is “The World of 100”, which presents different data about the world population in terms of a village of 100 people.
In addition, you can encourage your audience to test out your ideas for themselves. Chip and Dan explain that in the sole U.S. presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics on the economy. Instead, he encouraged voters to test the effectiveness of the Carter presidency for themselves by telling them: “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”
Appeal to People’s Emotions: Make Them Care
Information makes people think, but emotion makes them act. You’ve probably heard of urban myths such as “the kidney-heist”and the Halloween candy tamperingstory. How do stories such as these spread across the country—and even the world–despite a lack of evidence? Why are they remembered and believed by millions? These stories are sticky. And one of the reasons that they’re so sticky is because they evoke emotion: in the case of urban myths, they evoke fear.
The authors of “Made to Stick” explain that in order for people to take action—donate money to your cause, buy your product, modify their behavior, and so on—they have to care about your message. You appeal to people’s emotions to get them to care. There are many different emotions you can tap into, such as a person’s “group identity”. When the Texas Department of Transportation was looking for ways to reduce litter on the Texas roadways, they discovered that most of the litter was being caused by truck drivers.
What was the best way get these truck drivers—characterized as “Bubba”—to stop littering? Applying threats and fines? Telling them about the impact they were having on the environment? What they did was much more effective: Bubbas love Texas, and the Texas Department of Transportation appealed to this pride. They cast Dallas Cowboys and Houston Astros in testosterone-soaked ads telling drivers: “Don’t mess with Texas”. With an emotional appeal to identity, the campaign managed to reduce litter on Texas highways 72% between 1986 and 1990.
Tell Stories – A Well-Told Story Jump-Starts Action
Research shows that when people swap stories they’re not just entertaining each other; they’re providing mental training. In “Made to Stick” the authors explain that when firefighters swap stories after every fire they’re helping each other create a rich archive of situations which they might encounter during a fire and the appropriate responses to these.
When we hear a story, we create a simulation of what’s happening in our minds. By providing a story in which the protagonist is in a predicament that is similar to our audience’s situation, we allow our readers to apply the story to their own situation.
In addition, Chip and Dan explain that a story is also important because it provides the context missing from abstract prose. Aesop’s fables—such as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”–teach their morals through stories. By telling the story of a bored shepherd boy who entertained himself by crying out “wolf” on repeated occasions and watching the villagers rush to his aid, and who was subsequently ignored by all when a wolf really did appear, Aesop shows his readers how liars lose all credibility and aren’t believed even when they’re telling the truth. Telling this story is much more effective than simply saying to people: “Don’t lie”.
As a further example of how to use stories in your blog posts, the best way to promote an affiliate product is to use it yourself. Then share a true story with your readers of how the product helped you to solve a problem that they might be having as well. Invite them to try it on for size and see for themselves.
To summarize, you can write sticky blog posts that get your readers to take action by making your ideas simple, unexpected, concrete, credentialed, and emotional, and by presenting them as stories. You don’t need to apply all six traits to have a sticky idea, but it’s safe to say that the more of them that you’re able to work into your writing, the stickier your idea will be.
Don’t just read this blog post and store it away as interesting, new-found knowledge: take the six principles presented by the Heath brothers and begin crafting your stickiest blog post yet. Incidentally, I tried applying most of the “sticky principles” to this blog post. How did I do?
Written by Marelisa Fábrega. Marelisa blogs about creativity, productivity, and simplifying your life over at Abundance Blog at Marelisa Online. Marelisa is the author of the ebook “How to Be More Creative – A Handbook for Alchemists”.