Heath, Dan

Dan HeathDan Heath is the coauthor (with his brother, Chip) of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Dan and Chip write an ideas column for Fast Company magazine.

Dan is a Consultant at Duke Corporate Education, where he has taught for clients such as Microsoft, Dow, and Home Depot. Prior to joining Duke, he was a researcher and case writer at Harvard Business School. In 1997, Dan co-founded a new-media textbook company called Thinkwell, based in Austin, Texas. The company celebrates its 10th anniversary this fall.

One proud moment (sort of) for Dan was his victory in the 2005 New Yorker Caption Cartoon Contest, beating out over 13,000 other entries.

You can read more at the website www.madetostick.com.

Made to Stick book cover

tompeters.com says …

Dan, thank you for doing the interview.

DH: Thank you. I appreciate you having me.

So, what is your book about?

DH: Our book is about the traits that make an idea stick. We ripped off the word “stick” from Malcolm Gladwell. For an idea to stick means three things: The idea is understood, it’s remembered, and it changes something—it changes people’s minds, it changes their behavior, and it changes their values.

My brother and I have spent a lot of time studying some of the stickiest ideas in history—everything from Aesop’s Fables 2,500 years ago to a whole slew of urban legends that circulate today. The inspiration for the book began when we started to notice that there were patterns among all these ideas—you could spot the same trait in an urban legend that you could in a sticky high school history lesson. Made to Stick is about the traits that sticky ideas have in common, and how the rest of us can put them to use in our own ideas.

How did you discover those traits? Were you looking for them, and then you really started studying them? Were you somehow interested in this area first, and then things started to appear? Were you looking for those common traits and researching them?

DH: We were looking specifically to find attributes that would explain the success of some of these ideas. One of the mysteries that my brother explored for several years was why urban legends stick. They are a set of ideas that should, by any standard, be predisposed to fail. First and foremost, they are false. They have no resources supporting them. There are no ad budgets, no PR firms, and no one sponsoring these ideas. Many of them are also ludicrous.

For example, there was an email urban legend going around that bananas were carrying flesh-eating bacteria. We actually start the book with the famous urban legend of the business traveler who accepts a drink from an attractive stranger. The next thing he knows, he wakes up in a bathtub full of ice and his kidneys have been stolen.

The mystery here is: Why do these ideas work? When you pay a lot of attention to them, you start to notice traits that recur. For example, unexpectedness—virtually every urban legend capitalizes on the value of surprise. If you think about the guy who got his kidneys stolen, it’s shocking to think that he could innocently accept a drink from a stranger and end up two kidneys shy of a pair.

Are you telling me that it’s not true?

DH: Nope, it’s not true.

I don’t want to interrupt because I wanted to ask you about unexpectedness. But I can still remember being in a bar and someone telling me that story. It is that memorable. It almost brings me right back to the place where I first heard the story.

DH: That’s exactly right. Another urban legend people believe is the notion that you should drink eight glasses of water every day. It is false. To those people who are waterlogged and running to the bathroom about four times an hour, you can cut it out—you’re fine, you’re fully hydrated.

The proof is that there are about 6.5 billion people on our planet right now, and at last count about 17 of them are actually drinking eight glasses of water a day. So either this is a false idea, or there’s some gigantic loophole that the other 6.5 billion people on earth are slipping through.


DH: Back to unexpectedness. What grabs us about these ideas is that they shock us in some way. It’s shocking to lose your kidneys. It’s shocking to be told you have to drink eight glasses of water a day. That’s probably seven cups more than you were drinking before. It’s shocking to hear the urban legend that you only use 10 percent of your brain.

But it’s not just urban legends that capitalize on unexpectedness—it also works for advertisements, for example. Think about the Jetta campaign that’s running right now where it looks like you’re watching a typical car commercial with beautiful yuppies having witty conversation in the car. Then out of nowhere there is a car crash, boom! That’s the same unexpectedness that enables urban legends.

Unexpectedness also works in political speeches. If you think about J.F.K.’s famous 1961 speech, challenging us to put a man on the moon and return him safely within the decade, that’s an incredibly unexpected idea. It seemed like science fiction at the time. What unexpectedness does—and here I’m using it as a trait of “stickiness”—is grab interest, which is obviously a prerequisite to making an idea stick.

I know there are five other traits. We might touch on some of them as we go through this. But, about unexpectedness, I think it’s so important, even beyond the scope of this idea of stickiness. It’s in our day-to-day lives, and in dealing with other people—I think it’s a very Brand You idea. You want—with everyone you deal with on a daily basis—to surprise them. It keeps you uppermost in their minds, particularly with clients.

DH: I think that’s exactly right. In fact, it’s even relevant in job interview situations. A lot of us walk into an interview, whether we’re being interviewed or doing the interviewing, and we use people’s resume as a template for the discussion. A resume is nothing more than a nicely formatted reference document full of densely packed proper nouns—like the companies where you might have worked, with dates and bullet points showing things like, “Increased operational efficiency by 12 ¾ percent.” None of it is going to stick 45 minutes after you walk out of that interview.

I didn’t get your resume.

DH: We have to tell people things they don’t know. Because if we spend all our time talking about common sense or speaking in abstractions, we can’t expect people to remember the conversation, and certainly not to change anything.

I have one issue—I like your book enormously—at one level, however, it seems to me as if it’s material that’s covered in Journalism 101. Isn’t that a fact?

DH: [laughter]

Is that unexpected?

DH: That’s unexpected. I like your John Stossel-style surprise question—that’s very nice. Of course, some of this is covered in Journalism 101. We do a whole section on the importance of “finding the lead” in the idea that you are communicating, and we describe the inverted pyramid style, which is at the heart of journalism. Yes, a lot of it comes from basic journalism, as well as good writing and public speaking techniques. Much of it will sound like advertising techniques.

No one to our knowledge has invested the time that we have in thinking about a very specific problem, which is this: Once you have an idea in your head, and you know you want to communicate it in a way that lasts with other people, how do you do that? What do you specifically do to encode that idea into a message of some kind that will stick? How do you choose between the hundreds of ways you could communicate something?

And so yes, we’re taught facets of this idea in different ways, like journalism as you described. But there are no classes in how to make ideas stick.

Then who do you see as your audience for this book?

DH: The audience is people who want help communicating an idea that’s important to them. This is a book that’s more about a problem than a particular kind of person. It is true to say that there are lots of people whose professions make them more likely than others to face this problem often. For example: journalists, teachers, managers, parents, etc. What is parenting, if not a series of situations where you’re trying to make ideas stick with your kids?

Which raises the issue of teaching. We’ve all had great teachers in our lives. I always thought it was about connecting at some emotional level. But you indicate that the teachers who really teach well sort of adhere to many of these principles. How did you discover that?

DH: If you think back to your favorite teachers, you’ll notice that there are a lot of themes they have in common. They probably have very different personalities, but I suspect what you liked about them was one of the following things.

Number one, they could tell you evocative stories about whatever discipline they were teaching. They could tell you great stories of history and bring historical moments alive in a way that those moments never come alive from the pages in textbooks. Second, they spoke concretely. They talked in terms you could understand, so that if you were studying economics, they would talk in terms of trading apples and oranges. Or, if you were studying calculus, rather than just writing sort of disembodied equations on the board, they would put it in real terms. For example, “How do we calculate how fast the burger on this grill is going to cool down?” That’s what great teachers do—and they may not do it consciously, but they’re certainly masters of some of the principles we talk about in the book.

Concreteness and storytelling, for instance —you have these ideas that you say are pretty basic at some level. Of course, like anything else, it takes a lot of practice to really get good at these things. Although I think you’ve laid them out. But then you do point out that there is this evil agent lurking within our brains, which you call “the curse of knowledge.” Personally, I haven’t run into anyone talking about that before. I think understanding that is critical to making any of these other ideas work. Can you talk about the “curse of knowledge” a little bit?

DH: To be clear, the curse of knowledge is not our invention. It was discovered by psychologists and behavioral economists about 15 years ago. We don’t want to take credit for it. But we’re happy to be the ones who popularize it.

There you go. That’s important.

DH: And essentially what the curse of knowledge says is that the more we know about something and the more expertise we have, the harder it is for us to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. Think about the stereotypical IT guy in this environment. You’re having some kind of computer problem and you call the IT person over, and it’s hard to get a crisp, clear answer from that person. Because you want to know what buttons to click, and the IT person is thinking in terms of systems and databases and back ends and how things fit together. Their knowledge or expertise enables them to think in those terms. But your lack of knowledge disables you from thinking in those terms.

The same phenomenon happens, as we all have experienced, with accountants and lawyers and doctors. Here’s the really scary part: We are all that IT guy in our field of expertise. Because we all, in the course of our lives, get good at certain things. We gain knowledge and get better at solving problems. That makes us experts. But as we gain that expertise, we’re also suffering from an increasing mental distance from the people we have to communicate with. That is why knowledge, in a sense, is a curse. Because the more we know, the harder it gets to communicate what we know.

This raises two issues. I’m going to forget them both now, because I’m thinking that the best person to learn something from is someone who is also just learning it, as in The Sot-Weed Factor, the book by John Barth. This guy decides he wants to learn how to play a violin. In order to learn how to play the violin, he decides to start teaching it. So he has to stay one step ahead of his students. But, he’s a good teacher because he’s just learning it himself. He’s not so knowledgeable yet that he can’t still talk about that part of the learning process.

DH: That’s exactly right, yes. You notice this happening in classrooms, too, where a lot of times the teacher will explain something and a student’s eyes will glaze over. Then one of his friends will come over and put it in language he can understand. All of a sudden, the light bulb goes off, “Oh, I get it.”

I think the other thing that’s happened along the way is that all these different jobs and professions have developed their own jargon. Not only is there more knowledge, but also a whole language to go with it. That’s why we all end up looking at the IT guy and saying, “Could you say that in English, please?”

DH: Right, the jargon adds a bonus layer of opacity to the whole thing. Now, I do want to get to the good news here, because I don’t think the moral of this story is that it’s hopeless for experts to try to communicate what they know. I think that everything we talk about in the book is precisely engineered to solve this problem, to help people put what they know in accessible terms, which doesn’t mean dumbing down, by the way. It just means speaking in a context and in a language that non-experts can process.

The bottom line is that communicating in a sticky way is not hard. Anyone can do it. But it’s not entirely natural or intuitive, either.

Right. But do you see your book becoming some kind of a textbook in a class on effective communication?

DH: I would love to see this book used—royalties aside—in business communication courses. Because I think the business world, in particular, suffers from this problem. Think about the classic way of speaking in the business world that’s satirized by Dilbert and everybody else on earth, like executives talking about “maximizing shareholder value” and “growth through innovation.”

I never understood any of that. Of course, it’s not understandable.

DH: Part of it is this jargon effect that you talked about earlier. Part of it is that they’re using words the normal person literally can’t understand. Part of it is a little more insidious, and what I mean is that abstraction actually cloaks disagreements. Say you’ve got six people sitting around a conference table and one of them says, “You know what, guys, what we really have to do is improve customer service.” All six of those people at the conference table may nod their heads vigorously and agree. But they could also have six completely different ideas of what that means.

Bob thinks it means hiring more people. Steve thinks it means that the front-line employee should smile more when they talk to customers. Judy thinks it means that we should try to make the checkout line shorter. Abstraction is a danger in that way. In addition to being an imprecise form of communication, it can result in the misalignment of goals. Which is why in the book we talk about how the value of concrete language—or one of the values of using concrete language—is that it helps people working in the same group to make sure they’re moving towards the same goal.

Getting back to J.F.K.’s “Man on the Moon” speech, can you imagine a more concrete goal than that? Was there anyone alive who didn’t understand what the moment of victory was for that project?

Absolutely. I still remember that from my childhood.

DH: It’s such an amazing idea. It’s frustrating to think that we have to go back 40 plus years to find a political idea that good.

That is a little depressing. In the business world, I’ve always thought that this abstract language just came about because people didn’t really know what they were doing anyway. This was their way of cloaking their lack of knowledge, talking in these abstractions. Of course, that may just be a seriously cynical take on it. When you don’t know what you’re talking about, you make it as vague as possible. I don’t know where the chicken or the egg is in this situation.

DH: I think that’s also a very fair point. I don’t know what your language standards are in this column. But there’s one thing we know for sure: It’s a lot easier to bullshit abstractly than to bullshit concretely.

Yes. I was just going to say, somewhere along the line I figured that out. When I’m bullshitting, I use very specific numbers, because, as you say, people don’t generally bullshit in specifics. That’s how you really get your bullshit across. So you just throw in a few real numbers, which have no meaning, but people—as you say in your book—get a little mesmerized by numbers. You sound like you know what you’re talking about. You just make them up.

DH: The Art of Bullshitting by Erik Hansen; I love it. What you’ve described, by the way, is exactly the reason that a lot of urban legends stick. One was that you only use 10 percent of your brain. The other was that you should drink eight glasses of water a day. Why do those stick? Because they have the veneer of credibility. Because you think to yourself, eight glasses is an awfully precise amount of water. Surely if someone’s telling that to me, there must have been some scientific study behind it, because otherwise did someone just pull that out of the air? Well, the answer is yes, they did pull it out of the air. But it sounds more credible because it has the number.

I’ve had professional doctor-type people tell me that. That’s how effective that is. I’m still not convinced.

DH: Convinced of what?

That it is an urban legend. I’ve been drinking all this water; it’s driving me crazy. I’ve been wasting all this money buying bottles of water.

DH: If there’s one thing you can take away from my book, I hope it’s that you’re plenty hydrated. Feel good about yourself.

You use the word “elegant” frequently in the book. Can you talk about that word and what it means to you?

DH: Well, the first trait of stickiness is simplicity. Our gravest fear is that when people see “simplicity” in our book, they’ll think of it as dumbing down. They’ll think of it as stupid sound bytes or monosyllables. What we mean is something very different. What we mean is that simplicity is about whittling down your idea to its core. You could think about the metaphor of design elegance and how really great products aren’t necessarily about maximizing the number of features. Often they’re about stripping down the number of features to the most essential set, like the Palm Pilot or the iPod. That is the metaphor we want to apply to ideas. The really painful thing about simplicity is that it forces us to jettison some of the really important ideas that just aren’t the most important.

Like a famous trial lawyer says, “If you tell the jury ten things, no matter how smart those things are, by the time they get back to the deliberation room, nothing will be left. Ten things are the same as no things.”

Right. Although I think there’s some subset of our learning where somebody said, you sound dumb if you only have one thing to say. Right? People always pile stuff on. That’s a big point in your book, which is just get to the one thing, “It’s the economy, stupid.” You’ve got other examples.

DH: Like Southwest‘s “We want to be the low-fare airline.” Herb Kelleher has got this great example where he talks about a marketing person who comes into his office and says, “On our flight from Houston to Las Vegas our customers are getting hungry. We think that they would appreciate a chicken salad instead of just peanuts.” Kelleher says, what would you do if you were in my shoes as CEO? What you’d do is ask the marketing person, “Will offering a chicken salad on the flight from Houston to Las Vegas help to make us the unchallenged low-fare airline? Because if it doesn’t, we’re not serving any damn chicken salad.”

I love that story because Kelleher is doing something that executives hate to do, which is to make a choice. He’s making a choice between two values that are both great. One is economy, and the other is customer satisfaction. He’s saying, “I’m going to choose economy, even in the situations where I know full well it’s going to leave my customers slightly unhappier.” I think that’s powerful.

I read that example. I thought, you know, I could go work at Southwest right now and I would know what to do in any given situation. I think that’s pretty incredible.

DH: It is. It is the link between what we talk about in the book and strategy. A lot of executives think that 90 percent of their work is done when they define the strategy. They invest about one one-thousandth of that amount of work in sharing the strategy and translating it in a way that people can understand. That’s what Kelleher has done so brilliantly—he’s designed a really smart strategy. But then he’s also figured out a way to put it in terms that the frontline workers can understand, so that they can solve problems on their own using the same tool set that Kelleher himself would use. That’s amazing.

That is beautiful.

DH: Good strategic communication essentially creates a clone of the CEO across the organization. To use a radically different scale organization, in the book we talk about the Dunn Daily Record, which is this little town newspaper that’s distinguished by the fact that it has a 112 percent penetration rate in its community. It means that, on average, each household is buying more than one copy of the paper.

Traveling salesmen are buying the paper.

DH: Exactly. This guy’s reason for success is that his strategy has always been names, names, names. That means he wants only community members in the paper. He wants relentless local coverage. He literally means that if there’s a city council meeting, you don’t just talk about the outcomes, you name every single person who was there, on the theory that people read newspapers and they want to see their own and their neighbors’ names in them.

The effect is that if you’re a photographer for the paper, this idea helps you make decisions. For example, do you shoot the beautiful sunset in the city park? Or do you shoot a kind of really nondescript, boring interior shot of seven people around a table? The answer is you shoot the nondescript seven people around the table, because that’s more consistent with the strategy of the paper.

Unless you can get seven people sitting on a bench in the park with a sunset behind them.

DH: That’s good value add. I like that.

What is your day job? Or are you going out and looking at ways to bring this message to companies in a consultant role? Or should I not ask that?

DH: We are interested in helping companies communicate their strategies internally in a way that helps people make everyday decisions that reinforce the strategy.

That’s got to be incredible, just worth gazillions of dollars. Here’s Southwest: If you could create a causal connection between this and Southwest value in the market. They’re the only airline making money. Is there a relationship between “We’re the low-fare airline” and everyone knowing that and being able to act on it and the value of the company? There probably is.

DH: That’s certainly our belief. We actually have a manifesto on ChangeThis called “Talking Strategy”, which is sort of our first stab at getting some of these issues on the table. I believe that in lots of companies strategies are simply inert. They may be good, they may be bad, but you’ll never know because they’re not being acted on in reality. They may exist in the minds of the leadership team, but they haven’t been communicated in a sufficiently clear way so that it can be said that they’ve been activated across the organization. I think that’s a really interesting turf of business that has not been explored.

I agree. I think that’s brilliant. That’s a good place to end. I think it’s a great book. You guys are onto something.

DH: Thank you very much. This has actually been a fun interview.

Email: dan (at) – madetostick.com
Website: www.madetostick.com