Made to stick – how to talk to the mind to make it want to remember

On a sunny morning two children run to an Enclave car. They are followed by their parents. Father opens the door and the boot and  mother helps to pack the things needed for the picnic. The boy takes the dog to his lap. The girl holds in her hands the bouquet of flowers gathered in the garden. When everyone is ready , the father starts the car and they go on a road trip.

In the background the woman’s voice is heard: „ The Enclave is a minivan to the max. It has a remotely controlled sliding door, sunroof, built-in navigation or even heated cup holders”. Each advantage is neatly visualized on a close-up.

The car approaches an intersection and stops at the stop sign. The camera shows the boy looking with delight at the trees reflected in the car glass.

This is a minivan for families, who are always on the move”

The Enclave enters the intersection. The music suddenly stops.

It is replaced by the screeching of tires and the sound of splashing glass.

There is a moment of silence after which the screen fades. In the background only the fierce sound of  the horn is heard, On the black background there are words : „ You didn’t expect this? Nobody expects this , fasten your seatbelts.”

The described story is an advertisement of the then defunct brand Enclave. It lasts about 30 seconds. This is the same as most TV or radio spots. However, this material stands out among them with a certain significant feature. It is able to anchor itself in the recipient’s mind for longer. Clearly, then, there is some kind of dependency that makes certain content  easier, even involuntarily, to absorb. And the  Enclave ad seems to take advantage of these dependency.

So it’s no surprise that brothers Chip and  Dan Heath chose to use this ad as one of numerous examples in their book „Made to stick — why some ideas survive and others die”


Surprise as one of the ways to SUCCESS

The authors of the book built it according to a very specific structure, bearing the appropriate acronym  „SUCESS”. Each chapter — and therefore each letter of the acronym deals with a different aspect of creating good stories. Thus, the abbreviation consists of:







Each of these elements has a role in the piece . Some of them can be relied on more than others. For example, when designing an Enclave advertisement, its creators decided to subordinate the entire structure of the spot to the creation of the deliberate surprise. They used the well-known and hackneyed scheme of a happy family in a comfortable car to lull the viewer to vigilance. This made the sudden change in dynamics dramatic and shocking.

The connoisseurs of human beliefs have power over notions of the possible and the predictable. The greatest visionaries take advantage of our expectations, make us declare them and then crush them into dust. They show us  that looking at the world can be completely different, and our thought patterns may not be as useful as we think.

This is impressive—  the more so because  as humans we are not too eager to change our beliefs. Often, even the best argumentation is not enough to break the though patterns once acquired. It turns out, however, that there are ways to do it discreetly, and at the same time leave the recipient curious. A well-used surprise is enough.


The essence of good journalism

Nora remembers her first journalism class very well. She and other students entering the room were convinced that obtaining information, writing it down and publishing it, were the most important tasks of the journalist. It only takes a little practice to master them. With such an attitude she sat down at the typewriter. The teacher immediately handed over the first assignment to them.

The introduction to the press article was about to come out of their hands. They received the main information , which in short was as follows: The headmaster announced that the teaching staff would attend a lecture on teaching methods next Thursday. Among the speakers there will be famous personalities, incl. California State Governor.

So the aspiring writers went to work. When they were finished they proudly put on the desk the  information given by the teacher written in a accessible way. After the last person had handed over the text, the teacher looked through all of them and said:

The keynote of this article should be : There are no lessons next Thursday”.

— It was an unforgettable moment — Nora recalls.

— Then I realized that journalism is not about thoughtlessly reporting the facts, but about understanding what results from them.

Perhaps this one memorable lesson helped Nora Ephron become a famous screenwriter and create such Oscar-winning hits like Sleepless in  Seattle or Silkwood.

Here lies the knowledge buried

Journalists are trained to followed the inverted pyramid model. It consists in placing the most important information at the beginning of the text. This structure is very beneficial for the recipients. They don’t have to wait until the last line to understand what the message really is about. Articles in which the reader would have to look for the information who won the elections or the world championships would probably not be very popular.

Sometimes, however, the author wants to put the essence deeper in the text. This may be the case, for example, if he believes that the message  will then be better understood. Sometimes he plans to show a  greater complexity of the problem in this way or he simply wants the reader to stay on the page for longer. However, if he exaggerates the recipient will be discouraged from further reading. There is a separate term for the  loss of direction and the problem of clearly showing the point . Such action is called  „burying the lead”.

Another of the creator’s dilemmas is how to show a complex problem in a digestive form. You can then observe an effect known as „curse of knowledge”. It happens when the author overestimates the reader’s abilities and resources. The creator then refers to his own knowledge and is unable to look at his text through the eyes of the novice. He also sometimes uses vocabulary and style  that are understandable but overly complicated for an outsider.

It is therefore important to remember to simplify complex issues when creating the content. One of the tools to facilitate this is the pomelo schema. It consists in presenting new content  by referring to those that the reader already knows. The name of the schema comes from the way the pomelos are defined. It can be done in two ways : through a comprehensive and detailed definition or by referring to the already known cognitive schema. Such a definition with a reference will sound like this: Pomelo is a huge grapefruit with a thick and  soft peel.

We have a complex image of a grapefruit in our mind. We‘ve seen it many times. We’ve touched it. We’ve tried its taste. This means that we know its features exactly and we are able to recall them in our memory. To understand what a pomelo is , we simply have to evoke our image of a grapefruit and modify it a bit.

The art of concretization

In the 1980s Geoff Ainscow led the Beyond War movement with some other people. They were trying to make people aware of a great threat posed by the constantly evolving arsenal of nuclear weapons. And there was a lot to make people aware of , because even then this arsenal was large enough to destroy the  entire world. Several times.

The organization realized that  citizens did not understand the scale of the threat. The numbers did not appeal to people, and the adjectives describing the situation gave the impression of another exaggerated , screaming message. So  Geoff came up with an idea: He started throwing home parties. Among the invited quests there were neighbors, friends and the representatives of the Beyond War movement.

This parties were usual get-togethers… until Geoff started his brief demonstration. He dropped a metal ball into an empty bucket. It echoed with a loud clang and attracted  the attention of the interlocuters.

— This is the bomb that fell on Hiroshima — he said. At that time he also described the scale of destruction of one such a  bomb. He told about tens of thousands of killed, hundreds of thousands burned by the blast wave and buildings destroyed  within the radius of many kilometers.

Then he threw 10 such balls. The noise grew even sharper.

— This is the force of the explosion of a missile on one  American or Soviet submarine.

Finally, he asked the listeners to close their eyes. When everyone was waiting in silence, he threw  5,000 steel balls into the bucket. The noise was deafening. People covered their ears in terror, and the sound went on and on. After the last ball there was a hallow silence.

This is the world’s current arsenal of nuclear weapons Geoff said calmly.

The president of  Beyond War movement understood the problem with his message about the threat of the atomic bomb: It is simply hard for people to imagine an abstract problem described in large numbers. The danger was clear, but it seemed as distant as the debris left in space  from dead satellite.  So Ainscow decided to apply a measure that is reliable in such situations — concretization.

Fundraisers also use this approach. Actions such as  „Adopt a bee ” or  „Become a spiritual parent” allow you to specify the message. It is easier for us to imagine  Eunice Atieno Origen — a Kenyan orphan, who is  15 years old and dreams of becoming a doctor , than 60 million Africans without food. And from imaging it is only a step to revive our cognitive schema and act on emotions. It is a thought of a needy human  being that awakes empathy in us — Not another zeros on the counter of those in need.

What is more  — statistics may even discourage us from helping.

A valued source in the service of emotions

In 2004, an experiment on the  support for charitable organizations was conducted at Carnegie-Mellon University. The respondents received a questionnaire for which they received 5 dollars in one dollar bills. Then, after the official part of the study was completed, they received an envelope with the leaflet describing the collection. Before leaving the lab, they could put banknotes in it.

There was, however, a fundamental difference between the participants. Different groups received different versions of the leaflets. Thus, the group that received the leaflet describing the story of  Rokia, a starving girl living in Mali, left an average of  2.38 dollars. The group , that received only statistical data on the scale of the famine in Africa left an average of  1.14 dollars. The most interesting, however, was the group that read the story of  Rokia, but enriched with statistical data. It turns out that  enriching the dramatic story  with equally dramatic numbers made … the level of empathy of the respondents decreased! And it was a drastic decrease   — the participants left an average  of one dollar less than in the case of reading only about the situation of Rokia.

The scientist theorized from this experiment that performing analytical actions reduces the strength of the emotional response. This theory was confirmed in their subsequent studies. It has also been confirmed that completely different structures of the brain are activated when performing mathematical or logical activities than in emotional situations.

The credibility of the text is important. You can build it, for example, by providing data or research results. However, you should bear in mind that they are not enough to make the message remain in the memory for longer. Information can be analyzed if the recipient approaches it with a distance and has some knowledge of the subject. But as long as he does not locate it in a certain image or he does not associate it with any known knowledge (like in  pomelo effect) or a feeling , it will be impermanent.


And how to add a novel element?

Aristotle understood the work of a reader’s  mind 2,500 years before the neurologists. He created a special construction, which responded to the needs of the hormone-hungry brain. The structure is rich in  protasis — exposition, epitasis —  conflict and catastrophe — culmination. This construction is a three-act structure.

How can a dramatic structure affect hormone production? To answer this question it would be good to first understand how storytelling affects our brain activity . It turns out that even an ordinary conversation , during which a story about our life is told causes the same brain structures to activate in both interlocutors! It’s a complicated subject, but to simplify it — the greater the convergence in the activated structures, the better the understanding. Researches also shows that people who read more stories, find it easier to „sync up” with their interlocutors.

This is why we need act one: to establish a  relationship,  identify with the characters and become the participant of the story ourselves. When it happens, our brain releases oxycotin. The hormone, that is responsible, among others,  for feeling empathy or affection. Thanks to it we can even feel the same emotions as fictional characters.

When the story becomes tense, another of the hormones, cortisol Is released. Thanks to it we can experience a growing conflict together with the protagonists. We focus  and  our heart starts to beat faster. A well-told story allows this state to only increase in the course of the second act. Only at the climax, when the tension goes down, the last hormone — dopamine is released. It causes relaxation and the feeling of kind of „reward” for overcoming difficulties  together with the protagonist.

The most effective speakers know that the way of delivering  is the key to capturing the audience’s attention. So they use the same techniques as genius storytellers.  They outline the problem, build tension, provide solutions. This allows the audience to feel that the world is susceptible to change , that it can become better. When the speakers provide a concise summary at such a moment, It will certainly remain in the listeners’ memory for a longer time.

Being aware of these processes allows you to consciously consume the media. Conspiracy theories are an interesting example of treacherous content. The stories they contain, offering  simple explanations of complex issues, are convenient and consume  a few  energy resources. The brain tends to simplify. It can distort the reality to better fit into already accepted beliefs. Additionally, when we engage into stories, it is more difficult for us to spot inaccuracies. The reader, even if suspicious, can forgive a lot for an interesting story.


Poets to the public

Creating content requires entering a game with the recipient. A game of commitment, emotions, surprises , details and credibility. The game in which the sender must be able to look at his message from a distance. See it in different contexts. Refer to the things known to the recipients. And the most important thing – remember that on the other side there is a person, who by devoting  time to our text , gives us a credit of trust.

Many creators believe that it is enough to pack valuable information between the introduction and the ending. They believe that since they are already doing some work by doing research or inventing stories, then the reader should also deserve to have access to this knowledge. Such situations occur mainly in the industry and scientific  literature. Meanwhile, this is not the way.

Language aims to simplify. There are new initiatives popularizing the use of so called plain language. Authors are becoming more and more aware that it is the audience who ultimately evaluates the work. Even if the information it contains is groundbreaking, the chance of a piece’s success can be buried by its inaccessibility.

Especially in marketing there is no place for data without the context. For a solution without a problem. For a problem without a character. The requirements on the way to creating  memorable content may seem like a hurdle. I think it is  quite the opposite. Knowing and remembering the examples given above, you can not only distinguish your work in the flood of others similar to it. Additionally , its reception can be made pleasant for the reader.


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