Sticky Ideas

Posted: January 13, 2012 in Books, Business Books
Tags: , , , ,

How do you make sticky ideas?

An extra book post this week! Huzzah!

Did you hear about the lady in Cincinnati who found a rat in her bucket of fried chicken? She brought it home to feed her family and when they got to the bottom of the bucket there was a deep fried rat laying there.  It was breaded and deep fried just like a piece of chicken and nobody realized it was a rat – a whole rat – until her five year old son bit into it. The company settled with her for four million dollars due to her emotional distress. This is why they changed the name of the company from Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, because they can’t legally call it “chicken” anymore.

Or have you ever heard about intermittent fasting? The 1945 study by Carlson and Hoelzel. . . . found that the apparent life span of rats in the study was increased by intermittent fasting. Tests in which a group of thirty-three rats were allowed the same food ad libitum and groups of thirty-seven, thirty-seven and thirty rats were fasted 1 day in 4, 3 and 2, respectively, after the age of 42 days, showed that the optimum amount of fasting appeared to be fasting 1 day in 3 and this increased the life span of littermate males about 20% and littermate females about 15%. However, the pre-experimental condition of the individual rats was also found to be an important factor determining the life spans.

Okay, now go get a glass of water and then come back to read below the fold.

So which story do you remember and why? Maybe you remember that some of the rats had an increased life span. But you could probably tell a coworker the Kentucky Fried Rat story tomorrow and nearly verbatim. You might say the family is from Cleveland instead of Cincinnati, or that it was her seven year old daughter who bit into the rat, but you’ll remember the story. It’s completely not true, but you’ll remember it better than the absolutely true scientific text.

So what is it about urban legends that keeps in constant business that is so much easier to remember than scientific text I lifted from Wikipedia? It’s practically a superpower if you can harness it. Imagine if you could make just about any concept you need to get across at school or work as sticky as the Kentucky Fried Rat.

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die Chip and Dan Heath talk about qualities that make certain ideas take hold in your head. They break it down into six concepts with the acronym SUCCESs.

1. Simplicity: The KFR story is simple – there’s a rat in the chicken bucket. If you try to make ten points, you won’t make any of them. Why did the OJ defense rest on the phrase “Of the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit”? Because it is a simple point that anyone can latch onto. On the other hand, the excerpt about rats in the intermittent fasting study has a few points: the increase in lifespan, the conditions of the study, and the length of the study.

2. Unexpectedness: The twist ending. It’s not a piece of chicken – it’s a rat! This aspect is especially important for learning. Maybe you can’t make mitosis as interesting as a murder mystery, but you can still open up “knowledge gaps.” Human nature being what it is, we are inherently interested in filling in the spots that don’t fit in with what we expect.

3. Concreteness: There are absolute images in the first story. They may be cringe-inducing, but you probably had a picture in your head about what a deep-fried rat would look like. Unless you have a research job you probably don’t have a concrete idea of what it means that thirty-three rats were fed “ad libitum.” (Allowed to eat as much as they want.)

4. Credibility: This one is simple, do you trust the source of the information? This doesn’t just apply to the person who is delivering the information (although yes, hearing it from a doctor friend or a respected news anchor can help.) But many times you test the information yourself to see if it “feels” right. The fried rat feels right because we all harbor doubts about the standards of fast food establishment, even if you don’t trust me as a source for information personally.

5. Emotions: To really make someone care about your message you’ve got to make them feel something about it. Disgust is a feeling. We are empathetic creatures so we respond to other people’s emotions. We feel this made up woman’s horror and disgust at the surprise discovery. You feel nothing for the rats in the fasting study, it’s too abstract.

6. StorieS: People love stories. Stories act like a simulator for real life experience. While you are hearing the story about the Kentucky Fried Rat, part of your brain is imagining how you would react in a similar situation. This aspect right here is the sole reason my mother can’t watch horror movies, and they do indeed stick with her forever.

Now a well-designed educational game (and even entertainment games) hits all of these items. There’s a simple point that the game is trying to get across, whether it’s learning to sight-read (Reader Rabbit was my first video game as a kid) or how whales are important to an ecosystem. Games can have unexpected twists, not just in plot, but maybe in a power-up you weren’t expecting, or an interesting new concept. Concreteness is about how well the images stick in your mind. Anybody who’s ever had a Warcraft dream or a Tetris dream could tell you how well those stick in your head. As far as credibility goes, an educational game keys into the ultimate source people consider to be credible – themselves. Emotions can definitely run high in games, running the gamut from competitive spirit to joy to real sadness. Stories are definitely a huge part of many games, but an appealing game doesn’t necessarily need a story. Casual games usually lack a storyline and it certainly doesn’t hurt. A typing game probably doesn’t need a story, but the mechanics of photosynthesis might be suited for storytelling.

Obviously not every element of SUCCESs can be used for every idea or for every game. Some concepts can’t be made simple, some facts just aren’t emotional, but the more elements you can use, the stickier your ideas will be.

  1. timmymac says:

    Wait… you were LYING about the RAT?!?

    (just kidding)

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