Why do some ideas go viral while others disappear with nary a ripple? Why do urban legends and conspiracy theories make it halfway around the world before more worthy messages can even get their boots on? In this offering, brothers Chip and Dan Heath unpack what makes some ideas memorable, or “sticky”.
The authors found that messages that tend to stick around share many of six principles. These messages are Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Stories, or SUCCESs.
This book attracted me as a writer, blogger, mom and homeschooler. I compete heavily in the marketplace of ideas. In order to reach other people, my ideas have to be memorable. I want my children to remember the lessons I teach, from values to the capital of France to the water cycle. Someday I hope to persuade people to buy my stories. I need to show them that my work is worth their time.
So, as I ponder what I’ve read, I’m going to apply these ideas to a pitch for Quartz, my revision project.
Let’s get into the six principles.
Simple doesn’t mean simplistic, it means focusing on the core of your idea, the Commander’s Intent, the one mission-critical part of your message. The authors emphasize that if you say three things, you’re saying nothing.
Simple also means compact, in the way a proverb is compact. To be compact, you piggyback off of people’s existing schema. For example, the high-concept pitch for the movie Alien was Jaws on a spaceship. A title like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a pitch in and of itself. I once had a story pop into my head that billed itself as “King Arthur in Gotham City” and then vanished into a back corner with a Batman-like swoop. Someday, once I get all my current projects done, I will got hunt that story down…
Back to Quartz. Ignoring all its subplots (avoiding “feature creep”), I zero in on the heart of the story:
An ex-military diplomat and a free-agent demon-slayer join forces to find a natural vein of light-producing rock before their enemies do.
# 2 Unexpected
You use the unexpected to grab people’s attention. You cause their guessing mechanisms to fail. This failure causes people to pay attention. The authors warn against failing into gimmickry, though. You want to bring out the unexpected in your message, not bombard people with unconnected randomness. The unexpected must be “postdictable”–a surprise, but you shoulda seen it coming.
That’s what we writers call a twist. 😀
So, here’s me twisting my pitch:
In a sunless world, an ex-military diplomat and a free agent demon slayer join forces to find a natural vein of light-producing rock before their enemies do.
That’s a bit better. I’ve provided context for the importance of the light-producing rock, which is also the twist: this is a sunless world, so your regular photosynthesizing plants can only be grown under artificial light. All of a sudden that light rock looks pretty important, doesn’t it?
The writers use the Aesop fable about the fox and the grapes as an example of concrete imagery that makes the abstract principle behind it easier to grasp and remember. In fact, when we think of it, so many ideas are encoded in concrete images that have made it into our common language. “Sour grapes” is one, and so is our household favorite, “don’t be a dog in a manger” (it cracks me up to hear Sir I. use it, because he doesn’t quite get it). Our speech is peppered with red herrings, green-eyed monsters, and other idioms.
Abstraction is the curse of expertise; concreteness is craved by the layperson. Concrete ideas are more memorable, and they provide a common turf between people.
In my pitch, enemies is too vague and generic, so instead I use:
In a sunless world, an ex-military diplomat and a free agent demon slayer join forces to find a natural vein of light-producing rock before it falls into the hands of an oppressive power-hungry regime.
Messages can be made credible if they are supported by authorities (experts or aspirational figures). Additionally, details and statistics help messages be internally credible.
My pitch would be more credible if I had published a previous novel that you liked, had won some awards, or received an endorsement from another writer. Or even if your best friend had read my work, loved it, and raved about it to you.
I don’t have any of those, and I don’t know your best friend’s name, so the only thing I have going for me is some internal credibility–the detail that in a sunless world, other sources of light are vitally important.
In order to make people act on messages, they have to care. Messages can appeal to self-interest (the writers discuss Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs) or group identity (what would I person like me do?). My only goal is to entertain you, to make it worth your time to be in my imaginary world for a few hours. To do that I have to make my characters and their situation matter to you. If I bring out the high stakes a bit more, I get:
In a sunless world on the edge of famine, an ex-military diplomat and a free agent demon slayer join forces to find their world’s greatest resource—a natural vein of light-producing rock–before it falls into the hands of an oppressive, power-hungry regime.
Stories are powerful (as a writer and reader, I already knew that *grin*). The authors go into more detail into why stories are such powerful vehicles for messages, but I was more interested in the three basic story templates the writers elaborate on:
The Challenge Plot, in which the protagonist succeeds against formidable odds (David and Goliath)
The Connection Plot, in which people form a relationship that bridges a divide (Romeo and Juliet)
The Creativity Plot, in which someone solves some kind of mental puzzle (I imagine many murder mysteries fall into this category).
My story is primarily a Challenge Plot, with a Connection subplot.
So, what do you think? Did I apply those principles to their best advantage in this pitch? Where could I improve, based on the SUCCES model?
Further Reading: The Simple Dollar reviews Made to Stick and uses the principles in a series of blogposts.