Notes from Made to Stick

This is probably the best book I’ve read on how to write/speak/communicate. It solves all of the major problems I (and every other communicator) has. You need to read the book. If you can’t, at least read the notes below. It’s a Grade A book, for SURE. And it’s also not a time waster book – it’s written by both a theorist and a practitioner.

Here’s a link to buy it.

Core Message: the messages best remembered all have SUCCES: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and story.


  • Find the core essence of your idea (that from which you cannot strip away any more). There’s only one core essence per idea.
  • Find the “commander’s intent.” That which an army commander can tell all of the different layers and each will be able to accomplish the task because they all know the intent.
  • Make the commander’s intent your identity. It’s about elegance and prioritization, not dumbing it down.
  • The core essence is simple, the lead of your article: it’s the most important, most informative sentence in your work. Don’t have 2 or 3 – pick only one. Prioritize!
  • Options paralyze. Core messages filter to reveal importance.
  • Simple = core + compact. Compact = lots of info in a little sentence. The idea’s worth comes from the core. The stickiness comes from how compact the idea is.
  • Is there a risk of over simplifying? Not if you’re a good writer! Proverbs are short sentences packed with real-life experience. Be like a proverb. They’re short but not overly simple.
  • Simple + compact = memorable too! The idea core works as a reminder too.
  • Use schemas to convey info. Eg. flag -> visualize something (schema), then modify the schema. Schemas are simple, but if you adapt and multiply them, they become complex. Eg. What’s a pomelo? “A large fruit that is tangy with rind”. Bad. “It’s like a bigger, less sour grapefruit”. Good. Schemas tell you more information for less – the second explanation lets you know if you can make a Bellini out of a pomelo.
  • “An accurate but useless idea is still useless.” YES! This shows you have the Curse of Knowledge – the idea that once you’ve learned how, say, the banking system works, you can’t really explain it to someone who doesn’t because you’re not starting from the same knowledge.
  • Analogies are very sticky because they fill in missing information, they self-produce explanations, they are generative, and they are alive. They guide action!


  • Problem #1: getting people’s attention
  • Solution: surprise + interest.
  • Surprise comes when our schemas for how the world works is broken/shattered. This makes us want to fix it.
  • Gimmicky: when the surprise does not reinforce the core message. It’s frustrating.
  • The best surprises provide insight. Aim for post-dictability: “I wouldn’t have seen it coming, but it makes sense and the clues were there.”
  • How to produce insight: target a schema, aka a part of your audiences’ guessing machine that connects to your core message.
  • Warning/advice: the core may fit in with the schema, but a concrete example can also shatter a schema. Eg. 1) “faster beats better in business – please just finish the portrait” vs 2) “finish it by tomorrow – even if she doesn’t have a nose”.
  • Here’s how to break people’s intuitions: 1) what’s your core message? 2) What’s counter-intuitive? (ie. unexpected implications, real world consequences). 3) communicate something counterintuitive. 4) redefine their schema.
  • Expose and show what is not common sense. People ignore common sense because…well…it’s common and they get it already! There’s nothing unexpected in common sense! So reveal the uncommon sense in your message.
  • Break their schemas and quickly. Lesson: journalists look for the 5 Ws, but also need to look for the meaning! Look for the implications!
  • The link between surprise and interest is mystery. Invite your reader on a quest to find an answer. Present things that make no sense, and go through the material like a detective putting clues together. The need for closure is immense!
  • Curiosity comes from a gap in our knowledge that we want to fill. If we don’t, it pains us (think of how painful cliffhangers are!)
  • How to incite curiosity: reveal his gap – that he doesn’t know something specific. For example, if you’re dealing with someone who says he knows it all, you can ask him to predict an outcome. This reveals two gaps: “what’ll happen” and “was I right?”
  • Even if the mystery isn’t very interesting, it still goes a long way.
  • Over confidence can insulate people from curiosity. Solve this by getting them to commit publicly to their idea. Then, break their idea.
  • There is what you know, what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you don’t know. Expose the 2nd to incite curiosity. Get someone involved with the story!
  • Ideal: when making a sticky goal, make it audacious and provocative, but NOT paralyzing. people should see it and think “how could I do that”. Eg. the invention of the walkman which could listen to music: the idea of a “pocket radio” had enough juice to get the engineers and the marketers and the manufacturers all thinking “how can I make this” rather than “that’s impossible!”


  • Language can be abstract, but life sure isn’t. Abstraction is bad for understanding, remembering, coordinating, and interpreting.
  • Pro-tip: the most environmentally precious land is that in “Mediterranean climates”.
  • You know if something’s concrete when you can examine it with your senses. 50,000 acres of ugly California land is not very concrete. But naming it as a landscape with a name like “Mount Hamilton Wilderness”? This puts it on the map, gives it personality, and makes it concrete.
  • Concrete usually boils down to specific people doing specific things. Ie. A Nordstrom employee ironing a customer’s shirt.
  • Japanese math teaching builds abstract mathematical concepts on concrete and familiar objects. They use an existing schema to cultivate something abstract.
  • Novices crave concreteness. Concreteness lets us build more abstract insights on our perceptions and familiar knowledge.
  • Sticky ideas are full of concrete words and images. Interestingly, perhaps the reason why the Iliad and the Odyssey are so jam packed with concrete words is because people forgot the abstractions after generations of memorization.
  • The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory. Good teachers are experts at connecting multiple hooks to an idea.
  • Eg. Jane Eliott teaching her third grade students about racism – splitting the class up by blue eyes and brown eyes really hit them hard, such that they remember the feeling of unfair prejudice 30 years later.
  • The curse of knowledge curses people to talk in abstractions. Speak in a language that everyone understands. Solve problems at the level or with the schema that everyone understands. Eg. silicon chip-making factory: the engineers and the assemblers should have been speaking at the level of the machine, rather than the engineers making their diagrams more detailed.
  • It’s NOT dumbing things down. It’s finding a universal language which is inevitably concrete.
  • Until a goal is made concrete, a team’s efforts will not be fully aligned.
  • Concreteness mobilizes and focuses your brain. It’s easier to write down “10 white things inside your fridge” than it is to write down “10 white objects”.
  • It also allows people to collaborate: that guy who walked into a venture capital firm with a portfolio let him let them play with the idea using a concrete object. Brainstorming happens more easily. If you make an idea concrete, it creates a “shared turf” on which everyone can play.
  • If you’re out of touch with the people you serve, go live with them for a couple of months. That’ll make them concrete. You’ll succeed afterwards too.
  • Being concrete is simple, easy, and perhaps the most effective of the traits. Be concrete.


  • Authorities are a source of credibility.
  • Celebrities and aspirational figures are a form of authority. They’re people whom we want to be like, and it’s this which lends credence to our ideas.
  • Anti-authorities are also a source of credibility: eg. a bunch of executives are going to a meeting to help the Doe Fund in NYC – a fund which gets homeless guys back on their feet. The guy who drove the executives to the meeting was a former homeless guy, and he told them his story. The executives were more convinced by his story than by the presentation from the Doe Fund leaders.
  • Credibility points come from honesty and trustworthiness, not someone’s status. Doe had no status, but he was freakin honest and credible.
  • Concrete details give credibility points to the person sharing the idea as well as to the idea itself. The idea becomes more real and believable.
  • The more (concrete) details, the more credible the story. If you want to argue that someone is a good parent, don’t just say she takes care of him. Say that she ensures that at 8:30 pm, he’s brushing his teeth with his Darth Vader toothbrush. That’s more vivid, more memorable, and therefore more credible.
  • Vivid details boost credibility (remember the kidney in an ice tub? Yeah, vivid). Don’t just say that your dance company is diverse. Bring people in to show them your oldest member: 86 year old Barbara who’s just living life.
  • Statistics don’t stick. Sensory perceptions do. Eg. how do you show someone what the difference is between 5 and 5000 new nuclear warheads are? Take one bb pellet and drop it in a bucket. This was Hiroshima. Then take 5000 and drop them in – the noise is deafening and you understand the scale immediately.
  • Statistics illustrate a relationship, not a number. Make the statistics credible by turning the relationship sticky and concrete, not the number.
  • Also, humanizing an analogy gives a metaphor more credibility. If you can make your model “playable” and manipulatable by anyone who comes across it, then it makes it more credible.
  • People can lie with statistics. Here’s what to focus on: make sure the comparison is correct. Eg. death by sharks compared to drowning? Or death by sharks compared to hitting a deer? The deer is more dangerous, but it’s also unexpected. This makes people aware of how un-fearful they are of deer, and lets them laugh at their fear of sharks. Humour is an antidote to fear.
  • “The Sinatra test” – you can pass it if one example alone establishes credibility. “If I can make it in New York, I can make it anywhere.” Or another: “if I catered for the White House, I can cater for anyone”. One company: Safe-xpress delivered board exams from high schools to the markers in Mumbai within 3 days. If they can do that job securely and safely, then they can do anything.
  • Pass the Sinatra Test and you’re golden, Ponyboy.
  • Lastly, there’s the audience as a source of credibility. How do you show that Wendy’s burgers are bigger and jucier than McDonalds’? Ask them to see for themselves. People believe themselves – if they look at a Wendy’s burger and a McDo burger (on screen) then they’ll believe what they see. It’s a falsifiable claim.


  • Emotional v. analytical mindsets. Emotions are more memorable. Statistics shift people away from emotion and towards analysis.
  • For people to act, people can’t just believe our ideas. They need to care for them.
  • The “Truth” campaign from smoking worked better than the “Think, don’t smoke” campaign. Why? Because the Truth campaign tapped into teenage emotion – rebelliousness.
  • No need to create emotion. You can just piggyback from already-existing emotions. This is the most basic path.
  • Some things have emotional punch, even if they don’t really mean it. Eg. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity leads people to feel awe.
  • Unfortunately, using emotionally-charged association words is like an arms-race: Once it starts getting overused, you need to move on.
  • If it gets overused, make up a new term.
  • So, one way to make people care is to appeal to the things that matter to people (for eg. associations). Another one is self-interest.
  • Copywriting: underdog headlines are really persuasive. Put self-interest into every headline you write by suggesting something that readers want. Eg. “The Secret of How to be Taller”.
  • The biggest reason for why ads fail: they tell of the benefit, rather than the benefit of the benefit. Eg. “The world’s best grass seed” < “the world’s best lawn”.
  • Incorporate WIIFY into every speech – what’s it in for you? Also, make sure to use the second person! “People will be safer with Goodyear Tires” vs. “You will be safer with Goodyear Tires”.
  • Don’t use abstract benefits – use personal ones! (see example above. This will help people to imagine themselves using the product. You don’t need to promise riches and sex. It can just be someone enjoying it. Say: “imagine yourself chopping strawberries and blending it in the Hamilton Beach blender”
  • Maslow – here are the desires – transcendence, self-actualization, aesthetic, learning, esteem, belonging, security, physical (hunger, etc). Self-interest is the physical, security, and esteem layers. Appeal to one of these.


  • Stories provide a) knowledge of how to act through simulation, and b) inspiration through motivation. Stories also let you mentally test how you yourself would have handled a situation.
  • Visualizing how you got into a crappy situation works much better to help you in the future than visualizing how you would achieve a future goal.
  • Mental simulations let us picture what we’ll do/say in the future when we confront a challenge. Then when we’re in the actual situation, we won’t do so badly.
  • Story = simulation. It’s context filling, unlike abstract prose. It leads to more hooks too!
  • Personal note: a great heading poses a problem that I also have – it creates suspence and therefore draws me in, cause I want to know the solution!
  • Creating sticky stories are hard. Just spot them instead – there are already a ton of them out there.
  • Three basic plots: a) challenge plot. The obstacle seems daunting to the protagonist. b) connection plot. A story about people who develop a relationship that bridges a gap – racial, class, ethnic, religious, demographic, etc. c) creativity plot – they make us want to do something different, be creative, experiment with new approaches.
  • If you’re a marketer and you’re looking for stories, know which plot will serve your purpose best. Maybe you’re trying to reinvigorate your colleagues, then you should look for a creativity plot story within your company.
  • Good test to see whether someone has properly identified with your message: if they’re critiquing you by saying how you should have done x, y, z.
  • An argument (in the philosophical sense of the term) asks someone to evaluate the idea – judge, debate, and criticize the idea, whether in their mind or not. A story engages the audience, asking them to play with the idea and participate. A springboard story asks you to act.
  • Stories are an antidote to the Curse of Knowledge.


  • The success of a message is not if it’s copied verbatim. It’s whether we achieve our goals. If people mimic the message, that’s okay.
  • Put on your SUCCES glasses and you’ll be able to spot the great ideas! Being a spotter > being a creator. There’s always more sticky ideas out there than you can create.
  • “speaking talent” ≠ the ability to make ideas stick. That means that things like accent, articulation, etc, don’t matter as much as people would like to think.
  • DON’T BURY THE LEAD! Don’t let your reader drown in information. Focus. Focus. Focus.
  • Decision paralysis? Find the core.
  • A sticky idea must make your audience 1) pay attention, 2) understand and remember it, 3) agree/believe, 4) care, 5) be able to act on it. These line up with UCCES. But don’t ask yourself if the idea makes you pay attention. Ask yourself if the idea is unexpected. This solves the curse of knowledge for you!

“… any of us, with the right insight and the right message, can make an idea stick.”

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