by Tom Bunzel

What Managers Can Learn from “Made to Stick”

Jul 19, 200710 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Managers need to give their messages impact, so that subordinates understand the intention and urgency. Learn from this popular business book how to craft a message that packs a punch and gets your colleagues and staff to act with energy and passion.

When a colleague first told me about Made to Stick I thought, “Good grief—not another ‘soft skills’ communications book!” I’ve changed my mind; this book ought to be on your must—read pile. Let me explain why.

You may already have heard of Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (yes, they’re brothers). If not, I believe every manager owes it to himself to at least visit the authors’ website, if not actually read the book.

The book’s premise is that most important corporate communication is ineffective because people give too little thought to what makes concepts memorable or “sticky.”

You can get the gist from the book excerpts, in which the authors relate a relatively grisly urban legend about a guy who has his vital organs harvested. The point of emphasis is that people remember this story after the first time they hear it, and they are capable of repeating it with enough details to others after hearing it just once.

Being “sticky” in your communications is an acquired skill. The Heaths have studied this field extensively, and by following their specific concepts you will inevitably begin to filter your ideas in new ways. You can learn to recognize great ideas and also learn techniques that can enhance half–baked ideas until they really have a successful impact.

What comes across again and again is how the most effective and powerful vision or idea requires some forethought, practice, discipline and often luck to implement. But behind the Heaths’ material is a systematic approach that can almost reprogram the reader to consider different perspectives, analyze them using specific parameters, and eventually come out with a message that will make others understand more clearly-and hopefully motivate them to act.

Books like Made to Stick can get creative juices flowing in a way that technologists seldom consider. Not only is it a fun read with lots of interesting stories and anecdotes but it will inevitably get you to think differently about your own important projects, and show you tangibly how to convey your ideas more vividly and effectively.

The Power of Urban Legends

The authors contrast that urban legend to this glob of text from a presentation: “Comprehensive community-building naturally lends itself to a return-on-investment rationale that can be modeled, drawing on existing practice,” it begins, going on to argue that “[a] factor constraining the flow of resources to CCIs is that funders must often resort to targeting or categorical requirements in grant making to ensure accountability.”

This is the sort of manager-speak that is all too common in business. You can imagine it in a PowerPoint presentation with bullets like:

Comprehensive Community Building-Return on Investment

  • Modeled upon existing practice
  • Constrain the flow of resources to CCIs
  • Targeting or categorical requirements in grant making
  • Assure accountability

Even without visualizing the slides, the impact is unmistakable. This presentation will have zero to no effect, and certainly it has very little energy. As a manager, you need to make your message impactful enough so that your subordinates “get it” and hopefully understand its urgency. While the potential of a pink slip might be adequate motivation, it’s much better if you craft the message so that your direct reports are more likely to understand and act upon it with energy and passion.

The authors go on to give a clear, practical model for what makes ideas sticky and not forgettable.

In one example, they use an acronym for “success”:





Emotional [component]


Clear, Concise Imagery

What I found cool about this book is that the Heaths’ writing style is fun to read and loaded with powerful examples and anecdotes.

Early on in their description of the quality of unexpectedness, they use an example from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) that sought to dramatize the fat content of popcorn at the movies.

In a press conference, rather than using dry language about “saturated fat content,” CSPI imparted the message that “a medium-sized ‘butter’ popcorn contains more artery-clogging fat than a bacon and eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings—combined.”

This is a powerful and visceral image that is instantly understandable. Someone who hears it is less likely to go to the movies, much less buy a tub of buttered popcorn.

You might ask yourself whether the message you deliver at your meetings packs that kind of punch.

Your response might be that in the corporate world, few ideas can be delivered in this fashion, or that your subject areas are too dry and technical.

You’d be wrong.

Avoiding Death by PowerPoint

In the example described earlier, instead of using a PowerPoint slide, you might ask those in the room what they think about the concept of “community”? Near the end of the book is a chapter devoted to storytelling. While a slide deck dealing with the specifics of your message and its technical details may be helpful for comprehension, to truly make the message “sticky” you might want to open with an anecdote or experience that concretely testifies to the important points you want to make.

This would connect to the emotional component of the Heaths’ model, if nothing else. It might result in an interactive discussion, which a savvy manager could then lead into a concrete message of building value in order to secure funding.

Mission Statements

Perhaps the most useful aspect of this book is exposure to the Heaths’ examples of simplicity. Two powerful examples come to mind—both of which I remember clearly without having to reopen the book.

One example concerns the head of a newspaper in a midsize city whose credo or mission statement is basically that when it comes to choosing one story over another, or cutting it down, the main criteria is that “people who live here like to see their names in the paper.”

First of all, this is a lot stickier as a concept than “We specialize in local news.” Second, as the Heaths describe, it truly enables the staff from the top down to zero in on exactly the type of story that the paper will print. The clarity and specificity are palpable.

A second example comes from Southwest Airlines. According to the story the authors impart, a market researcher told the chairman that they had discovered that passengers would really like a chicken Caesar salad snack on longer flights. To which Herb Kelleher replied, “Do you know what we are?” Answer: “We are the low-cost airline.” Did the snack fit the model? You have your answer.

The Curse of Knowledge

A recurring theme in Made to Stick is an impediment to conveying an idea that the authors call “The Curse of Knowledge.” After they introduce it with a clever story, they alert the reader that they will capitalize it throughout the book to hammer home its importance.

You don’t need to know the Heaths’ example if you work in the technology field. The curse has been experienced by everyone who has sat through a training session or read a computer manual.

It’s what happens when one cannot empathize or take on the mind—set of one who does not know what is being imparted. That’s why the best computer writers are often not technologists; they themselves needed to go through the pain of absorbing information. They remember the hurdles involved, particularly for those without technical aptitude.

As a manager or CIO, you probably face the Curse of Knowledge all the time. Having struggled and earned hard—won experience mastering techniques or concepts, it becomes almost impossible for you to imagine how someone without that experience thinks or feels.

Now you are faced with explaining the importance of servers or wireless technology to members of a board of directors, or worse, to your clients and customers.

In one example from the book, the authors cite an incident at Cisco. The company had calculated that implementing wireless networking would cost $500 per employee per year. Would that investment be recouped in productivity, and if so, how might that be conveyed?

Cisco’s decision-makers finally got the idea when it was presented as follows: “If the technology increases productivity by one to two minutes per day (per employee), the cost will be recouped.”

For people who had made their living stringing cable through walls, that was probably an easy call.

But what about conveying that to others without similar concrete experience? There you face the Curse of Knowledge.

You need to consider techniques to overcome the gap. Made to Stick gives you a wide range of stories, analogies, interpretations, analyses and exercises that will make you think differently.

The Sinatra Test

Since credibility is such a major factor in communication, the authors go through a bit of material on using and misusing statistics-the bane of many corporate managers-and finally come up with a much better credibility standard, which they call the “Sinatra Test.”

Stated simply, it refers to the lyric from “New York, New York” that says “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” In terms of the book, what it means is using accomplishments to provide instant credibility. By demonstrating the ability to address one set of issues, anyone who succeeds has proven herself in that field or endeavor.

The authors give an example about an Indian package delivery service that wanted to get the contract to distribute Bollywood movies. First, the company distributed the Harry Potter books successfully. As a result of that demonstration of competence, they also delivered and picked up one of India’s most important standardized tests.

They got the Bollywood contract by passing the Sinatra Test; if they could do those tasks successfully, they could also handle the movie business. Despite competition with FedEx and UPS, the Indian firm proved its mettle by facing and mastering obvious challenges that clearly established its credibility.

A 250-Page Communications Workshop

In Made to Stick, you feel like you’re in a one-on-one session with the authors and they’re telling you stories. All the stories are interesting, which is even more amazing.

And the book is well constructed. Having read it once, it’s easy to refresh your memory with a nice Table of Contents with bullet reminders of the important parts of each chapter, a very good index to help you locate examples, and an Easy Reference Guide at the end to hammer home the concepts again. (I’m a book author. I can’t help noticing these things.)

How does all this translate into concrete tools for managers in the middle of the corporate hierarchy?

Unless you are in a corporate culture where you are better off being faceless and hiding in the kitchen, your success is probably based on one key ingredient: communication. It wouldn’t hurt if your subordinates and your higher—ups thought of you as someone who can clearly define goals, establish procedures and get results. Made to Stick can help you do that by whittling down overly complex ideas into their most basic essentials and—most important—communicating them effectively.

The result is that your colleagues will leave your meetings with the main message you want to convey implanted in their frontal lobes, instead of heading for the door thinking about lunch.

As a corporate communications specialist, I am always looking for concepts and techniques that can ensure a successful meeting or presentation. I sincerely thanked my colleague for recommending Made to Stick because it will help me enliven the dull world of business communications, and also provide insight on how to create meaningful, lasting and effective messages.