Sticky ideas

Dear colleagues,

Did you hear about the two FedEx employees trying to get a parcel to the airport in time for a flight? They tried different routes but were blocked by heavy traffic in every direction. So they got out and walked the final kilometres.

Even if you didn't hear the story, FedEx workers have - and they use it to exemplify the FedEx ethos of doing everything possible to deliver on time. The story is simple, concrete, credible, emotional - and hence memorable.

Now compare this to an alternative: "FedEx delivers on time." Who's going to take this to heart? Who's even going to remember it?

If you care about making others remember the things you write and say, you can learn a lot by reading Chip Heath and Dan Heath's book Made to Stick. You'll discover that the academic way of writing seems almost designed to make the text eminently forgettable.

Heath and Heath introduce six principles for making a message memorable: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and story-form. How do they explain these principles? With stories, of course - stories that are concrete, credible and so forth, such as the story about FedEx.

Here's a quiz: name Wollongong University's five graduate qualities. If you got all five, here's a more advanced quiz: list half a dozen of the items in the Code of Practice - Teaching.

I wouldn't pass either quiz. The names of the graduate qualities are generic and bland, and hence unmemorable. The codes of practice have so many items that it's hard to remember a single one.

It seems like whoever set up these codes strived so hard to be comprehensive and general that the goal of getting people to remember them was forgotten. Some stories to go along with the codes would make a huge difference.

Bureaucratic prose is notorious for being turgid. So is academic prose. And here's the rub. If you write something that is really sticky, that will stay in people's minds, then you'll be seen as some sort of goofy rebel. Bureaucrats will edit your text to remove the vivid prose and the stories. Editors of academic journals won't treat your articles as serious scholarship, even if your content is brilliant.

Academics and administrators face an additional obstacle in saying things that people will remember: the "curse of knowledge." The more you know about something, the harder it is to explain to someone else. When you know a lot about something, you use words that encapsulate entire bodies of thinking, like discourse, neoliberalism, hegemony, postmodernism or incentivisation. Be prepared for blank stares.

The curse of knowledge is a special trap for teachers. You study hard to understand the material. Yet the more you know, and the more you talk in abstractions, the less the students learn.

One way around this is peer learning. Students help each other learn. They are closer to the experience of learning. The teacher needs only to set the overall framework.

Heath and Heath give a frightening example. Anti-smoking campaigners produced an emotional message that was highly effective. The tobacco company Philip Morris, as part of a legal settlement, produced its own anti-smoking ads with a straightforward, factual message - "Think. Don't smoke." - basically an academic approach. Guess what? The academic-style anti-smoking message actually made people more likely to smoke!

The lesson here may be hard to stomach. By teaching students the academic way of viewing the world, we may be training them to care less about social problems. The academic way is to rise above emotional, concrete, specific examples and to develop and grasp generalisations. It's a tragedy if this also makes people more aloof from day-to-day realities.

Within the academic context, there's no easy way to take on board the lessons from Made to Stick. To get ahead as a researcher or an administrator, you need to play the standard language games, which means using words in ways that few people will remember. Senior researchers and administrators are not about to embrace a different approach, no matter how much more effective it might be in communicating to students, staff and external clients.

Therefore, if you care about making your own ideas sticky, think of opportunities in other settings, for example in conversations, classrooms and blogs.

19 February 2013

Thanks to Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao and Nicola Marks for valuable comments on a draft.

P.S. Inspired by Made to Stick, I wanted to start this message with a sticky example about the graduate quality "independent learners". It needed to be an unexpected, concrete story - but I couldn't think of one that would have relevance to the university as a whole. No wonder the graduate qualities are unmemorable.


Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House, 2008)

"The executives of Cranium developed a way to communicate a crucial element of the company's strategy - the competitive advantage that makes it better than its competitors - in a useful, comprehensible way. 'CHIFF' [Clever, High-quality, Innovative, Friendly, Fun] is simply a clear, actionable statement of strategic differentiation. Cranium employees, suppliers, and channel partners all use CHIFF to make hundreds of on-the-ground decisions that defend Cranium's competitive differentiation.

Let's face it, there is no clearer proof that a strategy has been communicated properly than when [as happened at Cranium] a manufacturing supplier, in another country, with a different native language, uses it to correct the founder of the company." (p. 254)

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