Book gleaning is a series of posts that highlight specific books and what we can take from them to apply to public speaking. In this post, we’ll be discussing the book Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.
Why do some ideas thrive while others die? And how do we improve the chances of worthy ideas? In Made to Stick, accomplished educators and idea collectors Chip and Dan Heath tackle these vexing questions. Inside, the brothers Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the “human scale principle,” using the “Velcro Theory of Memory,” and creating “curiosity gaps.”
The curse of knowledge in public speaking
This is a concept I’ve thought about for a while but could never explain it properly.
Essentially, if you start talking about an idea, you have context in your head for what you’re talking about, why you’re talking about it, and other relevant information that others don’t have.
Simple example: if you try tapping the rhythm to a song so that someone else can guess what song it is, they will almost never figure it out. In your head, you’re thinking of the tune and matching your tapping to it. It’s hard to understand how the other person doesn’t know what song it is, since it’s so clear to you. They, on the other hand, have none of the context you do, so the message isn’t conveyed properly.
Application: When explaining a concept to your audience, keep in mind that they haven’t spent hours researching the topic like you have. Make sure to provide enough context so that they can follow along.
How do you take a complex idea and distill it into one sentence so that the audience can digest it?
You have to be good at finding the core of an idea. Say the most important thing about it first, then continue with the details that back it up.
Pretty much all news articles are written starting with a few taglines, the main story summarized, and then increasingly less relevant details as the article goes on. By the second page, the article will often be discussing something nearly off topic. If they don’t start with the important part, that’s called “burying the lead”.
Try to take your idea and turn it into a catchphrase.
Sometimes you have to get rid of even important details in order to do this effectively. To be honest, those details are usually less important than you think.
Use “schemas” to explain concepts. A schema is something that the audience knows and understands, and you can use it to compare to your new concept. If you wanted to describe a pomelo (a type of fruit), you could say it’s like an over-sized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind. Trying to describe it without referencing another fruit would be more difficult. If you wanted to define a word, you could just say a synonym along with how this word is different. Eg. “Homicide is the same as killing, except it’s intentional and illegal.”
Look at the simplicity and day-to-day language of this declaration by JFK: “Our goal is to put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”
Now look at what a corporate JFK would say: “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.”
- Identify the core of an idea and communicate that first and clearly before diving into details.
- Use pre-existing audience knowledge to explain new concepts.
- Avoid debate/corporate speak, use concrete, simple language like JFK’s mission.
Keeping the audience’s curiosity is important in a speech.
Because people have such short attention spans, doing or saying something unexpected can help the audience to keep their focus.
Try to recall the safety presentation of a flight attendant before a flight. You probably can’t remember a specific instance.
Now, if the flight attendant was to do the presentation as an interpretive dance while telling jokes, you’d probably remember it.
Our mind forgets things that are routine because it doesn’t see them as important.
When telling stories, introduce questions and intrigue first, and answers later. For example, when talking about the history of a topic, you might use a couple of questions like, “so, why exactly did [the President] decide to enact this policy? What was the hidden motivation?” Then you can answer the question in your next sentence.
- Don’t be a routine speaker. Tell jokes, say unexpected statements, or use unique hand motions that surprise the audience.
- Consider bringing a surprising prop with you for your speech.
- When telling stories, leave gaps in information that are fulfilled later in the story to keep the audience’s curiosity.
When explaining something, using abstract terms is subpar to making a comparison to something concrete.
In fact, that sentence itself was an abstract explanation. Here’s a concrete explanation:
Compare saying “Movie popcorn contains 20g fat” to “Movie popcorn contains more fat than a bacon-and-eggs dinner, a Big Mac, and fries for lunch and a steak dinner will all the trimmings – combined”.
The second is a fact that is not only easier to understand, but also easier to remember. The first doesn’t shock you, but the second one is a vivid image in your head and likely a huge surprise.
Try to use vivid imagery when you explain a concept, so that the audience doesn’t have to figure out an abstract concept.
Making comparisons is one of the easiest ways to include vivid imagery. Eg. “Doing this plan is like sticking a V8 engine on a turtle”. (I’m not sure in what context you’d use that, but I like it anyway).
This also influences how you deliver statistics. Saying “This has a less than 1 in 3,000 chance of happening” is less useful than saying “You’re more likely to be struck by lightning”.
- Avoid abstract explanations.
- Use comparisons in order to incorporate vivid imagery into your speeches.
- Present your statistics in a compelling manner, by comparing them to something (such as the odds of being struck by lightning).
Using an authority figure to back your point up isn’t the only way to indicate that the facts are on your side.
You can use the following 5 devices to increase your credibility.
Use someone who seems to be on the opposite side of you, but actually supports your point. For example, a dying smoker who talks about how bad smoking is. Or a republican who argues against a typically conservative position. (Even this guy thinks we’re right!)
This goes back to the point about being concrete. Add details to your stories/presentations so that the audience can latch on to them. Details like “And as I sat there on my well-worn thinking chair, I had an epiphany”. Mentioning the chair is obviously not needed, but it adds vivid imagery to the story. Or if you’re talking about employees of a company and their poor experiences with management, you could add in specific names and comments instead of just saying that the employees as a whole hated management. The specific name and anecdote adds credibility.
Giving statistics, especially in the form discussed under the concrete point, can be useful.
4) Worst case scenario comparison
Take whatever point you’re trying to get across and tell the audience what the worst case scenario is if you’re wrong. If you can show that doing what you suggest has no seriously negative repercussions no matter how bad it goes, you can get some people who were on the fence over to your side.
For example, imagine you’re pitching to your boss that you want to try a new advertising message. You could suggest that you try the message on 50 customers, evaluate results, and then decide from there. The worst case scenario is that 50 customers dislike the message. If you have hundreds of thousands of customers, this isn’t very risky.
5) Testable Credentials
Say something that the audience can independently verify. For instance, ff you are talking about success or self-improvement, you could point to yourself as an example. Or you could point to a well-known person who is clearly successful, and reveal the methods that they used to get there. Since the audience already knows that person, it’s instantly verified in their head. “Yeah, he is successful!”
Ronald Reagan said during one of his debates, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?” This was a powerful question, because everyone can answer that question for themselves, and the majority didn’t feel that they were better off.
By emotional, the book doesn’t just mean moods, like a sad or happy speech. It’s talking about getting past the analytical side of someone’s mind.
If you have an emotional story that is meant to get the audience on your side, be careful not to drown it in analytical facts. Math/statistics actually turn off the emotional side of your brain. So saying a statistic can be useful, but it should also be combined with anecdotes and stories. (A study showed that people donated more when told about one starving child in Africa vs. being told a statistic about starving children in Africa).
Use associations to bolster the audience’s view of your point. Essentially, try to compare your point to something the audience already agrees with (using an analogy or some other device).
Appeal to self-interest. Focus on benefits to the audience over features. For example, instead of saying you want to change the electoral system, say you want to improve the audience’s voice in elections.
- Don’t drown out emotions with statistics/analytical talk.
- Combine statistics and individual anecdotes for maximum power.
- Use analogies to associate your argument with things the audience already agrees with.
- Appeal to benefits, not features.
Stories are more effective than slogans (although using both is even better). Most people know about how Subway’s successful marketing campaign centered around Jared Fogle’s weight loss from eating Subway. Unfortunately for them, Jared ended up being a convicted pedophile. But before that news came out, the story of his weight-loss was instrumental in gaining Subway some market share.
Application: Use stories wherever possible to capture the audience and evoke emotion.
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