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Stickiness | Why some ideas get attention and stick


StickinessStickiness is an idea that has, well… stuck.

We aren’t talking glue here. Instead, stickiness is a metaphor for emotions, rather like hot and cool. Ideas can be sticky, messages, can, brands and even websites can be sticky.

Stickiness is the quality of holding our attentions, and that has to be a big idea that any manager or professional needs to engage with.

Where Does the Concept Come from?

Ideas and messages have been sticky throughout human history. After all, what else accounts for the great religions, powerful philosophies or masterpieces of art?

But many people track the concept of ‘Stickiness’ to Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, ‘The Tipping Point’ (US|UK). In that book, he identifies three sociological factors that can shift history. One of these is stickiness. Something about a message makes it memorable.

But apart from coining the term, Gladwell is not telling us anything new here. And if we are giving credit for coinages, I would argue that we must name check Richard Dawkins. In his first book, ‘The Selfish Gene’ (US|UK), Dawkins invents the word ‘meme’ for ideas or behaviours that spread organically from person to person. They take root in a culture. They stick.

Made to Stick

This is great. You want your ideas, your products and brands, or your marketing messages to stick. But as a practical person, how can you make them sticky?

That’s the question that Chip and Dan Heath explored in their first book, ‘Made to Stick’ (US|UK). This excellent book* sets out their conclusions on how to make stories, ideas, and messages stick in our minds. It is essential reading for anyone who needs to communicate professionally.

And yes, before you wander away, that means you.

What is Stickiness?

Stickiness is how much an idea stays around in our culture and commands our attention. It combines the idea of being memorable, and staying near the front of our mind. Sticky messages win the war for our attention, by holding our focus despite the incursions of new messages.

Definition of Stickiness

Neither Gladwell nor the Heaths define stickiness. But, in Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath are very clear what they mean by ‘stick’:

By ‘stick,’ we mean that your ideas are understood and remembered, and have lasting impact.


How to Make your Ideas Stick

The Heaths argue that there are a number of things you can do to make your messages and ideas stick. And they use an acronym to help with the stickiness of their ideas.

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Story

So near… Let’s look at each one


Present the core of your idea.

One big argument or imperative trumps ten, or even two.

And how you write or speak matters too. Use simple, concrete language. And bring your ideas to life with metaphors and analogies that resonate with your audience


Grab the attention of your audience – and then hold onto it.

There are two things that you can use here:

  1. First, grab attention with something surprising or even shocking
  2. Then, hold onto it by stimulating curiosity

Is it any wonder mystery thrillers are so popular?


Turn your abstract ideas into real examples.

It’s fables and parables we remember, not philosophical principles. Yet, both are alternate ways of stimulating the same understanding. It’s because they make your ideas both:

  • Easy to understand, and
  • Easy to remember


Ideas will only stick if people believe them.

Better still, you also want people to agree with them. Because that bypasses our confirmation bias, by which we filter out detailed information that conflicts with our prior beliefs. By the way, that’s why Unexpected is so important: it gets through those filters and starts to re-cast them.

So, don’t say what you could do, would do, or believe: say what you did do.

You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.

Henry Ford

Credentials, statistics and testimonials are your friends.


People need to care about your idea.

It needs to matter to them. So, you need to answer their ‘so what?’ question. Better still, you should answer their question, ‘what’s in it for me?’ Look out for marketing and advertising copy that has the phrase:

‘so that you can…’

Self interest is one way to create action,but memory is linked to powerful emotions. So use emotional appeals to strengthen your message’s stickiness.


Stories embed the ideas into our consciousness.

How can you build in surprise, emotion, concrete examples and loads more? Tell a story.

Humans are story telling creatures, and we also love reading and listening to them. SO stories are a great way to make an idea stick. We all know who Luke’s father is, for example. There’s an idea that’s stuck.

And a story guides us through what we need to think or do, as we identify with its protagonists. The Heaths offer us three basic plot lines:

  1. The Challenge Plot
    This is the story of an innocent or an underdog, who overcomes adversity. Rags to riches stories like Cinderella, vie with hero’s journeys like Star Wars.
  2. The Connection Plot
    We love stories about relationships, but when they are forbidden or face challenges, we love them. Romeo and Juliet come from warring families, and the characters of Shawshank Redemption bond across lines of race, class, and iron bars.
  3. The Creativity Plot
    We also love mysteries and are in awe of those who solve problems that we cannot. Mental breakthroughs and clever solutions make the life of Stephen Hawking and the story of The Martian highly appealing.

What is Your experience of Stickiness?

We’d love to hear your experiences, ideas, and comments. We’ll respond to every contribution.

To learn more…

If you are interested in Chip and Dan Heath’s ideas, Made to Stick was only the first, and you can read more about them and their ideas in our earlier article: Chip and Dan Heath: Made to Stick.

And, here is Chip Heath talking about Made to Stick

* I measure a book by how I interact with it. In addition to many highlighted sentences and paragraphs, my copy has 14 annotated sticky notes and three photocopied/printed articles interleaved with it.

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