Rosebud John Foster Kane, Citizen Kane (1941)

Bond, James Bond James Bond, Dr No (1962)

Plastics Mr. Maguire, The Graduate (1967)

Snap! Crackle! Pop! Kellogg’s Rice Krispies (1932)

Got Milk? Milk (1993)

Where’s the beef? Wendy’s (1984)

Wazzup? Budweiser (2000)


“Sticky” messages are those that “stick” in people’s mind. Mark Twain once said that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on. You’ve seen it in the run-up to this year’s elections. The first liar doesn’t stand a chance! You don’t have to spend much time on Facebook to see the legs that have been grown by conspiracy theories and urban legends. The more salacious and interesting the idea, the faster it spreads, and, because it’s on the web, it must be true!

Dental practices can be a victim of sticky messages. Unexpected messages have a way of sticking, so a dental practice may have 50 great reviews on Yelp, but the memorable one is the patient that hated the practice. When I go on Amazon to buy a product, I look for the most highly rated, but I always look at the lowest ratings and see why they gave the ratings they did.

It’s human nature to judge by the least common denominator. We not only judge others this way, but are very hard on ourselves. We can have 100 compliments, yet the single criticism is what sticks in our minds and niggles our every waking thought.

In business, it’s vital that our customers are given positive messages and experiences. We only have so many opportunities to impress our message upon others, so we must make sure that our positive, memorable message is positive and memorable.

In their book Made to Stick (Heath & Heath, 2007), Chip & Dan Heath tell us that there are rules that need to be followed for a message to be sticky. It’s important to invent new ideas, not new rules. There are 6 principles of powerful (sticky) ideas:

        Sticky ideas “SUCCES”:

  •  Are Simple
  •  Are Unexpected
  •  Are Concrete (not abstract)
  •  Are Credible
  • Are Emotional
  • Are Stories

The more of these principles that a message has, the stickier the message. Why did I choose “Grasshopper Mouse” as the name for my inventory control system?

It’s simple. It’s short and easy to remember.
It’s certainly unexpected! When I tell people the name of my product, immediately their mind is going “What?”
It has a story. When people ask me about the name, I tell them about the little rodent that’s a predator and howls at the moon.

None of this has anything to do with the product, but people remember its name. Look at the words and phrases at the beginning of this blog. They are so much a part of America’s popular culture that all someone has to do is say one of them and a memory is triggered in most of us.

In management, making ideas sticky for your staff and patients involves simplicity. Not in dumbing it down, but in finding and expressing the core of the idea you want to express. To make ideas sticky, find the core and translate the core using the SUCCES checklist.

The book quotes an example using the story of Southwest Airlines. “Herb Kelleher (the longest-serving CEO of Southwest) once told someone that the core message of the airline was this: ‘We are THE low-fare airline.’” (Heath & Heath, 2007) Every decision made by Southwest is measured against this statement. It’s at the core of what they do and who they are.

Core messages help people avoid bad choices by reminding them what’s important.

The next principle is that the message must be unexpected. How many of you have sat through the safety lecture on a flight and your mind is going, “Blah, blah, blah...?” Now, think of the time when the video or flight attendant did or said something unexpected. They immediately had your attention, and kept it, because you didn’t want to miss anything. The first principle of communication is to get people’s attention. Seems obvious, but we often take it for granted that we are being listened to.

How do you get and keep people’s attention? You get their attention by Surprise. Interest is what keeps their attention. Gossip and conspiracy theories are all rife with attention getting and keeping messages. Think about messages that are memorable to you. Think about the things that happened to gain and keep your attention. Although sex is used extensively in advertising because it has both surprise and interest, this is not a really good way to get and keep the attention of your staff and patients. You’ll have to find another way.

Be careful to avoid gimmickry. If this is over-used, the message can get lost. How many times have you thought about an ad that seemed clever, but you don’t remember what the ad was for?

Next, messages must be concrete. Avoid abstraction. The authors of Made to Stick use the example of Aesop’s fables. Those used concrete images. Remember the one about the sour grapes? The message persists because concrete images are evoked by the fox, the grapes, and the comment about the grapes being sour. (Heath & Heath, 2007) Abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and to remember it.

The next rule is that messages must be credible. That is why messages on Facebook are so widely accepted. They often come from “experts” or celebrities. Famous people are perceived to be credible. I’ll use the example here of political ads, which are ubiquitous right now. We’re told that a candidate or a ballot initiative is supported by a famous person, or a credible organization – the Firefighters or the Police, for example.

Using details is a good way for us to make messages tangible and concrete by making the message seem real and believable. Whenever possible, use vivid details to create the internal credibility of a message. Using statistics is another good way.

Demonstration also will make an idea credible. People will believe their eyes. Show them the message when possible.

Messages must be emotional. Joseph Stalin once said that a million deaths is a statistic, one death is a tragedy. The reason we want to make messages emotional is that we want people to care. People are inspired to act by feelings. If you want some examples of emotion as a persuasion technique, think about all the political ads on TV right now. Many try to just get you angry, or to use your anger or dissatisfaction to get you to act upon their message.

“The most basic way to make people care is to form an association between something they don’t yet care about and something they do care about.” (Heath & Heath, 2007)

Finally, stories make a message sticky. We all know what effective teaching tools stories can be. While an emotional idea can make people care, the right story can make people act. When we tell a story, people use their imaginations as they listen. The imagination stimulates the brain to act. Let’s tell a story about a lemon tree – right away, you’re picturing something and your mouth has probably started to water.

The authors use the example of the “Jared” Subway commercials to illustrate the use of the SUCCES checklist:

  • It’s simple: Eat subs and lose weight (!)
  • It’s unexpected: This guy lost a ton of weight by eating fast food!
  • It’s concrete: Think of the oversized pants, the loss of girth.
  • It’s credible: The guy who wore size 60 pants is giving us advice on how to lose weight.
  • It’s emotional: We care more about an individual (Jared) than we care about the masses. Here’s a guy (not a statistic) who got healthy by eating Subway sandwiches.
  • It’s a story: He overcame big odds and triumphed. His life is better. We are inspired to do the same.

In summary, whether it’s promoting our practice, speaking with the staff about goals, or presenting a treatment plan to Mrs. Jones, if we can use the SUCCES checklist we have a greater chance of having our message stick.


Works Cited

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick. New York: Random House.