Lessons from ‘Made to Stick’: Part III

For the last two weeks, we’ve discussed Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath’s book on how to make ideas stickier. Four of the six essential components of a sticky idea have already been discussed, those being simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness and credibility. The two that remain are two very interesting topics, particularly when it comes to presentation. In our last post of the series, we’ll discuss emotion and stories.

Individual Trumps the Masses

In their discussion of emotion, the Heath brothers emphasize the fact that the individual always resonates more with us than the whole. If a charity tells us a detailed story about one individual who will benefit from our donation, we are much more likely to donate than if the charity tells us that our money will benefit all people afflicted by this-or-that crisis. “When it comes to our hearts,” they write. “One individual trumps the masses.” Likewise, people tend to feel a stronger connection with something when they are given concrete, specific details about the matter. “Empathy emerges from the particular rather than the pattern,” write the Heath brothers.

People also connect more strongly with things emotionally than they do analytically, which is why stories are so effective in presentation. Emotion depends on individual persons and their struggles and successes, while analytical thinking depends on statistics and data. Most importantly, people care about things that tug at their emotions, and “for people to take action, they have to care.”

The Heath brothers write that the easiest way to get someone to care about something is to associate it with something they already care about. Evoke self-interest by asking the question “What’s in it for the audience? How can I get them to care?” Don’t make them connect the dots regarding possible benefits, just tell them the benefits as concisely as possible. Ask yourself how you can define the purpose of your presentation in a way that motivates the audience to personally care about it.

Take a Test Drive

We’ve discussed the importance of storytelling in detail on this blog, and the Heath brothers spend a good chunk of their book doing the same. They assert that stories need two things: stimulation (knowledge about how to act) and inspiration (motivation to act). They recommend “giving [the audience] enough information so that they can mentally test out how they would have handled the situation.” This builds drama for the audience by grabbing their attention and getting them excited about what’s coming up next.

Interestingly, the Heath brothers say that stories allow for mental stimulation, which helps you manage emotion, problem solve more effectively and build skills. “Stories are like flight simulations for the brain,” they write. They put abstract, obtuse knowledge into a framework that is more lifelike and similar to our experience, and as a result, we can better retain the knowledge coming in. This is especially true in presentations; telling stories breaks the dreaded Curse of Knowledge, and brings our presentation down to a level that our audience will understand and relate to.

Start Conversation

The authors highlight three basic plots on which we can base our stories, or better yet, discover our stories in real life: the Challenge plot, the Connection plot, and the Creativity plot. The Challenge plot occurs when a protagonist overcomes a significant challenge. Think David and Goliath, rags to riches, the underdog. These stories are inspirational; they “make us what to work harder, take on new challenges, overcome obstacles.” The Connection plot is a basic Good Samaritan story. It develops a relationship that bridges a gap between two different things; it is a story about our relationships with other people. Lastly, the Creativity plot revolves around someone making a mental breakthrough of some sort. Think Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew. Each of these basic plots provides an easy way for you to connect with your audience directly and movingly.

One of the most beneficial reasons for including a story in your presentation is that when you are very direct in your delivery (i.e. with lots of data, statistics and hard facts) people have the urge to want to fight back. They want to pick a side. They want to argue. If you deliver your message within a story framework instead, you begin a conversation. You encourage the audience to participate, see themselves in that scenario, and relate to the story and thusly, to you. Stories allow audience members to problem solve for themselves, and they allow for mass customization. They are, by definition, uncommon, distinct and particular, and therefore, they are unexpected in the truest sense of the word. Unexpectedness is the one of the best ways to hold and keep your audience’s prone-to-wander attention, so include stories as much as possible. Your audience and your presentation will benefit as a result.

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