Sticky ideas

Some years ago I read Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath.
Given today's prevalence of "alternative facts" and fake news, I thought it was worth revisiting some of their ideas to see if they could provide some rationale for the state of the current news cycle.
As the book title suggests, the brothers explain why some ideas live and others flounder and how we can improve our chances of creating and communicating an idea that “sticks.” They use plenty of great examples. Some of my favourites are the completely untrue urban myths that circulate and are believed widely.
Did you know that there is no evidence of anyone ever sticking razorblades in Halloween candy?
That there is no kidney-theft ring?
That the Great Wall of China is not visible from space?
Yet many of us believe these stories.
The Brothers Heath identify six principals that contribute to our belief. These are:
  • Simplicity: the core of an idea is delivered in a way that is concise and profound;
  • Unexpectedness: something out of the ordinary generates interest and curiosity;
  • Concreteness: ideas are explained in terms of human actions and sensory information;
  • Credibility: people have an opportunity to test before they buy;
  • Emotions: people feel something; and
  • Stories: stories are shared to enable people to act.
I am not going to debate these principals. They have good value. I would, however, like to highlight a point that I believe was missed regarding credibility. A point that’s important.
Not many would argue that, as the authors state, family, experience and faith cause us to believe – or not believe – something. We tend to believe authority figures, celebrities, anti-authority figures, details, statistics and relationships.
The Heaths also point out that authority figures can lack credibility.
“A citizen of the modern world, constantly inundated with messages, learns to develop skepticism about the sources of those messages. Who’s behind these message? Should I trust them? What do they have to gain if I believe them?” (pp 136-137)
It made me think: if we’re so skeptical, why do we believe the babysitter story about the murderer phoning from inside the house? Why do we believe that Bubble Yum was made with spiders’ eggs or that McDonalds puts worms in its hamburger?
Sure, we could say that if we heard something from a friend, we’re likely to believe it, especially if plenty of good details are included and the story has the stamp of approval from an institute of some sort.
But I don’t think we can discount repetition as another reason we believe this stuff. (It’s one of the reasons advertising works, right?)
If I hear a story once, I may take it with a grain of salt. If I hear it again, I may remember that I’ve already heard something similar before without knowing from whom and I’ll attempt to recall the details. When I hear it the third time, I’m likely nodding along with the story-teller. By the time I see a story posted to Facebook that's been viewed a million times or chat about it at a cocktail party, the story will have taken on a sheen of veracity.
The outrageousness of the story only adds to the delight in recounting it. And of course, we’ve heard it so many times from so many sources, it must be true.
I think repetition is a key factor in the credibility of a message, which is why we communicators can’t send out a message once and assume it will be heard, believed and acted upon.
We have to use various communication channels and publication schedules to ensure that our message is widely circulated to increase our chances of being heard – and believed.
What do you think? Does repetition have an impact on credibility?



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