How to Make Good Ideas “Stick”: Six Ways to Make Your Writing and Designs More Memorable

Sticky noteIf you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, then you probably remember him talking about “stickiness,” the process by which ideas stick in a global consciousness. (And if you haven’t read Gladwell’s book, go read it!) Authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath took the idea a bit further and wrote an entire book on just that idea: Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Stickiness is a critical design technique for causing people to remember what you make. If you are an advertiser, marketing professional, small business owner, or just some dude with an important message to share, stickiness is a concept that you’ll want to familiarize yourself with. If you want to make a difference, you want your ideas to be sticky.

Authors Lidwell, Holden, and Butler, who wrote the fantastic book Universal Principles of Designidentify six key areas in which you can make your ideas sticky (or, memorable, lodged in your reader-viewers’ minds).

#1: Simplicity
Ideas that stick are simple. Think of the slogans that you remember most: “I’m Lovin’ It”; “Just Do It”; “Where’s the Beef?” or “You’re in Good Hands.” The same principle applies to design. The most memorable and iconic logos are very simple–think McDonald’s, Nike, Apple, Google, and so forth. The ones that stick are the ones that are simple. For kicks, you might check out the best college football logos of 2013:  the best are simplest. And the worst (namely, the Idaho State Bengals) are too busy, too complicated.

#2: Surprise
People also remember surprising information. You can give amazing facts or statistics, or you can push the cultural edge a little bit. Like their advertising or not, has been incredibly successful at creating ads that people remember. Why? Because people are surprised by what they see. But you don’t have to be sexually suggestive to surprise an audience. As Lidwell, Holden, and Butler note, the Center for Science in the Public Interest made waves when they noted that the amount of fat in movie theater popcorn was more than “a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings–combined!” The information was surprising, if not bothersome. And people remembered it.

#3: Concreteness
Messages, besides being simple, need to be concrete, clear, and use ordinary language. Think of some of the most memorable speeches and phrases you have heard: “I have a dream…”; “Ask not what you can do for your country…”; and “One small step for man…” These phrases have concrete, simple ideas that communicate great things by using simple language. When you get caught up in verbiage, you lose your audience’s ability to remember.

#4: Credibility
Credibility is complicated and affected by many factors. But people won’t remember your ideas unless you appear credible to them. If people don’t know who you are, you must make your designs and language accurate, attractive, and appropriate. This means you need to follow professional design standards for visual appeal, you need to follow proper grammar and punctuation rules (unless you obviously, intentionally break the rules), and you need to make your designs and language match the audience and culture. If you fail in any of these areas, you won’t appear credible. And your ideas won’t stick (or, they will in the wrong way!)

#5: Emotion
Emotion is a critical component to persuading people. You can tell people that smoking is bad for their health, but that doesn’t really trigger an emotion, now does it? But try showing people with throat cancer and holes in their neck, like many anti-tobacco campaigns have, and you’ll see that the fear and shock of such imagery is hard to forget. Use images and language to make people feel excited, happy, angry, scared, cool, envious, or any other desired emotion. If you trigger their emotion appropriately, they’ll remember your message.

#6: Story
Don’t just provide information. Tell a story with it. It seems silly to have a McDonald’s ad where they simply describe the ingredients of a hamburger, doesn’t it? Rather, they tend to show people sharing a hamburger while flirting, telling a story that surrounds the hamburger. Stories are what we can relate to. And they’re what we want to hear. If you need to share a bunch of data, share the story about what the data means.

One thought on “How to Make Good Ideas “Stick”: Six Ways to Make Your Writing and Designs More Memorable

  • October 14, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    About #6. “It seems silly to have a McDonald’s ad where they simply describe the ingredients of a hamburger, doesn’t it?” Yes, it does seem silly.
    Maybe that’s why “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun” still comes tripping off my tongue with little to no prompting.
    Of course, I’m sure the catchy tune was backed up with images of Big Mac’s oozing yumminess and happy, smiling people enjoying them. I don’t remember the images; I do remember the tune. And on the very rare occasions I bring myself to Mickey D’s to eat, I’m likely to buy a Big Mac, singing to myself the whole time!

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