Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath: Book Summary, Review, Notes

The Book In A Single Sentence

You can make your message stick around longer by keeping it simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and with stories.

Personal Thoughts

This is one of those classic pop psychology books (in a good way). Chip and Dan Heath are the best marketing professors around, and they’ve translated their academic research into something fun to read.

The book can be summed up with the acronym SUCCESS: use Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional, StorieS. You can see that the Heath brothers walk the talk – they’ve tried to make these ideas stick as well. Every bit is intentional.

Get Made to Stick on Amazon. 

Book Notes

Keep it Simple, Stupid

  • “No plan survives contact with the enemy”
  • It’s hard to make ideas stick in a noisy, unpredictable, chaotic environment. If we’re to succeed, the first step is to find the core of an idea.
  • Commander’s Intent (CI) is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every Army order, specifying the plan’s goal, the desired end-state of an operation. The CI never specifies so much detail that it risks being rendered obsolete by unpredictable events; it aligns the behaviour of soldiers at all levels without requiring play-by-play instructions from their leaders.
  • Southwest Airlines is guided by Herb Kelleher’s CI – to be the THE low-fare airline. When surveys indicate that passengers might want a chicken Caesar salad, and all the airline offers is peanuts, it’s easy to make a decision. The question is simple – “will adding a chicken salad make the airline THE low-fare airline?”
  • The inverted pyramid structure – communicate the most important information at the start and present everything else in decreasing order of importance. Journalists use this to communicate so that readers get the message regardless of their attention span. If news stories were written like mysteries, everyone would miss the point.
  • “If you say three things, you don’t say anything.”
  • Forced prioritisation – decide what is the most important and make sure you’re willing to give up everything that is less important for it (you can learn more about this idea in Essentialism)
  • Why do remote controls have more buttons than we ever use? Feature creep is an innocent process. An engineer looking at a prototype of a remote control might think to himself, “hey, there’s some real estate here on the face of the control” and decide that users might want to have an extra function.
  • Schema is a collection of generic properties of a concept or category; it consists of lots of prerecorded information stored in our memories. Instead of describing how a pomelo tastes or looks, you might describe it as “basically a supersized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind”.
  • Some analogies are so useful that they don’t merely shed light on a concept, they actually become platforms for novel thinking.

Do Something Unexpected

  • The first problem of communication is getting people’s attention. Some communicators have the authority to demand attention. Most of the time, though, we can’t demand attention; we must attract it.
  • Our brain is designed to be keenly aware of changes. Smart product designers are well aware of this tendency. They make sure that when products require users to pay attention, something changes.
  • Surprise gets our attention. Interests keeps our attention. We can’t succeed if our messages don’t break through the clutter to get people’s attention. Furthermore, our messages are usually complex enough that we won’t succeed if we can’t keep people’s attention.
  • Emotions are elegantly tuned to help us deal with critical situations. They prepare us for different ways of acting and thinking. We’ve all heard that anger prepares us to fight and fear prepares us to flee. Emotion is also linked to behaviour. A secondary effect of being angry is that we become more certain of our judgements. When we’re angry, we know we’re right, as anyone who has been in a relationship can attest.
  • Surprise jolts us to attention. Surprise is triggered when our schemas fail, and it prepares us to understand why the failure occurred. When our guessing machines fail, surprise grabs our attention so that we can repair them for the future.
  • Surprise causes us to behave in certain ways. In addition to making our eyebrows rise, surprise causes our jaws to drop and out mouths to gape. We’re struck momentarily speechless. Our bodies temporarily stop moving and our muscles go slack. It’s as though our bodies want to ensure that we’re not talking or moving when we ought to be taking in new information. So surprise acts as a kind of emergency override when we confront something unexpected and our guessing machines fail.
  • Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because surprise makes us pay attention and think. That extra attention and thinking sears unexpected events into our memories.
  • Here is the bottom line for our everyday purposes: If you want your ideas to be stickier, you’ve got to break someone’s guessing machine and then fix it.
  • Common sense is the enemy of sticky messages. When messages sound like common sense, they float gently in one ear and out the other. If I already intuitively “get” what you’re trying to tell me, why should I obsess about remembering it? The danger, of course, is that what sounds like common sense often isn’t.
  • The “Gap Theory” of curiosity – curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge. When we want to know something but don’t, it’s like having an itch that we need to scratch. To take away the pain, we need to fill the knowledge gap. One important implication of the gap theory is that we need to open gaps before we close them. Our tendency is to tell people the facts. First, though, they must realise that they need these facts. The trick to convincing people that they need our message is to first highlight some specific knowledge that they’re missing.
  • As we gain information we are more and more likely to focus on what we don’t know. Someone who knows the state capitals of 17 of 50 states may be proud of her knowledge. But someone who knows 47 may be more likely to think of herself as not knowing 3 capitals.

Make Abstract Ideas Concrete

  • Aesop authored some of the stickiest stories in world history. The fable would not have survived for more than 2,5000 years if it didn’t reflect some profound truth about human nature. This truth is especially sticky because of the way it was encoded. The concrete images evoked by the fable – the grapes, the fox, the dismissive comment about sour grapes – allowed its message to persist. One suspects that the life span of Aesop’s ideas would have been shorter if they’d been encoded as Aesop’s Helpful Suggestions – “Don’t be such a bitter jerk when you fail”.
  • Language is often abstract, but life is not abstract. Abstraction makes it harder to understand an idea and to remember it. Concreteness helps us avoid these problems.
  • Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. If you’ve got to teach an idea to a room full of people, and you aren’t certain what they know, concreteness is the only safe language.
  • If concreteness is so powerful, why do we slip so easily into abstraction? The reason is simple: because the difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly. Biology students try to remember whether reptiles lay eggs or not. Biology teachers think in terms of the grand system of animal taxonomy.
  • Novices perceive concrete details as concrete details. Experts perceive concrete details as symbols of patterns and insights that they have learned through years of experience. They want to talk about chess strategies, not about bishops moving diagonally. This is where the Curse of Knowledge sets itself: people who know more want to talk on a higher level.
  • Being concrete isn’t hard, and doesn’t require a lot of effort. The barrier is simply forgetfulness – we forget that we’re slipping into abstract speak. We forget that other people don’t know what we know. We’re the engineers who keep flipping back to our drawings, not noticing that the assemblers just want us to follow them down to the factory floor and see what has gone wrong.

Credibility Matters

  • Science is science, but thanks to basic human snobbery, we tend to think it will emerge from some places but not others.
  • What makes people believe ideas? We believe because our parents or our friends believe. We believe because we’ve had experiences that led us to our beliefs. We believe because of our religious faith. We believe because we trust authorities.
  • When we think of authorities who can add credibility, we tend to think of two kinds of people. The first kind is the expert – the kind of person whose wall is covered with credentials. The second kind are made up of celebrities and other aspirational figures.
  • Why do we care that Michael Jordan likes McDonald’s? We care because we want to be like Mike, and if Mike likes McDonald’s, so do we. We trust the recommendations of people whom we want to be like.
  • We can tap on the credibility of anti-authorities. Telling stories using real people can be a compelling way. A citizen of the modern world, constantly inundated with messages, learns to develop skepticism about the sources of those messages. Who’s behind these messages? Should I trust them? What do they have to gain if I believe them? The takeaway is that it can be the honesty and trustworthiness of our sources, not their status, that allows them to act as authorities.
  • Internal Credibility Boost #1: Use vivid details. A person’s knowledge of details is often a good proxy for her expertise. Think of how a history buff can quickly establish credibility by telling an interesting Civil War anecdote. But concrete details don’t just lend credibility to the authorities who provide them; they lend credibility to the idea itself. By making a claim tangible and concrete, details make it seem more real, more believable.
  • Internal Credibility Boost #2: Use statistics. Statistics help, but they tend to be eye-glazing. The Human-Scale Principle is useful here: a way to bring statistics to life is to contextualise them in terms that are more human, more everyday. Statistics aren’t inherently helpful; it’s the scale and context that makes them so.
  • Internal Credibility Boost #3: Pass the Sinatra Test. In Frank Sinatra’s classic, “New York, New York”, he sings about thinking a new life in New York City, and the chorus declares, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere”. An example passes the Sinatra Test when one example alone is enough to establish credibility in a given domain. Extraordinary power is created when this test is passed because the stickiness comes from its concreteness rather than from numbers or authority

Emotion Beats Logic

  • Mother Teresa: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Use an emotional story instead of statistics.
  • Drop in the bucket effect: someone who hears about an African child is more likely to donate than someone who hears statistics on hunger in Africa. The latter knows that they’re unlikely to make a difference. If you combine both the emotional story and the statistic, it still does worse than the story alone because logic overpowers emotion.
  • Semantic stretch: each word stands for a certain concept and evokes a certain feeling; you can associate an idea or product with those words. The easiest way to make someone care is to form an association between that thing and something they care about.
  • When your father calls something cool, coolness loses its punch. The fastest way for a parent to get their child to stop using it a word is to use it constantly.
  • You have to fight semantic stretch when an idea has been used in so many ways that it no longer means anything.
  • Maslow was wrong: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t a real hierarchy. If that was the case, the world would have no starving artists. The truth is that we pursue several needs all at once, from basic needs such as food and protection all the way to self-actualisation.   
  • Self-esteem is a big part of self interest. Those surveyed found that self-esteem mattered more to them than a physical need like a mortgage payment or security in having extra money in the bank. But when asked about how others would feel, they thought that physical needs and security would matter more to them. It explains a lot about how incentives are poorly structured in large organisations. 


  • Stories are told and retold because they contain wisdom. Stories are effective teaching tools. They show how context can mislead people to make the wrong decisions. Stories illustrate casual relationships that people hadn’t recognised before and highlight unexpected, resourceful ways in which people have solved problems. 
  • A story’s power is twofold: it provides simulation and inspiration. It teaches us how to act and gives us the motivation to do so. 
  • A three part act: A credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care. An idea weaved into a story makes people act.
  • A story with details is more interesting than an arc without one. It has built-in drama that lets listeners play along and mentally test how they would’ve handled the situation. They are part entertainment and part instruction. When children say “tell me a story”, they’re begging for entertainment, not instruction. 
  • If someone ignores your idea all along, then tells you that you aren’t doing enough after your ten minute presentation, you might think, “this is horrible, they’ve stolen your idea”. But you should really be thinking “how wonderful, they’ve stolen my idea, it’s become their idea!”. That’s how you know you’ve really made an idea stick. That’s Stephen Denning’s lesson from working at the World Bank.
  • Springboard stories are stories that change how people see an existing problem. They tell people about possibilities. They combat skepticism and create buy-in. They involve people with the idea and invite participation as opposed to arguments which invite judgement, debate, and criticism. The way you deliver a message is a cue to how people should react.