Sticky tales—Tell a story to make ideas memorable

By Robert Garran

By dun_deagh [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

 ‘A storm is brewing over spectacular Katherine Gorge about Aboriginal land rights.’

Back when I was a rookie journalist on the Age in the 1980s, I wrote an article that began something like that. I’ve forgotten the details, beyond that it was about a land rights claim by the Jawoyn people, but I do remember the impact it had.

Writing earnest articles about politics was what I did for a living, but usually I wouldn’t know from one article to the next whether anyone had read them, or what they thought.

But the day this article appeared, the first thing I heard when I came into the office was my boss saying ‘that was a great article this morning’.

He didn’t usually praise my work, so I was puzzled. I didn’t think it was any better than most of the other articles I’d been writing day in, day out. Then I figured out what it was that was different: it was simply that I’d used a vivid image—a storm brewing over Katherine Gorge—to sum up the point of the article right at the start.

I remembered that experience today after picking up my copy of Chip and Dan Heath’s insightful and very useful book Made to Stick.

I wanted to write a short article recommending the book for its great advice explaining, as the blurb says, ‘why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck’.

As I thought about how to begin the article, the first thing that came to mind was to say: ‘The Heath brothers’ book Made to Stick has great advice on how to make your writing understood and remembered.’ But after another moment I realised that would have been pretty boring. You wouldn’t have read as far as you have now read, and, most importantly, I would have been ignoring one of the crucial points in the book.

Much better, I thought, to give a specific, memorable example of one of the points they’re making, and begin the article that way.

So, as I hope you’ve gleaned by now, the approach I’ve taken follows the advice in Made to Stick. The last of six principles that form the core of the book is that telling stories is a great way to get people to respond to your writing. That’s what I’ve done here: I’ve told a story about an article I wrote many years ago that caught someone’s attention—with the aim of catching your attention.

Altogether the book spells out six principles to make your ideas stick, constructing them effectively to make them understood and remembered and leave a lasting impact.

Actually, now that I look at them, I’d say I’ve followed the other five of the Heath brothers’ six principles as well. I’d better tell you what they are, and you can judge for yourself.

  • Principle 1 is simplicity—strip an idea down to its core, as in a proverb.
  • Principle 2 is unexpectedness—one way to get an audience’s attention is to ‘violate people’s expectations’ by using surprise to grab attention.
  • Principle 3 is concreteness—explain ideas in terms of human actions, or sensory information, instead of abstractions.
  • Principle 4 is credibility – establish the credentials of your idea, perhaps by referring to your audience’s actual experience.
  • Principle 5 is to use emotion—appealing to what people feel as well as to what they think.
  • Principle 6 (as you may remember) is about using stories.

Okay, I haven’t done justice to all these principles (and I won’t keep on about them now) but if you need to communicate ideas effectively, it’s well worth reading the book.

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