Posted tagged ‘credibility’

Making Messages Memorable

November 18, 2007

In its latest newsletter, the consulting firm McKinsey has an interview with Stanford organizational professor Chip Heath regarding his new book Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die.

Heath asserts that in an increasingly complex world, company leaders have to sum up their businesses in messages that “stick” in the minds of employees, investors, and customers. Since it’s usually marketers and communicators who are charged with creating these messages, Made To Stick is probably a worthwhile read.

One thing that interested me in the interview was Heath’s point about organizational expertise often getting in the way of making messages memorable.

Chiefs are so immersed in what they do, they forget that the rest of the world isn’t: So they’re incapable of translating that information into simple — not simplistic — messages that can be grasped by outsiders.

I’m sure that every marketer and communicator, especially those working in technology and related sectors, has encountered this problem.

The Leader wants a tagline, headline, or other simple message that explains the company’s vision or values. But all he can do is come up with an abstract slogan like the meaningless phrase “Maximize Shareholder Value”. (Does any organization actually want to minimize shareholder value?)

I’m convinced that part of this problem is the business organizational imperative itself. Because they’re arranged in industrial structures that emphasize execution, organizations reward precise thinking. After all, you succeed in the MBA program by providing precise, detailed, answers.

But there are times when you don’t want precision or detail: You need to think in big sweeping ideas, at the 50,000 foot level, and encompass what you do in a concrete, memorable message.

Chip Heath’s research suggests that sticky ideas share six basic traits.

  1. Simplicity. Messages are most memorable if they are short and deep. Glib sound bites are short, but they don’t last. Proverbs such as the golden rule are short but also deep enough to guide the behavior of people over generations.
  2. Unexpectedness. Something that sounds like common sense won’t stick. Look for the parts of your message that are uncommon sense. Such messages generate interest and curiosity.
  3. Concreteness. Abstract language and ideas don’t leave sensory impressions; concrete images do. Compare “get an American on the moon in this decade” with “seize leadership in the space race through targeted technology initiatives and enhanced team-based routines.”
  4. Credibility. Will the audience buy the message? Can a case be made for the message or is it a confabulation of spin? Very often, a person trying to convey a message cites outside experts when the most credible source is the person listening to the message. Questions—“Have you experienced this?”—are often more credible than outside experts.
  5. Emotions. Case studies that involve people also move them. “We are wired,” Heath writes, “to feel things for people, not abstractions.”
  6. Stories. We all tell stories every day. Why? “Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation,” Heath writes. “Stories act as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.”