Stories stick more readily than stats.

Posted by on Apr 30, 2012 in Sticky Pad

A good friend of mine, Mark, was recently in London for an important business meeting with clients. He had time to kill before his next train, so went to a local pub for a drink. He finished one drink and still had time to spare as he was approached by an attractive woman who asked if she could buy him another?

Why not? What harm can it do? The woman came back with two drinks, one for him, one for her and Mark sipped at his drink.
That was the last thing he remembered. At least until he woke up, disorientated, lying in a hotel bath, his body submerged in ice.

Mark looked around frantically, trying to work out where he was and how he got there? Then he spotted the note.


A mobile phone lay on a small table beside the bath. He was starting to panic now but picked up the phone, dialled 999, asked for the Ambulance service and worryingly blurted out the situation he found himself in.

The operator sounded oddly familiar with Mark’s situation. “Sir, I want you to reach behind you slowly and carefully. Is there a tube protruding from your lower back?”

Now extremely anxious, he felt around behind him. Sure enough, there was a tube. The operator said, “Sir, don’t panic, but one of your kidneys has been harvested—stolen! There is a ring of organ thieves operating in this city and they got to you—you are now a victim! An ambulance with paramedics is on the way. Don’t move until they arrive”

This is one of the most successful urban legends of recent years which I have adapted from “made to stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. Chip and Dan have put together their memorable theory around what elements are contained in a STORY that STICKS (is embedded). If we can establish the elements of the story, we can surely apply those elements and embed them in the minds of those we are coaching.

Without re-reading the story, and going off for a drink (avoid that pub in London by the way,) you could return in an hour and tell the story accurately and almost in its entirety.

I could have told you that up to 10% of people with time to kill go for a drink before catching the train home and furthermore, 10% of those ‘would be travellers’ start talking to someone and again 10% of those end up being a victim of drug manipulation.

That may be true but it doesn’t have the same ‘ring’ to it as the story of my friend, the bath, the ice, the kidney theft and hospitalisation! In truth, the stats detail is a bit of a switch off.

The story is far more memorable.

So what are the ‘sticky’ elements that will enable us to recall accurately the tale?

Chip and Dan Heath note that over many years and hundreds of thoughts, ideas and stories of ‘stickiness’, the acronym SUCCESs, which is in itself a little corny by their own admission, can be applied.

  • Simplicity: (finding the essential core of the idea), “to strip an idea down to its core we must be masters of exclusion”
  • Unexpectedness: (get the audience paying attention), we need to shock people’s expectations
  • Concreteness: (making the ideas clear, solid) see them in real terms, the ice filled bath, the tube in the back
  • Credibility: (how do we make people believe our ideas) well we are all aware that such theft happens!
  • Emotions: (how we get people to care), we make them feel something—did you feel the ice and did you wince when you heard that Mark’s kidney had been removed?
  • Stories: (getting people to act on the ideas), hearing stories acts as a ‘real’ opportunity to get a mental picture.

When John F Kennedy announced in 1961 that the US had a mission, he might have said: “our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centred innovation and strategically targeted space initiatives” I believe he knew that such abstract missions don’t captivate or inspire anyone.

What he actually said was “to put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade” WHAT? The world stood by amazed at the statement—all having pictures in their minds of JFK’s vision. WHAT A STORY?

Let’s apply the acronym—the template.

Simple? Yes. Unexpected? Yes. Concrete? Absolutely. Credible? The goal sounded like science fiction at the time but the source was credible. Emotional? Yes. Story? In miniature.

The non-creative amongst you will now become significantly more creative because you have the template to produce something which will hold people’s attention, want them wanting to listen more and have them able to relate the original story. The message will become captivating, enthralling and best of all, STUCK!