Made to stick: successful communication

Made to stick: successful communication

Initial publication


  • March 30 2012

Have you ever felt that your explanation of a tool, of an approach, or of a model, which seems to be crystal clear to you, does not resonate with your audience? Rather than assigning the communication mishap to your audience, the receiver, or to yourself, the sender, have you ever considered that the message itself may be the weak link?

In our article on Switch, by the brothers Chip and Dan Heath (2010), we highlighted the disappointing success rate of change initiatives that bears repeating:

70% of change initiatives are doomed to failure (Maurer, 2010).

In response to this information, we presented a model that could help you better understand the motivations and blockages of those affected by your change initiative. There exists, of course, other models, such as Bareil (2004) that deal with the preoccupations of those affected by change initiatives.

There remains a chasm between intellectually understanding the situation and the capacity to clearly communicate this information. When it comes to change management, or any human interaction, being able to clearly communicate an idea that will “stick” in people’s mind is an essential but often underserved step.

The Heath brothers, before they were writing about elephants and drivers, spent some time thinking about what makes ideas “sticky” in their book Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die (2007). A model that is simple yet very efficient to ensure that your message is well targeted and formulated.

The key to SUCCES

The model is based on six principles that you can integrate into any communication effort. While it’s not essential to always use all six principles in every communication effort, just like in baking, every ingredient has its role to play to ensure the perfection of the final results.

Before you start out and to rethink your communications, consider your own worst ennemy: the curse of knowledge. You know far too much about your topic to communicate it as simply as you see it. You have to put yourself into the shoes of someone that has far less awareness of the topic to make sure your message is both clear and interesting.


Find the core of your message. You are the gardiner of your communications, weed every extraneous messages that don’t directly contribute to the communication of you core message. The weeds you remove can always be used in follow up communications when your receivers have really integrated your initial burst of information and are actually ready to learn more.

When it comes time to communicate, follow great journalists and don’t bury the lead. Start with the most interesting, most central element of your message. Don’t start with a long introduction. Your receiver must, as soon as they get your message, know what they’ll hear about. The rest of your message is all about convincing them and making the idea stick.

Use known metaphors and analogies to help the cognitive process of your receivers in linking a known and self-evident concept to your new proposition, adding gravitas to your own arguments.


Before jumping into the “why” and the “how”, you must stimulate the receiver’s interest. Create some expectations and meet them.

To make sure they’re listening, take them quickly out of their comfort zone. You can tell couter-intuitive but factual informations, to stimulate their curiosity with regards to the arguments you intend to use to support your idea. The goal is not only to surprise or shock your receivers, but rather to prepare them to actively receive information. Don’t surprise them for the sake of getting their attention, there must be a real link between the surprise and your arguments.


Whenyou think of the first lines of “Hey Jude”, the Mona Lisa, or your favorite meal, your memory will not present you the information in the same manner. If you were to watch the Mona Lisa while listening to “Hey Jude” and while eating your favorite meal, chances are that this specific image will stick with you for a long time.

Make your ideas concrete by using a sensorial language. Your receiver’s memory is not a big grab-bag, information is somewhat sorted depending upon the senses that were used. The more senses you call into receiving your message, the “stickier” it will be.

Don’t get lost in abstractions to define objectives or means to get there. Abstractions are, by nature, rather blurry and easy to lose sight of. Concrete ideas will allow a better alignment between intentions and actions.


Your receiver must see a certain credibility to what you’re telling them. You can use references to an exterior, respected authority. They can also be credible on their own, whether through convincing details or easily verifiable statistics.

A note on statistics: they must always be on a human scale, to make sure your message remains concrete. The distance between the Earth and the Moon is certainly large, but it will never be clearer to imagine it than the one between Montreal and Ottawa. The impact of the analogy would be lessened even though the scale is much larger.

The number of supporting arguments is not as important as is their quality. Keep only those with the greatest impact. A list of diplomas and experiences will never be as convincing, in perceiving competence, as the most recent, widely known within your organisation to be thorny project that you lead with deft fingers to lasting success.


All your receivers must feel as though you are talking to them, otherwise, why would they listen? Our time is limited and we are bombarded with information. We have a natural, and very healthy, tendency to filter those that don’t seem to apply to use.

It is crucial to always keep in mind that, for your receivers, the most important are not the numbers you’re bringing forward, but the human impacts that will come from them. Find what is really important to them and be sure that you are able to explain a credible link between your proposition and their desires.

Never forget your receiver’s identity, the perception he has of himself, it’s often the most important thing to them. Refer to values tied to their identity to motivate them. If their identity is to be at the forefront of best practices, your proposition must credibly exist only to satisfy a coherence with that identity, by suggesting new and interesting ways to do things better.


Rather than presenting disjointed fact or to use independant arguments, always strive to weave a narrative that includes your ideas to ensure a certain coherence, a logical path that allows your receivers to remember your proposition and, as needed, to communicate them to third party with a shared sense of what it means to align everyone’s actions.

Think of all the fables, whether they are the classical ones (like La Fontaine) or newer ones (like the management Fables of Lancioni). The author had a message to get through, but rather than plainly communicating facts, the weaved them into the story. The story is easier to grasp when the crow loses its cheese because of his own self-importance or that a management team disintegrates in front of your eyes while the only thing being discussed in the inherent logic behind ideas. A picture is worth a thousand word, even if that picture raison d’être is to communicate those words.

Back to the model

The model presented is admittedly quite simple. It’s not about a linguistic approach to better communication, or about honing debating skills useful in ensuing dialogues. It won’t make you a better communicator on its own.

Its whole purpose is to allow you to better build the foundation of your communications and to avoid the most common pitfalls. By thus elevating your discourse, you’ll be better able to structure the communication of your ideas to give them an extra chance to “stick” in your audience’s mind.

Communication depends on the back-and-forth between communicator and audience, or between communicators. Human complexity is infinite, you will always need to question the approaches you’re using and you will need to adapt your skills to the situation at hand. A simple model that deals with the broad strokes surely has longer lasting usefulness that a list of tricks of the trade.

A quick question to stir your brain: which of those six principles has not been used in this text?


Bareil, Céline (2004). Gérer le volet humain du changement. Éditions Transcontinentales, 213p.

Heath, Chip and Dan Heath (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. Random House, 336p.

Heath, Chip and Dan Heath (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard.  Random House Canada, 320p. (Aussi disponible en français).

Maurer, Rick (2010). Beyond the wall of resistance: Why 70% of all changes still fail–and what you can do about it (2e édition). Bard Press, 208p.

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