book: “Made to Stick”

This famous book insists on short, vivid communication. And takes (wait for it) 252 pages to say so. Without a single graphic.

But that’s not the worst from these two glib and tongue-tied brothers. Here’s the worst (check your air bags):

  • Guys, guys, there’s no “Curse of Knowledge”. Certainly there is “Not Adjusting to Your Audience” (primal sin of teaching), there’s “protecting your position through jargon”, etc etc…but to call it Curse of Knowledge?–no. In pure mid-2000s fashion, you just made that up. (Hint: if your goal is to educate, worry more about Curses of Ignorance.)
  • The authors fret too much about complexity. “Simple” is the book’s first principle, but in failing ever to go farther, it ends up being the Simple of Simple Simon. Maybe even that serves to hook the listener, but they can never acknowledge that they’re speaking to adults or that the real world is, in fact, complex. They advocate (despite their own 252 pages) that all life is digestible in a billboard or sound bite. They even claim (p. 50): “When your remote control has 50 buttons, you can’t change the channel any more.” Bull. Just get an IQ over 50.
  • And in case the authors are just now catching up with the Ancient Greeks: please distinguish an idea from its expression. These authors pretend to write about ideas, but instead write about rhetoric–not an idea in sight. Now rhetoric is fine and I’m using some of its tools here, but the essential problem with blurring rhetoric with ideas is that rhetorical tools are orthogonal to the value of the ideas they represent. To be blunt, rhetorical tools sell (“make sticky”) lies just as well as they sell truth–possibly sell lies even better, since truth by definition is already bolstered by reality. But the authors never worry much about truth until page 146, and not much after.
  • The book is summarized on page 246, in “5 goals for your audience”. Now, if the authors believed enough in their own advice to follow it, they should have just tweeted these 15 words and been done–of course then there wouldn’t have been all those juicy royalties. But more importantly: there’s a big problem with nailing a sticky note into your listener’s forehead and calling it education, and that problem is not some catchy “Curse of Knowledge”. The problem with Advertising as Education is that human intelligence is not based on a sticky idea, but on the very hard work of integrating a new idea with everything else.  Many TED talks help do just that. Whereas Made to Stick points away and winks “Look! The Hindenburg!”

So, forget learning how to make lively presentations by burying yourself in 252 pages of dusty-dry text. Rather…learn from lively presentations!

  • Watch some TED talks. To experience state of the art in presentations, it almost doesn’t matter which ones you watch.
  • Save time: for a very vivid, grin/grimace presentation of ideas about ideas about ideas–a throwback to a time when the intelligent could juggle multiple ideas without dropping their cell phones–just watch Morgan Spurlock’s multilayer TED talk. I recommend: watch once for fun, then again to figure out just how he made his presentation so engaging, so–um–sticky.
  • Beyond these–for a vivid guidebook to deadly serious idea communication, bolt yourself to your chair for safety, and browse through Tactical Tech’s website.

Whatever you think of their ideas, these are our state of the art in idea-mongering. Without requiring $25 or 252 pages to do it, they all expose Made to Stick for the shallow, logorrheic, unforgivable hash it is.

One star. Because I’m feeling generous.

“Made to Stick”, Chip Heath and Dan Heath, 2007, Random House.

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