Made To Stick: A Book Every Educator Must Read

Made to StickMade to Stick is a must read for every educator! Teachers and school administrators spend countless hours communicating ideas with ideas, but how can we ensure that the ideas shared will be remembered?

In this book, authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath provide example after example while explaining their premise that six components are necessary to create a “sticky” idea:







The Curse of Knowledge is the key villain that constantly confounds our ability to create and share ideas. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others because we can’t readily re-create our listener’s state of mind. You can’t unlearn what you know, but you can “translate” strategies into concrete language.


The first must of a “sticky” idea is that it has to be simple and easy to understand. The idea must be so simple that everyone you’re trying to reach can grasp the concept. In the military, this is known as the Commander’s Intent (CI)- “If we do nothing else during tomorrow’s mission, we must ______.” A business example would be Southwest Airlines. For Southwest, every decision went through a filter:  Does __ help us become THE Low-Fair Airline? Customers may like an idea (like a full-size meal), but that doesn’t help Southwest keep costs low, so it’s not an option.

Another way to keep an idea simple is to use analogies. Some analogies are so useful that they don’t merely shed light on a concept, they actually become platforms for novel thinking… Good metaphors are “generative” because they generate new perceptions, explanations, and inventions. For example, Disney calls its employees “cast members” which gives them a brand new persona (i.e., they audition for a role rather than interview; they are onstage in the park; and uniforms are costumes).

Remember, “If you say three things, you don’t say anything.” Keep it simple.


The second component for making an idea “sticky” is to get someone’s attention by doing something unexpected and break a pattern. When messages sound like common sense, they go in one ear and out the other. Your job as a communicator is to expose the parts of your message that are uncommon sense. Use curiosity and stories to make people interested. Writing is not about regurgitating the facts but about figuring out the point.

A great way to grasp the audience’s attention is to find a place where they already are and then lead them to a bigger idea, thus creating a knowledge gap. Knowledge gaps start with knowledge, and it seems counter-intuitive, but as we gain information we are more and more likely to focus on what we don’t know.

For teachers, I love this analogy:  Do you give students a treasure map or a Google map?

A treasure map gives just enough info to find the next landmark.

A Google map gives door-to-door direction with no adventure.

Teachers must create an adventure for their students, giving them just enough information to be dangerous, take risks, fail quickly, and find solutions. This is much more fun than regurgitating facts!


The third component of a “sticky” idea is it must be concrete—specific and within parameters. For example, the authors give this quick test:

In the next fifteen seconds, write down as many things that are white in color as you can think of.

Now, in the next fifteen seconds, write down as many white things in your refrigerator as you can think of.

It’s much easier to list the white things in your refrigerator because there is a set of parameters and allows me to focus rather than feel overwhelmed with a million thoughts at once.

Another example of using a concrete idea comes from an Accounting 101 class that used a case study for the entire semester to simulate basic accounting for a small business. Rather than learning from a textbook, students were “helping” a young company work through problems and become profitable. Using concrete examples put a name/face with a particular problem and made concepts like profit/loss statements easier to comprehend.


The fourth component of a “sticky” idea is that it must be credible. The honesty and trustworthiness of our sources, not their status, allows them to act as authorities. Sometimes anti-authorities are even better than authorities.

Communicators often attempt to use statistics to validate a certain concept and make it credible. However, statistics are rarely meaningful in and of themselves. Statistics should always be used to illustrate a relationship. People should remember the relationship (not the actual number).

In addition to using credible, relationship-based statistics, another way to establish credibility is to use “The Sinatra Test” which simply says, “If I can make it here [New York], I can make it anywhere.” In any situation, you can say, “If I can do ____, I can definitely do ____.”


The fifth component of a “sticky” idea is that it must be emotional. Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Like charities have to make people care about the needy, teachers need to make students care (about literature or algebra) and managers have to make employees care to work long and hard on complex tasks.

Key Question for Educators:  How do you make kids care?

John Caples says companies often emphasize features when they should be emphasizing benefits. “The most frequent reason for unsuccessful advertising is advertisers who are so full of their own accomplishments (the world’s best seed!) that they forget to tell us why we should buy (the world’s best lawn!).” Spell out the benefit of the benefit. People don’t buy quarter-inch drill bits. They buy quarter-inch holes so they can hang their children’s pictures.

Teachers have to think like salesmen and advertisers. When students ask “How are we ever going to use this?” they’re really asking “What’s in it for me?” I love how algebra teacher Dean Sharman responds to students asking when they’ll ever need algebra:

“Never. You will never use this.” He then reminds them that people don’t life weights so they will be prepared should, one day, someone knock them over on the street and lay a barbell across their chest. People lift weights to knock over D-linemen, carry groceries, or pick-up grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises so that you can improve your ability to think logically, so you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden, or parent. Math is mental weight training. It is a means to an end (for most people), not an end in itself.

To illustrate the importance of adding emotion to an idea, the authors share the story of Floyd Lee who runs a military cafeteria for U.S. Soldiers in Iraq. Floyd Lee says, “I am not just in charge of food service. I am in charge of morale.” Lee realizes that serving food is a job, but improving morale is a mission. Improving morale involves creativity and experimentation and mastery. Serving food involves a ladle.

Teachers should take note of Lee’s attitude when thinking of their classroom and school.


The final component to create a “sticky” idea is to use stories. One example from the book is Jared and Subway. His story revolutionized the Subway brand and changed lives everywhere. Interestingly enough, Jared’s story would never have been told if not for a franchise owner who happened to notice Jared and share the story. It’s important to note we don’t always have to create sticky ideas. Spotting them is often easier and more useful.

What if history teachers were diligent about sharing teaching methods that worked brilliantly in reaching students?

(Notice it’s the teacher’s responsibility to share. However, it should be the administrator’s responsibility to consistently provide the platform and opportunity for teachers to share what’s working for them.)

The authors share how one company used the power of stories to recreate a conference for all of their employees, even though the company sent only five employees to the conference. Those five each went to different sessions, but instead of copying down only key quotes and statistics (which is what I mainly do!), they focused on copying down the stories each presenter told. After the conference, the notes (mainly stories) were compiled, structured, and organized into a Conference Storybook and shared with all employees. A story is much better than a common-sense quote about keeping lines of communication open. Instead of “Lessons from Nordstrom:  In retail, outstanding customer service is a key source of competitive advantage”—use the specific story of a Nordie wrapping a Macy’s gift. The message (outstanding customer service) will still be shared because the story will be remembered.

I love this idea for our school and look to implement this week!


We all tend to have a lot of “idea pride.” We want our message to endure in the form we designed. When it doesn’t, we have to ask, “Is the audience’s message still core?” Ultimately, the test of our success as ideas creators isn’t whether people mimic our exact words, it’s whether we achieve our goals.

Getting a message across has two stages:

  1. The Answer Stage (where we spend time becoming an expert)
  2. The Telling Others Stage

Beware the Curse of Knowledge because we tend to share as if we are the audience. Watch out for this!

To make a simple idea stick, it has to make the audience

  1. Pay attention (unexpected)
  2. Understand and remember it (concrete)
  3. Agree/Believe (credible)
  4. Care (emotional)
  5. Be able to act on it (stories)

This framework is rendered useless thanks to the Curse of Knowledge because since we will pay attention to something, understand it, etc…. we assume the audience will as well! When sharing ideas, put yourself in the audience’s shoes! Remember what it was like to not know something and start from there.

Customer communication is taken very seriously and employee communication isn’t. And that’s a tremendous opportunity for organizational leaders.

FedEx Story

In St. Vincent, a tractor-trailer blocked the main road to the airport. The delivery driver began delivering packages to the airport on foot (over a mile away) but then persuaded a competitor driver to take on the last few deliveries. The driver said, “My job is not to drive a route and go home at 5 P.M.; my job is to get packages delivered any way I can.”

What would each educator in your school say is his or her job?

The only disconnect is this:  A FedEx driver can control delivering packages. A teacher can’t control student learning—but a teacher can control delivering content. How can the quality, creativity, effort, and effectiveness be truly measured?

Use stories within your school to build morale. If your company and/or school doesn’t have stories that convey your strategy (i.e. FedEx Purple Promise awards or Nordie stories), that should be a warning flag about your strategy—it may not be sufficiently clear to influence how people act.

Key Questions

   What is our school’s top strategy/priority?

   What are our stories?

   How are those stories shared?

   Would every teacher, student, and constituent know what our priorities are?



For a great free resource for teachers, download “Teaching that Sticks.”

Click here to purchase Made to Stick (NOT an affiliate link because I live in the great state of Arkansas which doesn’t allow affiliate links… but I’m not bitter).

4 thoughts on “Made To Stick: A Book Every Educator Must Read

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