#36 How to Make Ideas Stick

This past Tuesday proved to be a magical day in one of my history classes.  I’d like to think EVERY day IS magical—but the reality is some days classes struggle.  Sometimes it is because the students have not come prepared; more often it is because I have not structured a session with enough “POP” and “SIZZLE” to grab and keep attention.  While I continue to improve each year, there are still those days when I think I might put myself to sleep.

Salespeople sell items; teachers sell ideas. All of us are “selling” a state of mind.

A recent read of Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die helped me refocus my teaching energies. The Heaths present a six-step model that, when studied and followed, will help ANYONE who wants to/needs to present a point and make sure that point stays with the audience.  Whether you are a salesperson, leader, mid-level manager, teacher, or a politician, ignore the Heaths at your own peril.  Here, briefly, are their six points and a personal brief illustrative example for each. The steps are not necessarily sequential—but the stronger each one is in your presentation, the “sticker” your idea becomes.

  1. Simple. Make sure your core point is out front. As the Heaths say, “Don’t bury the lead.”
    a.       Example. One day as students were packing up to leave I said, “As you read your chapter, pay particular attention to pages 499-501. The next class will take a look at the United States policy toward Native Americans in the late part of the 19th century.” From all of the chapter material, I focused their attention on one core issue we would discuss in class. 
  2. Unexpected. Grab attention. This is where you have to “zag” rather than “zig.” Think about what you can do to surprise your audience (even if it is an audience of one).
    a.       Example.  When the students came back the next class, they found me and a guest at the front of the room—sitting there with our guitars out and ready to play. Whoa!  I could see the expression on their faces as they walked in the door, “This is not going to be like any typical history class!”  My friend, John Longbottom, and I performed one of his songs (“Legends”). There was a second unexpected twist. The students, after hearing the song, believed the message was about the ill-treatment of the Native Americans at the hands of the United States government. Actually, John wrote it about the Irish-English wars. The unexpected takeaway for the students was that discrimination against minorities takes place in many lands, with many different types of people—and upon further study one can find similarities.
    c.       Example II. I love to begin my speaking engagements by singing one of my songs. The song I chose always relates to the topic/audience at hand. It is so unexpected (for those who have never seen me before) that it immediately grabs attention.  One audience member told me after an engagement that when she saw “this person with jeans and a guitar” she knew it wasn’t going to be the usual keynote. That is what I want to create!
    d.      Example III.  One of my student success topics is priority management. It is a theme in my latest book (Choices for College Success) and it is a theme in my classes.  Here is an engaging and unexpected way to start a session on priority management.


    Video recommendation for the week:



  3. Concrete. Provide specific images. Make it so the people you are speaking to can “see” what you are selling.
    a.      Example. Back to the lesson on Native Americans…John’s lyrics provide concrete imagery. Words like: “took from us our land;” “took from us our men folk;” and “took from us our language” evoked images for my students.   You can also see how this step connects with the 5th step of emotion.  Listen to the song by clicking on the video below.


    Video recommendation #2 for the week:


  4. Credible.  What makes you (the speaker) believable to the audience?
    a.       Example.  Staying with the song example above…John is Irish-English. He also explained some research he was doing for a project on Native Americans in Oklahoma. He is connected to the topic.
  5. Emotional. You have to make the idea stand out. The audience has to feel it.
    a.       Example. After John’s performance in our history class, one of my students sent me the following email: “… I must say that after class I was speechless. The songs had so much meaning and placed so much on my heart. Once again thanks to you and Mr. Longbottom.”   When the message touches a heart, it has emotion my friend.
  6. Story. Give context to your idea with an engaging story. The Heaths explain that a good story is not the same as arguing with the audience.  An effective story will help flesh out the above steps. Think of the stories you have heard stories that evoke emotion, provide specific imagery, and grab attention with an unexpected twist.
    a.       Example.  The song, in the example above, is the story.
    b.      Example II. I begin many of my speaking engagements with a story—and I incorporate stories throughout. To be effective the story needs to relate to the reason the people are sitting in the audience. In other words, I don’t want to waste their valuable time.  Sometimes I relate a current event or a workplace epiphany. Other programs start with me singing my song “End-of-the-Semester Blues.”  In all cases, the story is the opening—the lead—for my program. It is pointed, generally emotional, and it is unexpected.

You put a lot of effort into your presentations. Review them for the six steps above. Whether it is music, a demonstration, or a story, make your message pop and sizzle—and leave the audience thinking about your message long after you have left the building.

© Steve Piscitelli and Steve Piscitelli’s Blog, 2011.

2 Responses to #36 How to Make Ideas Stick

  1. […] How to Make Ideas Stick *Six steps (with examples) on how to get your point across to other people. Teachers, managers, parents, and others can benefit from this advice. […]

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  2. […] an earlier post on this blog (#36 How to Make Ideas Stick)  I passed along six points about making ideas sticky.  Today, consider what I have found to be […]

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