Chip Heath is Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and co-author with his brother Dan of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. In a Preaching podcast interview with Michael Duduit, Chip shared some helpful insights about crafting ideas that stick with people:
I’ve been researching why ideas survive in the social marketplace of ideas. It started fascinating me: What makes ideas sticky?
We looked at the most successful ideas in history in terms of people being able to understand and remember them. We found
some basic principles that characterize sticky ideas. [The six in the book: sticky ideas are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and involve story.]
We don’t have to have every one of those qualities in every one of our sermons, but I think we can say that if we have four it will
be better than if we have two, and two is better than zero. The process of crafting a really sticky message is the act of building
those traits into the message.
Filling the Gap
We become curious when we realize there is something that we know, but there’s a gap in our knowledge. If I asked you to name the capitals of all 50 states and you named 13 of them, you probably wouldn’t be highly motivated to get the rest of them; if you get up to 47, those remaining three really are going to bother you. So the function of curiosity is to motivate us to close a gap in our knowledge.
One of the things that comes up in Hollywood screenplays is the ability to create one of those knowledge gaps. That’s one of the things pastors can use in their sermons. For instance, you begin a story, and people are eager to know the ending of the story. You pose a paradox, and people are eager to hear about what you have to say. Some think you can’t make people listen, but that’s wrong. I mean, Hollywood screenwriters make people wait ’til the end of the movie eagerly to see what’s going to happen.
The Curse of Knowledge
As we get to know more and more about a field, what gets harder for us to do is to imagine what it would be like not to know what we know. If you’ve ever had a conversation with an IT (computer) expert, you’ve been on the other side of the curse of knowledge. If you’ve talked with a doctor or a lawyer about your health or your legal matters, you’ve been on the other side of the curse of knowledge. These are experts who tend to talk in complex, jargon-filled ways because they are assuming we know more about their fields than we do.
Now the lesson for us as Christians—and especially ministers who have been trained in the Bible—is that we are going to tend to
be cursed by our knowledge in a way that prevents us from connecting with the outsiders who are coming in seeking a connection
with God. So we talk about things, such as grace, and conjure up a song in our mind that is not necessarily playing for another person who is hearing an abstract theological term.
Notice that Jesus was a master of avoiding the curse of knowledge. He didn’t talk in abstractions. He talked in very concrete
ways: “You are the salt of the earth.” Or He told a very concrete parable. We know those things as ministers and pastors—you are
experts at telling stories—but sometimes you forget and substitute abstract language for the stories and the concrete examples that we know really are going to connect with our audience.
There are so many images we are so familiar with. I grew up in an evangelical church, and it occurred to me one day when I
brought one of my friends that the lyrics of the songs we were singing that day probably weren’t all that comprehensible to him.
“There’s power in the blood of the Lamb.” That’s a shocking song to walk in and hear somebody singing if you don’t have the background to understand the symbolism of the Lamb and the importance of the blood. So even on a very a basic level, many of the things we say don’t connect with people.
The Power of Story
The Bible is filled with stories. Telling those stories still is going to be powerful. The Good Samaritan has not lost its power in
2,000 years. The sobering thing is that as conversations become more intense, we do have to work harder to gain people’s
attention. We do have to work harder to make sure our messages are unexpected.
Pastors are brilliant at finding stories and finding concrete examples of things they want to illustrate. That’s exactly right for
everything we know about how to reach people. The trap we want to avoid falling into is the trap of abstraction. The Bible is filled
with stories and great examples. So what we have to resist is the tendency, created by the curse of knowledge, to talk at a higher level because we are experts and insiders who have spent our lives in the church. Get back to the tangible, sensory experiences.
The Value of the Unexpected
Highlight the parts of your message that are unexpected. Luckily, there are profound things about the Christian life that are dramatically unexpected in a culture that has gone another way. Think about those and reinforce those, as opposed to making our
advice in the pulpit sound like advice they’d get from Good Housekeeping—live a good life and get along with others. There are parts of the Christian life that stand as a profound challenge to the way our culture has evolved, and that’s how we get people’s attention.
Think about the facial expression of surprise—your eyes get wide, your jaw drops—because we didn’t make the right prediction about how the world was going to unfold. What do you need to do in that situation? Your eyes get wide because you need to open your eyes and take in new information. Your jaw drops because the last thing you need to be doing at that point is talking. Surprise is designed to help us and motivate us to take in new information. If our worship services are utterly predictable, we’re not taking advantage of the equipping God placed in us to get our attention—that unexpectedness that produces surprise.