It’s summer, so I’m trying to make a dent in a big pile of books sitting by my desk.
One of the first I’ve tackled is Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Other Die. I found it an interesting and useful read, though I’m probably not the target audience, as a lot of it is aimed at corporate and institutional professionals responsible for communication or public relations. I see as part of a mini-canon of books that have an evolutionary take on culture without being caught up in the problematic claims of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, or without descending to the epistemological weakness of “strong” memetics. (Gary Taylor’s underappreciated book Cultural Selection is a good example.) Call it memetics-light, I guess.
Anyway, the Heaths identify six attributes of “sticky” narratives and ideas. The attributes are: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and story-telling. The Heaths do a good job filling out each of these attributes with specific examples and memorable anecdotes. (They’re obviously hyper-aware that if you’re going to claim to have identified attributes that made communication memorable and powerful, you’re going to have to demonstrate those attributes in what you write.)
I have three issues with the overall approach, though. The first, I suppose, is a case of me trying to impose my own intellectual preferences. They treat their six attributes as more or less transhistorical and fundamentally cognitive even though plenty of the examples they discuss have some highly specific, local, particular and often deeply historical element to them. Take “credibility”. What’s credible has a lot to do with what people already think they know, with the local, historically shaped and thus highly contingent character of “common sense”. They use the example of an urban legend about necrotizing fasciitis allegedly being spread by bananas from Costa Rica. They properly point out that the rumor got credibility in part through its clever discursive use of various authoritative sounding names and organizations (including necrotizing fasciitis, aka flesh-eating bacteria), but they don’t talk about the bananas from Costa Rica part, which taps into all sorts of racial and geographical coding in American society. If I tried to start a rumor that cheddar cheese from Canada was spreading a disease, I doubt I’d get much traction even if I used all the other authoritative tricks and turns of the earlier rumor.
This does strike me as important if you want to follow the Heaths’ magic recipe and cook up some sticky ideas yourself. It’s not good enough to just run down the magic checklist: that only tells you about the attributes a sticky idea has to have. It tells you what the container looks like, but to fill it up with something, you’ve got to have a good ear for history, for popular culture, for the sound of language. What was credible in medieval France to peasants is different than what’s credible in a World Bank meeting today. In a sense, they can’t provide any more guidance to an aspirant message-crafter than I could help people to write novels by writing a basic description of what a good novel is. The Heaths want to maintain that you don’t really have to have any talent to craft reproducible ideas and messages. Put me down as a skeptic.
The second issue is that they give zero attention to the political economy of media, rather like some of the people drawn to “memes”, “frames” and similar concepts. They don’t leave room for the possibility that many messages and ideas flourish because of a seventh attribute: incessant, forced repetition that is bought or commanded. I give a lot less credence to this factor than many “cultural leftists” or “cultural conservatives”, but there’s something to this point. Ideas spread sometimes because the powerful insist that they spread, or because wealthy interests purchase their dissemination. It may be true, as the Heaths conclude, that anyone with the right idea and the right hook can succeed in disseminating their message or their vision, but the Horatio Algerism gets a bit thick sometimes. Power matters.
Third, the strangest assumption they make is that everyone wants to communicate clearly and disseminate their ideas as widely as possible, and that most cases of bad or confusing communication are the consequence of ineptitude. They really don’t give any attention to something as simple as lying, which is a fundamental part of human communicative action, both interpersonally and institutionally. Sometimes human beings, particularly human beings in power or who speak for power, are socially required to communicate, but they have no interest in communicating forthrightly. For the Heaths, the most common reason that people fail to make their ideas sticky is that they know too much and thus overburden their communication in every respect (“the Curse of Knowledge”, as they put it). Sure, I agree, and there’s no institution more afflicted than academia. But I would say the most common reason that people fail to achieve stickiness is either instrumental or subconscious slipperiness. Take a look at these two recent discussions of quality failures in the manufacturing of the XBox 360. There’s no way that the Microsoft representative in the second of those two links is just failing to practice good “stickiness”. The guy intends to say as little as he possibly can. It’s not particularly effective as communication, but I don’t think it’s intended to be. It’s intended to put up a smokescreen, probably primarily at the advice of Microsoft’s lawyers. Sometimes, you really don’t want your ideas or words to be sticky. I’m sure George Bush the Elder wishes he hadn’t said, “No new taxes”, and equally that Bill Clinton wishes he hadn’t said, “I did not have sex with that woman”. Very memorable, both of those moments, but not in a good way for either of them.