Summary of Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath

  • Post category:Summaries
  • Post last modified:September 18, 2023

Summary: 7 min

Book reading time: 7h26

Score: 8/10

Book published in: 2007

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  • Some ideas stick in the mind of people, some don’t.
  • Ideas that stick are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, have emotions, and are wrapped into a story.

Table of Contents

What Made to Stick Talks About

Made to Stick is a book written by brothers Dan and Chip Heath. It’s a marketing book that explains what makes people remember certain things, like ads, catchphrases, or stories. For a message to be remembered, it should be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and wrapped up in a story.

It’s similar to Contagious, but with another goal in mind.

Contagious focuses on the characteristics that make ideas spread in society.

Made to Stick focuses on the characteristics that make ideas stick in people’s minds.

It’s an above-average marketing book and has a few interesting ideas. However, the volume of information does not justify the existence of the book. A blog post would have been just as great, if not better.

The problem with this book is that it uses all of the feel-good cliché business stories (Apple, Southwest, etc) that anyone who’s been interested in marketing already knows.

Furthermore, some examples are too far-fetched to apply and others are downward cringe.

Finally, while the essence of the book can be summarized with an acronym (SUCCES), the authors felt the need to unnecessarily come up with 5 or 6 examples for each of their principles.

This makes the book too long and painful to read. It also makes the reader feel like the authors are running out of things to say.

If you have read a few marketing books, no need to read Made to Stick. My summary will suffice.

But if you have no idea what marketing is, then you should read this book.


Buy the book here.

Summary of Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath

Ideas that stick respect 6 principles.

  1. Simplicity: make one point, and no more
  2. Unexpectedness: be counter-intuitive
  3. Concreteness: be specific and clear
  4. Credibility: the idea must be believable (due to its source, for example)
  5. Emotions: embed emotions
  6. Stories: the idea should be embedded in a story

To summarize, you need to create a simple unexpected concrete credentialed emotional story.

These 6 principles have only one enemy: the Curse of Knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge is a phenomenon where the storyteller does not provide context to his audience due to his existing knowledge of the story. As a result, the audience is lost and doesn’t listen.

Always provide context, or no one will listen to you.

1. Simple

In the 1980s, the US army created battle plans. However, no battle ever went according to plan.

So they created the Captain’s Intent instead, which was the goal of the battle. It gave soldiers the authorization to improvise to fulfill the Captain’s Intent instead of following a plan that didn’t work.

-> you can’t have five priorities, five goals, or five ideas in a message.

You can only have one.

To make your message stick, you need to find its core idea.

Take off all that is superfluous, and leave only what’s necessary.

Making your ideas stick is done in two steps.

  1. Find the core of the message
  2. Translate the core through the six steps highlighted above

As long as you follow one idea, you should do fine, except in two situations.

1. Uncertainty

Uncertainty paralyzes.

It manifests as random elements being thrown at you.

Eg: you want to go to China. As soon as you have the occasion, you buy the ticket. Then you hear a volcano in Iceland might erupt, which would mean you could be stranded in China.

People that know for sure whether the volcano will erupt will be more likely to go to China than people that don’t know.

Uncertainty breeds indecisiveness.

2. Choices

Eg: you want to go to China, but now you have the occasion to go to Australia for the same price.

As a result, you don’t know what to do.

This is why priorities are important. They are your rational compass in an ocean of emotions.

Simplicity = compact + deepeness.

Creating a compact idea is easy, just strip down the unnecessary.

You create a deep idea by building on top of another idea people already know.

Eg: how would you describe what a unicycle is?

It’s a bike, but with one wheel.

2. Unexpected

The first step in getting someone to listen to your message is to ask, or attract attention.

The second step is to keep the attention.

The best way to get attention is by breaking a pattern or making a surprise.

No one ever listens to the announcement in the train station because it’s always the same. If they played a song instead of talking, people would pay attention.

The surprise you make cannot be random. It needs to be relevant and explained.

While it would be funny to see a grandma coming into an ad for, let’s say, skateboards, it would be weird to see polar bears.

The best way to keep attention is by generating interest.

You do so by creating a confusing and apparently illogical mystery at the beginning.

Mysteries are questions without obvious answers. They’re fascinating to humans, which is why crime stories are so popular.

What are mysteries? What makes a situation so interesting that it becomes a mystery?

A mystery needs to make you feel that there is a gap in your knowledge.

“What is the sun made of” is a more interesting mystery than “what is 34 x 7.78 equal to?”

Knowledge gaps cause pain. They create itches you want to scratch. When we don’t know something, we need to fill the gap so that it stops hurting.

This is why books, movies, and pretty much anything with a story are so popular.

Stories work by posing questions and opening situations. You open situations by highlighting specific knowledge gaps people may have.

If you talk about a topic people know nothing about (quantum physics), you need to give some context and knowledge, leaving out just enough to create a gap.

3. Concrete

Forget about empty terms like intrinsic motivation, portfolio assessment, etc.

Language can be abstract, but the world isn’t.

The first lesson of this chapter is to call things by their name.

If you fundraise for land protection, don’t say you protect “that piece of land over there”.

Instead, say that you protect “Mount Hamilton Wilderness”.

Be specific.

Concrete language helps beginners (and everyone else) understand.

Abstraction is a luxury only an expert can afford.

Asian countries are better at math because they explain abstract maths with concrete examples.

So, be concrete.

Eg: If you are writing a cooking recipe, don’t tell people to stir until the sauce becomes creamy or smooth.

Tell them to stir for five minutes at 50°C!

4. Credible

Why do we believe ideas? Most of the time, because of who told us (the source).

The authority of the source = credibility.

Authority is built through life experience.

A Ph.D. in economics is de facto, an authority in economics.

A smoker dying of lung cancer is an authority on the dangers of smoking – or actually, an anti-authority.

Other signs of credibility are:

  • the knowledge of details. Details make the idea in the message more credible
  • the use of statistics. They should illustrate relationships (graphs), not be a list of numbers that people don’t remember.
  • the use of a particular experience that establishes authority. Eg: doing physics at NASA (if you did it there, you can do it anywhere); being a stuntman for Tom Cruise (if you did it for him, you can do it for anyone).

5. Emotional

For people to take action, they have to care.

There are different ways to achieve this.

1. Make them feel things.

Stories about individuals will always move people more than stories about millions.

To quote Staline, “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic”.

2. Associate an idea with a concept

Words like “losers” for example are charged with emotions.

“Smoking is for losers” would be a powerful campaign.

3. Tap into the things they care about

Fairness, safety, freedom, or themselves are things people care about.

Trick: people are much more likely to take action after they imagine themselves doing the things they want to do.

So if you’re selling a holiday package, it’d be helpful to say “Imagine booking that holiday in the south of France, sipping on fresh wine, by the Mediterranean”.

While tapping into self-interest works for certain products (a dessert, a vacation), it doesn’t for others (everything where people do or buy something out of a sense of duty, for example, childcare products).

In that case, people think in terms of what’s better for their group or people they care about. It can be their church, neighborhood, race, family, anything.

There are two mental models that study how people make decisions.

  1. They ask themselves what is best for them.
  2. They ask themselves what people like them do.

If you want to influence the behavior of people in a region, you can design an ad whose essential message would be “people like us don’t do this”.

The underlying message is: if you do this, you’re not like us.

6. Stories

Professionals in dangerous situations (firefighters, doctors, etc) tell stories to educate their peers.

Stories provide contexts, lessons, wisdom, and they stick.

Why are stories so addictive?

Because we literally live them.

When people are asked to imagine the Eiffel tower, they can’t stop themselves from looking up. When they imagine being touched, the part of their brain responsible for the sense of touch lits up.

If you want to learn how to play piano, imagining yourself playing is approximately 2/3 as effective as playing.

Mental exercise works.

As a result, stories are the very best tool to help people immerse themselves in an environment because they imagine whatever we tell them – and live it through their imagination.

The authors studied hundreds of stories and found out almost all of them could be categorized into three types.

1. The Challenge Plot

David and Goliath. Ulysses. Hercules.

The hero must overcome a great challenge and succeed.

2. The Connection Plot

A story about people developing a relationship bridging a gap (social, racial, religious, etc).

The Good Samaritan story from Jesus is a connection plot since the man the Samaritan helps was Jewish, and Samaritans and Jews hated each other.

Titanic is another connection plot.

3. The Creativity Plot

Someone making a mental breakthrough or finding something nobody ever thought of or resolved before is a creativity plot.

Edison’s stories are creativity plots.


So, what prevents ideas from sticking?

  • Burying the lead: losing the main point in a sea of information
  • Decision paralysis: not knowing which idea to choose
  • The Curse of Knowledge

For an idea to stick, the audience needs to

  • Pay attention (unexpected)
  • Understand and remember it (concrete)
  • Agree/believe (credible)
  • Care (emotion)
  • Act on it (story)

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