Friday, February 26, 2010

Made to Stick: Keeping things Simple

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is about creating ideas that stick in people's minds, ideas that make people want to spread them. The first element of 'stickiness' is simplicity.


Simplicity is a proverb

When you're creating an idea, you want it to be short, easy to remember. Ideally you want your idea to be short and WORTHWHILE for people to remember. For instance, think about these phrases:

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

"Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

Proverbs are worthwhile ideas that are simple, profound, and (most importantly) useful. They provide a guide about how to behave in a complex situation or a principle to live by. Proverbs provide wisdom. And people share them - the bird-in-the-hand proverb can be found in Spain, Russia, Iceland, and even in medieval Latin documents. Its origin may be from one of Aesop's Fables, dating from around 570 B.C.


Simplicity is the most important thing

Think about a subject you know a lot about. Now, if you want to, try this mental exercise - it should take about 10 seconds. Imagine a friend asks you to explain a bit about that subject to them. They'll give you a couple of minutes to give them a bit of an overview of it.

Have a think about a few of the things you'd want to explain to them.

While you're doing that, I'll try it with the idea of time management. Skip past the bullet-points and I'll keep on with the post:

  • write everything down
  • review stuff regularly
  • keep a list of tasks you want to do
  • have a list of goals (yearly and monthly)
  • do stuff that's important but not urgent
  • do things in small chunks
  • do stuff that excites you
  • do stuff that adds to the person you want to be
  • eliminate unimportant stuff
  • keep a notebook with you to write stuff down
  • time management is a habit - start small
  • there are lots of good books to read.

So, here's why simplicity is good. People who are experts want to communicate a lot to their audience - and the tendancy is to communicate too much. I have 12 things in my list above - the chances are that 10 minutes after I explain this stuff, my friend is going to remember nothing. Maybe one or two things at most.

When an idea is simple, it means you've found its core - the most important thing about the idea that you want to communicate.

You can't have 5 'most important' things that you want to communicate. You've got to prioritise by weeding out the important ideas that aren't the most important idea. You've got to eliminate the superfluous.

What's left is like a proverb or a haiku: the most important thing about your idea.

If I were to do this with my list above, getting rid of stuff that'd merely be nice to talk about, I'm left with this:

  • have a list of goals (yearly and monthly)
  • do stuff that's important but not urgent
  • do things in small chunks
  • do stuff that adds to the person you want to be
  • eliminate unimportant stuff
  • time management is a habit - start small

If I then eliminate the stuff that I think would be really beneficial to know, I get this:

  • do stuff that's important but not urgent
  • do stuff that adds to the person you want to be
  • eliminate unimportant stuff
  • time management is a habit - start small

Those are four principles of time management that I think are really important to know. But four is still too many - if I were forced to choose only the most important thing, then what would it be?

Only do stuff that adds to the person you want to be.

So, I didn't know that before I did this exercise. For me, the purpose behind time management is to help you live the life you want to live, and to help you be the person you want to be. Now, discussing that idea any further would be irrelevant to this post but it's a good illustration of this principle.

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The chapter on Simplicity goes into more detail about how to achieve short, profound, essential statements of your idea. It talks about relating your idea to concepts your audience is already familiar with, and with using analogies (especially analogies that allow the audience to extrapolate a lot of information from them).

The whole chapter is a worthwhile read, but essentially it emphasises again and again the reason why we should aim for simplicity: when people remember the core of your idea, they know what's important. They know what to focus on in any given situation. Knowing the core allows them to make good choices under pressure.

Next up, ... Surprise!

Previous posts in the series:

In which I am impressed by the cover
An overview of the book
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