Sunday, March 21, 2010

Made to Stick: Do you believe me? Am I Credible?

Cover of "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas S...Cover via Amazon

What makes someone believe an idea? In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers propose a variety of things that can make a message or an idea 'credible':
  • people we know and respect believe it
  • the idea matches our own experience
  • we're told it's true by an authority
  • we're told it's true by an anti-authority (see below)
  • we take it on faith
  • the message stands on its own merits and is inherently believable (it has 'internal credibility')
  • the message contains vivid details that make it easier to visualise the point you're making
  • statistics ... but ONLY IF they're phrased in human, everyday terms
  • you use an example that definitively proves the point you're making (aka 'The Sinatra Test')
  • the message challenges you to test the truth of it for yourself
It's worth going into more detail about a few of these sources of credibility.

Get the endorsement of an Anti-Authority

You can get someone to deliver your message who has personal experience with what you're saying. Someone who has lived through the experience your message is conveying, someone who's 'living proof' that what you're saying is true or works.

Someone like Pam Laffin, for instance.

We're all aware of ads that try to seem credible because they use a celebrity endorsement from someone we want to be like, or a fronted someone with a reputation for honesty and trustworthiness (or an actor dressed to symbolise honesty and trustworthiness). Sometimes a message is delivered by an expert (like an academic or a professional).

These are all forms of credibility because they use an 'authority' to present the message. But Pam Laffin started smoking when she was 10. She's an anti-authority; she has credibility because she's real. Or rather: had credibility. Pam died on 3 November 2000 at the age of 31.

Use vivid details
Weirdly enough, simply using a vivid detail or two can make your message more believable. But these details need to be truthful, meaningful, and they need to add to your argument.

The Heath brothers cite a dance company who demonstrated how much they value diversity by letting people know that they had a 73 year old former mailman who danced with them.

Statistics (tend to make your eyes glaze over)

Statistics may sound impressive and seem like a good source of credibility, but they aren't particularly great at showing people what you mean.

I'm sure you can think of examples where people have quotes stats at you, and you've thought "These are just numbers," or "I don't understand what these numbers mean." I get baffled by stats all the time, primarily because it's hard to visualise these numbers mean in everyday, human terms.

But statistics are a good method of illustrating the relationships between things. If, rather than throwing numbers at your audience, you focus on describing that relationship in everyday, human terms you'll find people remember and understand your stats - which will make them more credible.

The Heath brothers illustrate this by quoting a series of statistics from Stephen Covey's book The 8th Habit, where a survey of employees in various companies revealed the following information:

+ Only 37 percent said they had a clear idea of what their organisation was trying to achieve and why
+ Only one in five employees said they were enthusiastic about their team's and their organisation's goals
+ Only one in five said they had a clear 'line of sight' between their daily work and their organisation's goals
+ Only 15 percent said they felt their organisation enabled them to fully execute their key goals
+ Only 20 percent said they fully trusted the organisation they worked for.

To me, that's a whole bunch of information that's pretty difficult to assimilate. So, instead, Stephen Covey provides an analogy that puts less emphasis on these numbers, and more on illustrating the relationships and meaning of those statistics using an everyday, easy-to-visualise concept:
If, say, a soccer team had these same scores, only 4 of the 11 players on the field would know which goal is theirs. Only 2 of the 11 would care. ... And all but 2 of the players would, in some way, be competing against their own team members rather than the opponent.
Statistics are a good source of internal credibility but they aren't inherently helpful. They're only helpful if we understand them in human, everyday terms (which helps us get an idea of their scale and context).

The Sinatra Test

"If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere."

-- New York, New York
(as sung by Frank Sinatra)

Passing the Sinatra Test is shorthand for saying that providing just one example is enough to establish your credibility (as long as it's the right example). For instance:

"I'm in charge of security at Fort Knox," means you can get a security job anywhere.

"Our company promptly and securely delivered the final Harry Potter book to every bookstore in America," means you can get any couriering job in America.

Test it yourself

You can challenge the person who's receiving your message to test it for themselves.

Made to Stick cites the example of the Wendy's "Where's the Beef?" ad. I'd heard about this for years, but never seen it till now. So, let's go back to the year 1984 and take a look:

The point here is that you can go into a fast-food store and test for yourself whether you're eating a bigger or smaller beef patty than you'd get at a rival store.

Figuring out a way of making it easy for your audience to establish that your message is credible for themselves, is a powerful source of credibility.

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