Saturday, March 13, 2010

Made to Stick: Make it real; make it Concrete

Made to Stick is a book about what makes ideas memorable, and what makes people want to tell your ideas to other people. So far, Made to Stick has talked about making sure your ideas are:

+ simple
+ unexpected and surprising

The next quality it recommends is 'concreteness' - describing your idea as something you can see or something you can do. Make your idea vivid and easy to imagine.

For instance, compare these two goals.

Goal 1: We will build the best passenger jet in the world.

Goal 2: We will build a passenger jet that seats 131 passengers, can fly non-stop from Miami to New York City, and land on Runway 4-22 at La Guardia International Airport.

What's the difference between these two goals? What are the different things you still need to know after reading them? Imagining you're an aircraft engineer, what would your next action be after receiving those goals?

What are the benefits of concreteness?

Making something concrete means that everyone has the same clear idea of what to do. Concreteness improves your ability to co-ordinate people, and make sure they're all working in the same direction.

Also, when something is concrete, it gives us something to focus on – a symbol, a representation, a known environment we’re all familiar with. As an example of this, Made to Stick describes the creation of the Palm Pilot. When they were designing it, the creator of the company would carry around a block of wood that represented the finished Palm Pilot. He wanted to avoid the failing of previous attempts to build a handheld organiser, which he saw as the tendency to keep packing as many cool features as possible into the palm pilot. So when a tech would come up to him with a new idea and say “How about we add this?”, the company's creator would pull out his block of wood (which he carried with him everywhere) and ask where this new feature would fit.

How can you tell if something's concrete?

+ You can examine it with your senses
+ You can see someone doing it
+ You can talk about it with someone, using terms and concepts that are familiar to them
+ You can use an example to describe it.

The opposite of concrete

The opposite of concreteness is abstraction. We talk abstractly when we use buzzwords, professional jargon, and ideas and descriptions that don't have any relevance to the real world.

When something is abstract, it makes it harder to understand and remember an idea. Abstraction also encourages people to interpret your idea in different ways

Unfortunately, it's extremely easy for us to slip into describing things abstractly. I'm sure you can remember a time when you were explaining a subject you know a lot about to someone who knew very little, and you realised they weren't following you. When I do that, I often find that I've:

+ forgotten to explain an important piece of information, assuming they already know it
+ used a word that means a lot to me, but means nothing to a casual audience
+ summed up a complex idea in a pithy sentence, rather than explaining in step-by-step, real-world terms what I mean.

It’s easy to forget that we’re experts or knowledgeable in something, and we have to actively try and remember that the more expert we are, the less natural it is for us to talk like someone who knows nothing about the subject.

The upshot: if you're passionate and knowledgeable about a subject and you want other people to know about it or care about it, then you're going to have to get concrete.

How do you make something concrete?

Made to Stick recommends that you spend some time visualising your customers or the people you're trying to influence. The book uses the example of the Saddleback Church in California which seeks to recruit and convert people they call 'Saddleback Sam'. They describe Saddleback Sam as:

+ not currently attending a church and skeptical about organised religion
+ in his late 30s or early 40s
+ has (at least) a university degree
+ married with two children
+ happy in his job, and content with his life

In fact, the Saddleback Church goes into even more detail than this, but the point is that once you have a clear idea of who your customer is, you start to figure out what their needs are. What do they want? What don’t they want?

That helps you figure out what messages will appeal to them. You can make your ideas concrete in ways that meet their specific needs, and you can figure out the best ways to deliver your message. For instance, Saddleback Sam works hard and wants to spend time with his family, so tele-marketing to him at night is probably a very bad idea.

So now you're explaining your idea in a way that people can easily visualise. How do you make them believe you?

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