“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

As you look back on your life, what sticks out?

“Sticky = understandable, memorable, and effective in changing thought or behavior.”

In their book “Made to Stick — Why some ideas survive and others die” Chip and Dan Heath give some very useful sticky advice about the importance of  using concrete language  (instead of being abstract).

Which target customer description for Trader Joes* is more memorable, #1 or #2?

#1. “An unemployed college professor who drives a very, very used Volvo.”

#2. “People who are of high socioeconomic status and are quality-conscious but also budget-conscious, and who value variety and new experiences.”

*Trader Joes is a specialty food market that carries inexpensive but exotic food, like Moroccan simmer sauce for $2.53.

The beauty of #1 is that the language is specific and sensory and everyone understands the message in a similar way.  We know that person, even if it’s a simplification.  It ensures that everyone in the organization has a common picture of the customer.

The adjective-filled #2 statement is “corpspeak.” It doesn’t provide as clear of an image as “the unemployed college professor”.

Communication has taken place in a very concrete way with description #1: It’s understandable. It’s memorable. It guides behavior. Would the professor like red-pepper soup? Methinks yes. Specific buying actions, advertising decisions can be made based on this common understanding.

We come across “corpspeak” often at Learning Design Network when we’re working with leaders to help spread their strategic visions to “the masses” in their organizations. Often, leaders aren’t even aware that they are speaking abstractly. In all fairness, it’s because once we know something, we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Then we have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.

To illustrate this communication challenge Chip and Dan Heath site a pretty interesting study conducted by Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology. It was based on a simple game, which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.

“Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two.”

Why do you think the results are so poor? Because when you tap, it’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune playing along in our heads but the listener can’t hear that, they’re only hearing some weird Morse code.

When a CEO urges her team to “unlock shareholder value,” that challenge means something vivid to her but it doesn’t get communicated in such a way so that people know precisely what’s being asked of them and  even more importantly why it’s being asked.


We often think communication has taken place when we’re delivering the message because it’s taking place in our heads. We hear the song, so speak.  But to truly connect with people, we must create CONTEXT and RELEVANCY for them. We must ENGAGE them.

To “make it stick “we use story-telling, gaming techniques, dialogue exercises, visual metaphors and information design to create the right conditions for stickiness: understandable, memorable, effective in changing thoughts and behaviors.  Our approach is a very interactive process and much more effective than the one-way communication methods currently used by most organizations (Power Point, road shows, lectures, videos etc.)

Tags: , , ,