Medina said, “The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded – and retained.” Since attention is so important, it will be logical to ask what we can do to arouse and hold people’s attention for the duration that is needed for learning. According to Medina, our attention is related to three broad areas: memory, interest, and awareness. What are in our past--our experiences and cultural background, are gold mines to dig for attention. If we can somehow connect what we want to learn to what we already know, sustaining attention is not that difficult. Interest and attention affect each other. Interest creates attention, as anyone who seriously pursues a hobby knows. On the other hand, marketing research showed that “the novel stimuli—the unusual, unpredictable, or distinctive” can arouse attention and that attention could lead to interest. Both sensory stimulation and emotions pique our awareness. Special sight, smell, and noise could grab our attention, at least for a short time till we find out what it is. In terms of getting and holding attention, the emotions and feelings are the most important influencers. Many people probably would remember how intense some of their internal dialogues were even without any external stimuli. Medina said: “Emotionally charged events persist much longer in our memories and are recalled with greater accuracy than neutral memories—the brain remembers the emotional components of an experience better than any other aspect. Studies show that emotional arousal focuses attention on the gist of an experience at the expense of peripheral details.” In that sense, I deeply appreciate Medina’s teaching strategy. He mentioned that “we are better at seeing patterns and abstracting the meaning of an event than we are at recording detail.” Therefore, it’s better to “start with the key ideas and, in a hierarchical fashion, form the details around these larger notions.” He said that our “memory is enhanced by creating association between concepts.” “The most common communication mistakes: relating too much information, with not enough time devoted to connecting the dots. Lots of force feeding, very little digestion.” Medina is an award winning teacher. Apparently his method works. He has two other insights about teaching and communication. One is about multitasking. He doesn’t believe that we can pay attention to and work on more than one higher level task at the same time. I didn’t find his point well supported by the brain science but I agree with the conclusion full heartedly. You see, I found out that the only way I can enjoy my children and have a positive influence on them is when I can discipline myself to be there with them mentally when I am with them physically. I just can’t divide my attention and hope I can get something else done while with them. Medina said, “The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially one at a time.” “Good multitaskers simply have better working memory.” It takes them less time to switch their attention and focus on a new task. Medina
Do you know why some ideas survive and others die? Do you know how effective ideas are constructed? According to Chip Heath & Dan Heath, the authors of Made to Stick, successful ideas share the common traits and unsuccessful ones are unsuccessful in unpredictable ways. Therefore we can study and improve. To craft and spread a useful and lasting idea, we need the ability to evaluate the idea. Seeing the intention of an idea manifested in various ways and seeing good and bad examples are some of the best approaches to raise our awareness and form our ideals. The book gives us plenty of each. It is very well written and supported. The bonuses of the book are many interesting observations of human behaviors. For example, in terms of motivation, on the Maslow’s human needs hierarchy, we think other people live in the Maslow’s basement and we have a penthouse apartment. Personally, through this book, I saw my biggest hurdles for effective communications as the curse of knowledge and burying the lead. With knowledge, we forgot what it’s like not to know. With expertise, we appreciate so many details/nuances and frequently lose track of the most critically important idea.
Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath is one of those rare books that I bribed my kids to go to bed earlier and get up later as soon as I started reading. It was such a pleasure to go through and it had such a huge impact on my thinking. I will remember some of the examples and case studies for many years to come. Hopefully I will pause and catch myself more often before I commit another one of the communication sins mentioned in the book.
Here are a few things that hinder the effective communications that I could personally relate to.
· The curse of knowledge. After we have learned something, we don’t remember what it’s like not to know something or be able to do something. For example, when my older daughter was two, we tried to teach her how to count. She knew how to recite numbers. However, she had a hard time to match numbers with objects. One object she would count as one, two as two, then three, four, five, etc she would also count as two. I was at my wit’s end. I simply didn’t understand why she can’t get it and I didn’t know how I can make her get it. Knowing and not knowing seem to be two discrete states that can’t be connected easily. After you know something, a one way switch is flipped and you are not accessible to the state of not knowing anymore. This is one of the most important points we should be aware of when we communicate. With the curse of knowledge, often we are also tempted to share all we know and in a single setting, we are tempted to share the tips and conclusions which emerge from months of hard work, without providing the necessary context, without much supporting evidence or examples, and nobody will be able to figure out how what we said is relevant. Once in a while we might state what we know so accurate, to the point of useless to others.
· “Bury the lead”. A concept borrowed from journalism. Inverted pyramid structure of ideas/information is how good journalists use to write their pieces. You read the first sentence/paragraph and you know most of the story. That first sentence/paragraph is called the Lead. This is something I saw myself doing over and over. I got lost in the abundance of information and tried to organize that information in a logical fashion. In other words, I worry more about presentation and less about the core message, the most critically important element that I really wanted to convey. There are two other manifestations of “burying the lead”. One is “starting with something interesting but irrelevant in hopes of entertaining the audience.” The remedy is to “work to make the core message itself more interesting.” Another one is “tempted to tell you everything, with perfect accuracy, right up front, when they should be giving you just enough info to be useful, then a little more, then a little more.”
· Decision paralysis. This one is on the receiving end. Research shows, when people are uncertain about something, when they are presented with many options, even if they are all attractive, they will delay their actions or decisions, or even take the route that is not very attractive. So if you want your audience to act on your message, you need to reduce the amount of information in your idea.
The main point of the book is that you can study success and get better yourself. Here is the best part. Successes share some common traits and you can identify them and create a template or checklist. One interesting study quoted in the book is about systematic creativity. According to the study, surprisingly, people who were given the creative template for ads produced ads that were judged more creative compared to people who were given other types of creative training, such as free association. The authors said it better. “If you want to spread your ideas to other people, you should work within the confines of the rules that have allowed other ideas to succeed over time. You want to invent new ideas, not new rules.” The book lay out the requirements and common traits shared by useful and lasting ideas, the sticky ideas as the authors call them. It also shows you what the core message is like, how you can find the core message, and communicate it effectively.
In their framework, there are two stages in making the ideas sticky. First, the Answer stage, you use your expertise to find the most critically important idea and make it compact. Then, Telling Other stage. You need to construct your idea in the way that makes your audience pay attention, understand and remember, agree and believe, care, and be able to act on. The checklist for making your ideas sticky is: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and stories. Every one of these elements is rich and powerful and is usually under applied.
Take simplicity for example. Be simple does not mean to dumb down or just sound bites. Be simple means you only keep the most critically important element. Not only you strip away anything that is not essential, but also you leave out some important but not the most critically important elements. Be simple also means that the expression of the idea is so compact, so concise, so clear that it is memorable and its meaning is not open to interpretation.
The book is very thought-provoking. Many points and observations struck me and made me pause and reflect. Here are a few of them.
· Presentation. “The goal is not to summarize; it’s to make you care about knowing something, and then tell you what you want to know.” When we give a talk, we are often so passionate about our subject. We assume you feel the same way about the topic. See, we know so much. We just want to give you all the facts and conclusions. We assume you will pay attention. You have to. Our talk is not mandatory. You come to our talk by your own free choice. It’s a waste of your time not to pay attention, don’t you think? We put in little thoughts on how to get your attention and how to hold your attention. However, “To make our communications more effective, we need to shift our thinking from “what information do I need to convey?” to “what questions do I want my audience to ask?””
· Using numbers and statistics. Without using numbers and statistics, and equations by the same token, our ideas seem to be wishy-washy, hand-waving. But numbers alone don’t convey much. Most people don’t have an intuitive feel about the magnitude and relevancy of pure numbers. Numbers and statistics are useful only if you can use them to illustrate relationships in the right context.
· Concreteness. The authors observed the difference between novice and expert. “If concreteness is so powerful, why do we slip so easily into abstraction? The reason is simple: because the difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly”. “Novices perceive concrete details as concrete details. Experts perceive concrete details as symbols of patterns and insights that they have learned through years of experience. And, because they are capable of seeing a higher level of insight, they naturally want to talk on a higher level.”
· Availability bias. People believe something is more likely to happen or to be true when it’s easier to remember.
· Motivation. We tend to think that we are motivated by higher and nobler desires and other people are motivated by more materialistic and base desires.
Overall, this is a book worth digesting. The language is fluid. The layout and the fonts are very pleasing to the eyes in the hardcover edition. The book is well researched and full of intriguing examples. I think it’s a must-read for people who want their ideas to have impact. There is an Easy Reference Guide at the end of the book. It is a very useful refresher after you read the book. The Notes section is worth reading as well. There are a lot of fascinating studies and papers plus insightful comments. The index is well prepared. I could flip the page in the index section and linger on one or two entries and see what they remind me of.