There’s nothing more critical than being able to communicate your idea in a way that people will never forget. In this blog post, learn how.

Elephants never forget. But people do. So, to write this blog post, I called up partner-in-crime Daniel Epstein (Founder of Unreasonable Group) and asked him to describe an advertisement he simply couldn’t forget. He said it was a tough question, but the first ad that came to mind was this one:

As an American, Daniel sees 3,000 ads a day. Why did he remember this one? What made it stick? And how can we replicate what made it successful in conveying our ideas to potential investors, mentors, board members, partners, and to the press?

Brothers Chip and Dan Heath wrote an entire book on the subject, titled Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (highly recommended). Their breakdown of conveying an idea unforgettably is the best I’ve seen. In fact, it’s even organized in a way that makes it hard to forget. The book is dedicated to explaining how to make use of the following 6 principles to convey an idea unforgettably. Here’s a rundown:

Principle 1: Simplicity.

“A successful defense lawyers says, ‘If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get to the jury room they won’t remember any.’ To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion” (Made to Stick, p. 16). Focus on communicating one, core message. In the case of the “Got Milk?” ad above, it’s summarized in two words, clearly displayed at the end: “got milk?”

Principle 2: Unexpectedness.

You hop on a plane, stow away your bags, and sit back. As you pull out of the gate, you hear the flight attendant’s voice on the intercom. This is  your cue to zone out. You’ve heard this speech a gazillion times before, so you pick up a magazine you don’t even care to read and start leafing through it. The flight attendant starts explaining the safety instructions:

“If I could have your attention for a few moment, we sure would love to point out these safety features. If you haven’t been in an automobile since 1965, the proper way to fasten your seat belt is to slide the flat end into the buckle. To unfasten, lift up on the buckle and it will release. And as the song goes, there might be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there are only 6 ways to leave this aircraft: two forward exit doors, two over-wing removable window exists, and two aft exit doors. The location of each exit is clearly marked with signs over-head, as well as red and white disco lights along the floor of the aisle. Made ya look!” (Made to Stick, pp. 64-65).

The flight attendant, Karen Wood in this case, grabs your attention simply because she breaks a pattern. The “Got Milk?” ad does the same thing when Mr. Miller loses his arms. Bottom line: make your pitch something your audience isn’t expecting.

Principle 3: Concreteness.

Ideas need to be communicated with concrete images and with actionable statements. When I asked Daniel to describe a memorable advertisement, he said “the ad for milk where that old man’s arms get pulled out when he lifts a wheelbarrow.” That’s an image you’ll remember. What images can you paint in the mind of your audience that they can see clearly? The best example from the book: a jury is presented testimony that a mother takes good care of her son. The attorney defending the mother explains “She makes sure that her son brushes his teeth every night with his Darth Vader toothbrush.” The image of a kid using a Darth Vader toothbrush to clean his choppers resonates much more vividly with the jury than the image of conveyed by “She makes sure her son brushes his teeth every night.” And the jurors don’t forget this detail when they make their decision about the verdict.

Principle 4: Credibility.

People have to believe your ideas. To gain credibility, you want your audience to be able to test your idea and see if it stands up to challenge. You can present statistics and charts, undoubtedly. But with limited time and the reputation hard numbers have for being dull, this might not always be the best approach. Dan and Chip Heath offer an excellent example of a simple statement that enabled the American public to test an idea without the use of figures. During the 1980 presidential race, Ronald Reagan could have used innumerable statistics to demonstrate that the incumbent President Carter’s economic policies had made things worse. He allowed voters to test his point for themselves by saying, “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago” (Made to Stick, p. 16).

Principle 5: Emotions.

You want people to care about your ideas. If they care about you and care about what you’re trying to do, they won’t forget. In order to get them to care, you need to make them feel something. Statistics don’t do a good job of evoking actionable emotions. Usually, it’s one person’s story that does. One speech I will never forget from The Feast Conference a week and a half ago was delivered by Brian Bordainick, who concluded his relentlessly energetic speech with this sentiment: “I promise you one thing. We’ll either cross the finish line or I will collapse on the floor damn near trying.” People felt inspired. He got a standing ovation.

Principle 6: Stories.

Back in Homer’s day, when there were no written scripts, knowledge was handed down from generation to generation in the form of stories. Why? Because they’re unbelievably memorable. Tell a story, particularly a personal one, and people will have a hard time forgetting. Even the “Got Milk?” ad above tells a short story with a memorable plot that drives home the core message. When was the last time you heard the story of Little Red Riding Hood? Probably not nearly as recently as you read the New York Times. Which do you remember better?


Incidentally, the 6 principles outlined above fit the simple acronym “SUCCESs.” You won’t forget these 6 principles and if you use them, your audience won’t soon be forgetting you.

An Unreasonable Challenge:

Try it out – use the 6 principles above when you communicate big ideas this week. Let us know what happens in the comments below. Get sticky!

Teju Ravilochan

Author Teju Ravilochan

Teju is co-founder and CEO of Uncharted (formerly the Unreasonable Institute). He is driven by the desire to live in a world where every human being can be the master of their own fate, unbound by the chains of poverty, oppression, or injustice.

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