Sep 20, 2010

Concrete: You Can Walk Around On It

I love you as much as all the stars in the sky.

I love you as much as all the grains of sand on the shores.

It’s a game that almost every parent has played with his or her child—I love you as much.

I remember nights of cuddling in a twin bed, my tired brain struggling for a word picture in response to my boy’s. For him this game helped to root his love—by tagging this elusive emotion with a familiar image, love became something real.

This should not surprise us, say Chip and Dan Heath in our third chapter of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. When we are able to describe our message concretely it will have greater meaning and stick better. This week we discuss quality number three of a sticky message: Concreteness.

What exactly does it mean to be concrete?

If you can examine something with your senses, it’s concrete, the brothers Heath tell us.

Sour Grapes

One of the best illustrations of the sticky nature of a concrete message is Aesop’s fable The Fox and the Grapes. This story about a fox who unsuccessfully tries to nab a bunch of grapes has survived more than 2500 years and has versions in Hungary, China, and Sweden. The fox’s final statement, I am sure they are sour, reflects our human nature to rationalize our failures. But the reason the fable has prevailed, the authors say, are the concrete images used in the story.

Language is often abstract, but life is not abstractEven the most abstract business strategy must eventually show up in the tangible actions of human beings. It’s easier to understand those tangible actions than to understand and abstract strategy statement—just as it’s easier to understand a fox dissing some grapes than an abstract  commentary about the human psyche.

The authors describe several real-life examples of effective campaigns that utilized concreteness to their advantage. The one that sticks with me is  The Nature Conservatory’s “bucks and acres” program. This program uses donor money to buy up plots of land to protect environmental treasures around the world. One donor commented that the program provides results you could walk around on.

That’s pretty concrete.

Whether you are teaching children math or memorizing literature, messages that are described concretely will be easier to remember.

Velcro Memory

One reason concrete images are easier to remember can be explained by the Velcro Theory of Memory.

If you look at the two sides of Velcro material, you’ll see that one is covered with thousands of tiny hooks and the other is covered with thousands of tiny loops. When you press the two sides together, a huge number of hooks get snagged inside the loops, and that’s what causes Velcro to seal.

Your brain hosts a truly staggering number of loops. The more hooks an idea has, the better it will cling to memory…

Concrete messages have more hooks than abstract ones. More hooks mean more people from varying backgrounds coordinate more effectively because the message is clearer to all involved.

The Curse Strikes Again

If making a message concrete is so effective and so easy, why don’t we do it more often?

Because of our old friend, The Curse of Knowledge, the Heath brothers tell us.

The barrier is simply forgetfulness—we forget that we’re slipping into abstractspeak. We forget that other people don’t know what we know.

And that forgetfulness can greatly hinder our message.

So, in addition to keeping it simple and keeping it surprising, we are tying a ribbon around our finger to remember to keep our message concrete. Right?

And don’t forget: I love you as much as there are drops of water in the ocean.

Next week we discuss chapter four of Made to Stick: Credible. Meet us here!

Related posts:

Ann's Dry As A Creek Bed: Concrete verses Abstract

Nancy's I Won A Trip to Concrete!

Charity's Getting My Head in the Clouds

Faith Hope and CherryTea's Love Revealed

Lyla's Hanging Towels on Hooks

Sandra's Concrete Compassion

Erin's Don't Just Tell Me How--Show Me

L.L.’s Welcome to Our House

Monica's Walking in Red

Glynn's Concrete--As the Air

Laura's I Am Rubber, R U Glue?

Other Made to Stick posts:

Chapter Two: Unexpected Journey

Chapter One: Simple

Photo by A Simple Country Girl, used with permission. Post by Laura Boggess.

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