How to make your message stick

Finish the following sentences:

  • Where there’s smoke …
  • If at first you don’t succeed …
  • If you lie with dogs …
  • Better late than …

Now try these …

  • The organisations purpose is …
  • Our team’s role is …
  • Our strategic plan is …
  • My role is …

If you are like most people you will have no trouble finishing the first four and then stare blankly at the final four. Why is that?

Chip and Dan Heath in their book ‘Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die’ identified many stories, urban myths, metaphors, proverbs and sayings that cross cultures and languages, have survived for thousands of years and are instantly recognisable as carrying some inherent wisdom.

They gathered these sticky stories and analysed what they had in common. The result is the acronym SUCCES. Which stands for:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

Think of a message that you would like your audience to remember. Now apply the SUCCES principles to it and design a sticky message.


The average proverb is 8 words long and usually involves some sort of alliteration, repetition or rhythm. Find the core of your message. If your message was a proverb what would it be? Some examples used in the book include:

  • Herb Kelleher the longest serving CEO at Southwest Airlines used “THE low-fare airline”
  • “It’s the economy stupid!” came from the Clinton Presidential campaign
  • Hoover Adams ran the Dunn Daily Record a local newspaper with 120% readership! His core message was “Names, names, names.”


Aim to get their attention and keep it. Edward de Bono notes that our attention is pulled to the unusual, while the usual gets ignored. Making your message unusual requires some creativity with the words in your message, the image or the feeling the message elicits.


Try this quick quiz:

  1. Think of 5 silly things that people have done in the world in the past 10 years
  2. Think of 5 silly things your kids have done in the past 10 years

If you are like most people (and you have kids) you would have found the second statement easier than the first. This is because the second statement gives you a concrete area to look for answers in. ‘You kids’ is more concrete than ‘people.’ Proverbs, timeless stories, urban myths and the like, stand the test of time because they involve the concrete over the abstract. Talk about people, actions and stories, not data.


We are more likely to believe something if it comes from a source that we consider to be credible or authoritative. Books, journals and newspapers all testify to the power of the written word. Authors, doctors, professionals, academics, people with titles, self made millionaires and the most skilled communicators all carry extra authority … even if some of them are complete idiots! For credibility, where can you place your message?


Mother Teresa said “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Advertisers for charities have known about this for ages and so you don’t send money to a bank account anymore, you sponsor a child, you get a photo and progress reports.

Conversely, the aim of war time propaganda is to de-humanise the enemy. Imagine how hard it would be to motivate troops to attack and kill if the sergeant said something like ‘Today we will be engaging their 4th Battalion. Keep a special eye out for Jonathan Mudford. He has a wife and two children, likes to play football and drink with his mates at the pub!’

How can you make you message emotional as well as logical? What is the audience’s self interest? What is the audience’s identity? What do you have in common with the audience?


Try to remember the following items:

  •   Tie
  •   ATM
  •   Left
  •   Car keys
  •   Book
  •   Dixon
  •   Shop
  •   Mum’s birthday
  •   Fountain

Now try to remember the following story:

“I put on my tie, grabbed the car keys and drove to the shops. First stop was at the ATM as I needed to buy a book for Mum’s birthday. With cash in hand I turned left down Dixon Street and walked past the fountain.”

Get the picture?

By the way here are the answers to the opening where we asked you to finish the following sentences:

  •   If you lie with dogs you’ll smell in the morning
  •   If at first you don’t succeed try new batteries
  •   Better late than pregnant!
  •   Where there’s smoke there’s pollution

Many thanks to Chip and Dan Heath and their book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” 2007 Random House.

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