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Morning Feature: Sticky Ideas, Part I – The Secret of Writing

October 14, 2010

Morning Feature

Morning Feature: Sticky Ideas, Part I – The Secret of Writing

“What’s the secret of writing?”

The secret of writing is: Apply butt to chair.

“But what if you’re blocked? What if the coffee cup is empty, the ashtray is full, the page is still empty, and you’re cursing at the universe?”

Then the secret of writing is: Apply feet to sidewalk. (More)

Sticky Ideas, Part I – The Secret of Writing

As progressive Democrats, we need sticky ideas that people will hear, remember, repeat, and act on. So this week Morning Feature explores Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Today we discuss ideas that are simple, unexpected, and concrete. Tomorrow we consider credible, emotional stories. Saturday we conclude with a Stickiness Clinic, helping each other put it all together.

As a writer, I’ve often been asked to talk about writing, and one of the most common audience questions is: “What’s the secret of writing?” I always give the answer I offered in the introduction: Apply butt to chair. Writing is a difficult skill, and like any other difficult skill we get better with practice. To write better, write more.

Applying butt to chair usually works. But not always. Sometimes the words just won’t come, and that’s frustrating. Like any other difficult skill, writing is even more difficult when we’re frustrated. At some point we stop thinking about the topic we’re supposed to write, and start thinking about why we can’t write that topic. The more frustrated we get, the more we think about why we can’t write … and the more frustrated we get.

That sounds like a loop because it is. How do you get out of that loop? Apply feet to sidewalk. Take a walk. Anxiety is a physiological state, and a rhythmic exercise like walking helps release the anxiety. That lets the ideas flow again.

The secret of writing is: Apply butt to chair.

And if you’re blocked, the secret of writing is: Apply feet to sidewalk.

That’s easy to remember. It’s a sticky idea. But why is it sticky? That’s what Chip and Dan Heath explore in their book. Sticky ideas share common characteristics. To start with, sticky ideas are….


Apply butt to chair. Apply feet to sidewalk. They’re simple ideas. But not simplistic. Simple does not mean “dumb it down,” “use sound bites,” or “go for the least common denominator.” Instead, it means finding the core of a message: the key that unlocks the rest of an idea, even if you’ve forgotten some details or the details don’t fit a specific situation.

The Heaths offer a military example called Commander’s Intent, such as: Occupy that hill to protect the unit on your left. That may be the first sentence in a detailed plan that includes routes of advance, known enemy positions, fire support targets, radio call signs, resupply points, and even where to place the battalion aid station. It may be a good plan. But as military theorist Helmuth von Moltke wrote, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Maybe they reinforced that hill, or moved their positions. Maybe they’ve decided to attack your position. You won’t know until your troops make contact, and then they will be very busy and very scared. Messages will get garbled or exaggerated. Units will get lost or disorganized. The details of your plan are quickly obsolete. But your intent – Occupy that hill to protect the unit on your left – remains. Even if your troops can’t reach you, even if their situation bears no resemblance to your plan, they can make their own decisions and look for other ways to occupy the hill. Your intent is the core of the plan: the key that unlocks the rest of the idea.

Now consider the first part of our progressive agenda: People matter more than profits. It’s a simple core that unlocks a bigger idea. The specific issue may be mine safety, health care, banking regulations, or minimum wage laws. The details will often be very complex. But the simple core idea – People matter more than profits – will steer us toward more progressive solutions. Sticky ideas are simple. They’re also….


The secret to writing is: Apply butt to chair? Shouldn’t the secret to writing be about a clear theme, or an outline, or a distinctive voice, or something “writer-ish?” Well sure, if you want to bore your audience. They’ve heard all of that before, starting in junior high school English classes. It wasn’t enough or they wouldn’t be asking you for the secret to writing! Our brains tune out the familiar and hone in on the unexpected.

Moreover, Apply butt to chair doesn’t quite answer their question. It hints at an answer. It’s like a treasure map that says: “To find the answer, start here.” The follow-up answer – Apply feet to sidewalk – is also unexpected, the next clue on the map. Sticky ideas invite us on a journey of discovery. They intrigue us like mystery novels or crossword puzzles. They arouse our curiosity, and that makes them more memorable. We may not be able to recall minute details out of sequence, but give us the start of the treasure map again and we can remember our path and what we discovered along the way.

Now consider the second part of our progressive agenda: The earth is our home, not our trash can. “The earth is our home….” You can already hear the distant choir singing Kumbayah. Yawn. But then … “not our trash can.” Whoa! Ick! No more Kumbayah. You mean our home … like my house is my home? Hrmm. I should think more about that. Its unexpectedness makes the idea sticky. But sticky ideas are also….


Apply butt to chair. Apply feet to sidewalk. Your butt is right there, as is the chair, your feet, and the sidewalk. You know how to sit. You know how to walk. Pick one and do it.

Contrast that to: “Writing is a cognitive skill and requires regular practice to achieve mastery. Should you encounter anxiety while writing, moderate exercise may release the muscular tension arising from the fight or flight response, triggered by the limbic system when we encounter stress.”

You can wake up now. That second part is both true and mind-numbing. It makes me sound like an expert, but you probably tuned out halfway through that paragraph. If my goal was to sound like an expert, I succeeded. If my goal was to share some useful tips for better writing, I failed.

Experts love abstraction. Indeed the ability to consider a problem abstractly, in terms of general principles and relationships between them, is what defines an expert. We need experts, but abstract ideas only stick for other experts. As progressives, we need messages that stick with Fred, our archetypal median voter. That means concrete ideas that let Fred see himself or someone he knows … doing something!

Again, consider the second part of our progressive agenda: The earth is our home, not our trash can. “Earth” and “home” are abstract, but “trash can” makes them concrete. You know what a trash can is. You have one at home. Suddenly “home” is “where I live,” and most of us don’t want our homes to look like trash cans. Now Fred can see himself or someone he knows … doing something: cleaning up the trash. That’s concrete, and it makes the idea stick.

Sticky ideas are simple, unexpected, and concrete. Tomorrow we’ll see they’re also credible, emotional stories. Like a story about writer’s block. I’d tell you one, but I’m already late….


Happy Thursday!

  • winterbanyan

    Thanks for sharing your agony this morning. I have trod the path of block, and I quite agree. When applying butt to chair doesn’t work, applying feet to pavement often does.

    As for the ideas you bring forth here, I find them intriguing. On the face of it, they seem obvious, but they most definitely aren’t. I’m going to think about them for a bit here before I exude a swamp of words that takes a very clear point and makes it murky again.

    Hugggs and good morning!

    • NCrissieB

      This …

      On the face of it, they seem obvious, but they most definitely aren’t.

      … is common with sticky ideas. They are familiar enough that we feel comfortable playing with them, but they have enough unexpectedness that we discover surprises as we explore. And by exploring them and discovering those surprises, we can remember the ideas, repeat them, and act on them.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    People matter more than profits is fun to play with. A family member who is pro business and almost Fred was stopped short by it.

    His first reply was business needs to make a profit for anyone to have a job. My reply was that without customers no business could make a profit and that any political party that seems determined to destroy the middle class to protect the very wealthy is destroying their customer base.

    This isn’t socialism it’s business 101!

    • winterbanyan

      It not only stops them short, addisnana, it makes them think. No one really wants to adhere to the value that profits matter more than people (well almost no one) and once they start extrapolating from that simple statement… well, it does the kind of things sticky ideas are supposed to I guess. You start filling in blanks, looking at things from a slightly different angle, thinking about things you haven’t considered before…

      It’s a great, and very sticky, idea.

    • NCrissieB

      That’s where you bring it home with a concrete example, addisnana:

      Let’s say you make shirts. You have a lot of people who do the cutting and sewing. The city fire code requires two large exits, at different ends of the floor, but the boss can only sit next to one. But what if employees sneak out the other door to take breaks, or maybe even steal shirts? That cuts into the profits. Locking the other door would cut down on losses. It’d be good for the bottom line. Do you lock the other door?

      He’ll probably say no, because if there’s a fire people might die. You then reply: “Yes, and People matter more than profits.”

      You’re not saying the owner of the shirt factory can’t make a profit at all. You’re saying he can’t make a profit by hurting people. And he’ll almost certainly agree. You and he still may not agree on every possible application – not even all progressives do! – but the conversation is no longer about how to maximize profits. Now people matter too … so it’s a more progressive conversation.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Hill Jill

    With me, its “apply Butt to chair, turn off the Internet”

    I check in with you guys of course, but the Internet is sooooo distracting.

    • NCrissieB

      Nice to see you, Hill Jill! 😀

      That’s an excellent example of applying a simple, core idea – Apply butt to chair – in a more complex way. Just sitting in a chair won’t get your writing done. You have to avoid distractions and … write! That may mean logging off the internet, closing an office door, or putting on music that helps you focus. You may need to try different specific things, and something that works today might not work tomorrow. Or tomorrow might bring a different distraction, one you haven’t had before. But you still need that simple core – Apply butt to chair – to get your writing done. It’s the key that unlocks the rest of the idea.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    I have a chicken or egg question. Does one start with an idea and try to make it sticky or does the sticky version emerge as “people matter more than profits” and the writer with butt on chair goes “Eureka”.

    • NCrissieB

      To quote a writing mentor: “There is no good writing. There is only good rewriting.”

      Ideas rarely pop into our heads in “the sticky version.” It happens, but don’t count on it happening … and don’t assume it happened just because you see your idea in words and think “Oh that’s good!” You probably already know a lot about that topic. You may even be an expert. Your “Oh, that’s good!” may be someone else’s “Huh?”

      And the more expert you are, the more likely that will happen. The Heath brothers call that The Curse Of Knowledge. Once you know something, it’s hard to imagine not knowing it … and it’s hard to imagine how an idea will sound to someone who doesn’t know what you know.

      How can you be sure your “Oh that’s good!” really is good? Well, is it simple (a key that unlocks a bigger idea)? Is it unexpected (inviting the audience on a journey)? Is it concrete (about someone actually doing something)? (We’ll add three more points tomorrow.) And if not, how can you improve it?

      “There is no good writing. There is only good rewriting.”

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • JanF

    That was certainly worth waiting for. Interesting how you turned your own anxiety over a blank page into a stickier message for us. Now when I think of this topic, I will remember the “secret to writing” … and vice versa.

    Simple, Unexpected. Not Simplistic or Shocking. The subtleties of our language are fun to play with.

    I will have to come back and add more because I saw at least two things I want to know more about but I have an SU for today also:

    Start working on the project because you can’t finish if you never start

    Back later.

    • winterbanyan

      I used something similar after I sold my first book. I spent three months in total paralysis, afraid to try my hand at a second one. What if they didn’t like it.

      Then, duh, the light went on: you can’t sell it if you never write it. With the corollary: if you don’t sell it, how are you worse off than right now?

      Heh. I’ve told that “If you don’t write it you can be sure you’ll never sell it” to plenty of aspiring authors.

    • NCrissieB

      That was an old writer’s trick. When you can’t think of what to write, write about not being able to write. Just start writing … and it will (usually) get easier as you work into it.

      My problem this morning was finding a lead that was: (1) simple; (2) unexpected; (3) concrete; (4) not cribbed from the book; (5) not another See How Good TGOPers Are At This?; and, (6) 53 words or less.

      I had to do ##1-3 because you can’t break a rule when you introduce it for the first time. I didn’t want to do #4 because it felt like cheating, plus most of their examples wouldn’t fit in 53 words or less. addisnana discussed #5 yesterday. And #6 is the WordPress limit for the intro to appear in full on our front page.

      That’s a lot of balls to juggle, and I kept dropping them. I considered a lead about how I couldn’t find a lead, but it didn’t lead into the topic. I got frustrated enough that I knew I had to step away. So I took a walk and realized I could use my frustration as a lead into the topic – an example of sticky advice about writing – if I wrote it right.

      It didn’t spill out right the first time (see my reply to addisnana above), but I could polish it to juggle all six balls. Finally.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • JanF

        Ha. This is very funny: you can’t break a rule when you introduce it for the first time

        Is the second time okay? 😉

        By the way, after coming back and seeing all the excellent comments, my other questions either got answered or forgotten. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s installment.

        Thanks again. This post really made it easy to get the SUC concept. And as you can see from my comment above, I missed the C which had been introduced by you but had not yet filtered into my brain. It has something to do with “paying the bills”.

        • NCrissieB

          This is actually a good question, Jan:

          This is very funny: you can’t break a rule when you introduce it for the first time.

          Is the second time okay?

          The answer is an unequivocal “It depends.” If someone fully gets the concept the first time, then yes, you can introduce exceptions. But most of us need to practice using a rule a few times first, or the exceptions just confuse us.

          Good afternoon! ::hugggggs::

  • TheFatLadySings

    I have a ritual I go through before starting a new writing project. I clean my house or office. The physical activity causes my mind to work and decluttering the house declutters my mental state. I also frequently put down the computer in the late afternoon when my mind dulls and go for a walk.

    Another sticky writing idea should be: Go with the Circadian Flow.

    Put your butt in the chair when your circadian rhythm is perking up, and go for a walk when it slows. In my case, my best times for writing are after eight am until about 1 or two, and then from 7 pm until about midnight or 1 am.

    After that, I apply head to pillow.

    Bill Clinton will be holding a rally in my front yard this afternoon. I will take pics.

    What is the new schedule over in orangeland now?

    • J Brunner fan

      Wow, how awesome is that TFLS.

      I hope you share.

    • NCrissieB

      Let’s consider this, Lauren: Go with the Circadian Flow.

      It’s sticky only if you already know what a circadian rhythm is. You not only need to have a sense of “I have more energy at some times of day than at others,” but you also have to know the technical term for that is “circadian rhythm.” If you know the former but not the latter, the phrase won’t stick for you (even if the idea might). In short: it’s abstract, not concrete. It’s sticky for ‘experts’ but not for others. So how could you rework it to make it stickier?

      As for the new schedule, Morning Feature is now at DailyKos Saturday-Wednesday. Thursday-Friday MFs are BPI-only. Other BPI series like Furthermore or HEMMED In may crosspost the next day, but that’s up to each author. On days when MF crossposts, we prefer to crosspost other BPI content at 7.45am (ET), so readers have time to reply to MF first.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • J Brunner fan

    Morning all!
    Thanks so much Crissie.

    • NCrissieB

      Thank you, JBF. How’s your day going?

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • DBunn

    Stickiness and “Memes”

    We see that word “meme” used a lot, but it was only in the last couple of years that I came to understand what it really means. In my own words: A meme is to cultural propagation and evolution what a gene is to biological propagation and evolution.

    Like genes, memes can be more successful or less, and the criteria for success are similar for both– they become widespread and enduring. Some properties of memes that contribute to success are 1) they catch your attention when told to you; 2) you can remember them; 3) you can tell them to others.

    “Ideas that are simple, unexpected, and concrete” are good candidates to become successful memes. “Unexpected” is what catches your attention; “simple” makes them easy to remember and repeat; and “concrete” is a measure of relevance, your reason to care about the simple, unexpected thing you have just been told.

    I learned most of this stuff from a brilliant book, Religion Explained, by Pascal Boyer. Boyer is not a theologian, and doesn’t care to argue the truth or validity of any religion. He is a cultural anthropologist who applies concepts of neuro-psychology to his field. Boyer proposes that the very widespread notions of deities/spirits can be thought of as highly sticky memes: They are simple– a deity is a person. They are surprising– the deity/person has one or more unusual qualities, such as invisibility, immortality, an animal’s head, ability to hurl lightning bolts. They are concrete– the deity/person with extraordinary powers is paying attention to us and cares what we do.

    For a counter-example, consider the spoof-deity known as Flying Spaghetti Monster. It is simple and surprising, but not concrete. We don’t care about it, because it’s not a person, and nothing in our experience or intuition suggests that pasta, even if animate and flying, would care one way or the other about us 🙂

    All of this is just miscellaneous musings on the general subject of this diary. Part of the concept cloud, perhaps, possibly interesting to some.

    G’morning, and do we do huggs here at BPI? (checks comments above, sees that we do) Huggs etc to all…

    • NCrissieB

      Exactly, DBunn. Sticky ideas become memes. Some of the stickiest ideas have been passed around across cultures for thousands of years. Consider Aesop’s fable of “The Fox and the Grapes.” Even if you can’t repeat the fable word for word, you know the phrase “sour grapes.” And most languages have a phrase for “sour grapes.” Stickiness is the key to the viability of a meme.

      As for Her Holy Noodliness, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is actually very concrete. We’ve all seen spaghetti. Most of us have eaten spaghetti, which echoes on a very ancient religious practice. Indeed it is her (yes, she’s a she) too-concreteness that makes Her Holy Noodliness so unexpected (she’s not just another Deity From Central Casting) and thus a memorable (sticky!) idea.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • DBunn

        We may be using different understandings of the word “concrete” 😯

        Personally, I find concrete spaghetti a bit too crunchy. But that’s just me.

        • JanF

          When I think of concrete spaghetti, I think about this sort of thing. But then, I never even knew what an FSM was until I started blogging so my cultural illiteracy is on full display again:

        • NCrissieB

          In this context, “concrete” is at the opposite end of the scale from “abstract” or “theoretical.” In that sense, spaghetti is very concrete; you can see, touch, and taste it, and most of us have.

          Good afternoon! ::hugggggs::

    • JanF

      I like this:
      1) they catch your attention when told to you;
      2) you can remember them;
      3) you can tell them to others.

      #2 is necessary unless you have no rule for complete accuracy for #3 or you substitute “you can relay the gist of it to others” for #3.

      Some memorable product ads have elements of these and certainly advertising is an example of where “sticky” words are golden.

      • DBunn

        Rule for accuracy

        Staying with the example of religion, we can observe that many believers are pretty unclear on the details of their professed beliefs. Even big details that might seem important, like for instance that Jesus advocated love and assistance for the poor and the sick, and told us to pay our damn taxes. Perhaps these details get tuned out as just more of the usual moralistic sermonizing, nothing surprising or exciting about that.

        What they all remember and can repeat are the parts that satisfy the three criteria Crissie cited: simple, surprising, concrete. Jesus, the son of God, who rose from the dead– that’s exciting, surprising! Jesus, the dude with the power to confer immortality on our individual souls– it doesn’t get much more concretely relevant than that.

        • JanF

          Interesting choice: “Jesus advocated love and assistance for the poor and the sick”.

          One really “sticky” thing that has been used for that: “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. Simple, unexpected (“ah, as myself!”), concrete.

          So why is it so easily forgotten? Too hard?

          Maybe we will find out tomorrow.

        • NCrissieB

          We’ll touch on that tomorrow. Hint: a wonderful quote by Father Andrew Greeley … “Religion is story before it is anything else, and after it is everything else.”

          Good afternoon! ::hugggggs::

      • NCrissieB

        We’ll talk about Credibility (the second C in SUCCESs) tomorrow. Sticky ideas needn’t be true or accurate – Romeo and Juliet is neither – but credibility helps stickiness.

        Good afternoon! ::hugggggs::