“Tell me a story, mom.”

“Okay. Once upon a time, they lived happily ever after.”

She squeezed Puffalump. “No, mom! A real story!”

“Well, yesterday I was in the grocery and….”

Now she pointed Puffy’s arm at her bookshelf. “No, mom! A good story!”

Well, sometimes even Mamas make mistakes. (More)

Sticky Ideas, Part II – Tell Me a Story

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. Yesterday we discussed ideas that are simple, unexpected, and concrete. Today we consider credible, emotional stories. Saturday we conclude with a Stickiness Clinic, helping each other put it all together.

Springoff the Fifth wasn’t going to let me out of bedtime story duty. Not that I really minded. I enjoyed reading to her, and watching her act out favorite parts of the story with Puffalump, her favorite stuffed toy. She took Puffy everywhere. Puffy’s skin was pink parachute nylon, so she could go in the wash. And I could sew Puffy back together when her seams wore out. Several times.

So when Puffy pointed to the bookshelf, it was time for Judith Viorst’s My Mama Says There Aren’t Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Creatures, Demons, Monsters, Fiends, Goblins, or Things. Or as we called it, based on the refrain that runs through the story, “Sometimes even Mamas make mistakes.” It’s the story of a young boy whose Mama says there are no scary monsters, but his Mama forgot his favorite flavor of ice cream, and one day she told him to wear boots and it didn’t even rain. “Sometimes even Mamas make mistakes” … and what if Mama’s wrong about the monsters too? Happily, “But sometimes they don’t.”

Springoff the Fifth is in college now. I haven’t read that story in years. But I remember it vividly, as does she. Its refrain – “Sometimes even Mamas make mistakes” – was very handy that one time I made a mistake. Okay, the many, many times. In sharing that story we rehearsed mom being wrong, yet still reliable.

Viorst’s book was sticky, and encouraging. Why was it sticky, and not just from spilled food? Well, it was….


Many sticky (and useful!) ideas are neither factual nor scientifically accurate. There probably was no shepherd boy who falsely cried “Wolf!” twice, then got eaten when a wolf showed up and no one believed his third cry. Yet we can easily imagine people not responding to a real warning after someone has repeatedly given false warnings. The fable isn’t factual or scientifically accurate … but it’s credible, sticky, and useful. How do we make our ideas credible? The Heath brothers discuss two kinds of credibility.

Ideas can have external credibility, based on an authority or anti-authority. An authority may be an expert (e.g.: Lance Armstrong on cycling), or a celebrity whom we take for an expert by association (e.g.: Armstrong promoting sports drinks). And there are anti-authorities, people who ignored experts and talk about the consequences (e.g.: Pam Laffin on smoking). Anti-authorities are often more credible than experts, and we’ll discuss why below.

Ideas can also have internal credibility:  Internal credibility can come from convincing details (like those I shared about Puffalump), or from accessible statistics (e.g.: you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than to win the lottery jackpot). Finally, ideas can include testable credentials that the audience can verify from their own experience (e.g.: “It’s like when grocery stores put candy next to the cash register;” you’ve seen that too, so the point seems credible).

Consider the first point in our progressive agenda: People matter more than profits. Its credibility comes from a testable credential: “Would you kill people to make an extra percent or two?” Non-sociopaths will answer “No.” Then we talk about other harms. We may not agree on every specific case – not even all progressives do – but the discussion is no longer only about money. We’ve established credibility.


Credibility makes others believe us, but if they don’t care then our idea is merely trivia. To make people care, a sticky idea needs emotional appeal. So how do we get people to care about our ideas?

First there’s the Mother Theresa Principle: “If I look at many, I will do nothing. If I look at one, I will act.” Ideas affecting thousands or millions seem too big for our efforts to matter, but if we consider one person then we can help. That’s why we talk about Fred, our archetypal median voter. Fred isn’t a real person, but he’s not a general idea of “the masses” either. He is specific. For one thing, he has a name. We’ve talked about what matters to Fred, and why. The information came from opinion polls, but we made that personal. I’m an activist because I care about Fred and want government to help him, or at least not make his problems worse.

Ideas can also appeal to self-interest, and not only the basest self-interest. Research shows most of us don’t vote on pure self-interest: “What’s in it for me?” We more often consider idealized self-interest: what The Person I Want To Be would want. When Texas created its new anti-littering campaign, the slogan was Don’t Mess With Texas. But the emotional hook, represented by masculine Texas celebrities in the ads, was Real (Texas) Men Don’t Litter. The ads redefined an idealized self-interest, made “Texas Bubba” care about littering, and worked better than even their creators dared hope. It’s one of the book’s most inspirational….


Earlier I said that anti-authorities are often more credible than experts. Why? It’s the same reason “Sometimes even Mamas make mistakes” helped my daughter and I in the many, many, many times I messed up. Stories are not only entertainment. Research shows that when we tell, read, or hear a story about doing something, we use the same parts of our brains we’d use to do that thing. Stories simulate behavior, and that’s why the Heath brothers describe stories as flight simulators. Pam Laffin’s stories about her battles with emphysema and needing a lung transplant in her 20s hit us far harder any expert lecture on the risks of smoking because we experience those battles as we read or see her describe them.

Stories are sticky ideas because the story form imposes most of the other points of stickiness: a Simple core, Unexpected twists, Concrete details of people doing things, making the story Credible and, if it has a sympathetic character, Emotional. And since they simulate behavior – we process them as if we were doing them – stories can inspire us to do something.

So the next time you’re tempted to reel off a list of facts and figures … stop yourself and tell a story instead. You don’t even have to make one up. Many of the stickiest and best stories are already out there. Subway didn’t invent Jared Fogle; they found him by a series of coincidences, and one of their marketing people was smart enough to know a good story when he saw it.

And if you can remember SUCCESs – Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories – you’re smart enough to do that too.


Happy Friday!