Book gleaning is a series of posts that highlight specific books and what we can take from them to apply to public speaking. In this post, we’ll be discussing the book Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath.
Why do some ideas thrive while others die? And how do we improve the chances of worthy ideas? In Made to Stick, accomplished educators and idea collectors Chip and Dan Heath tackle head-on these vexing questions. Inside, the brothers Heath reveal the anatomy of ideas that stick and explain ways to make ideas stickier, such as applying the “human scale principle,” using the “Velcro Theory of Memory,” and creating “curiosity gaps.”
The curse of knowledge
This is a concept I’ve thought about for a while but could never explain it properly.
Essentially, if you start talking about an idea, you have context in your head for what you’re talking about, why you’re talking about it, and other relevant information that others don’t have.
Simple example: if you try tapping the rhythm to a song so that someone else can guess what song it is, they will almost never figure it out. In your head, you’re thinking of the tune and matching your tapping to it. It’s hard to understand how the other person doesn’t know what song it is, since it’s so clear to you. They, on the other hand, have none of the context you do, so the message isn’t conveyed properly.
Application: When explaining a concept to a judge, keep in mind that they haven’t spent hours researching the case like you have. Make sure to provide enough context so that they can follow along.
How do you take a complex idea and distill it into one sentence so that the audience can digest it?
You have to be good at finding the core of an idea. Say the most important thing about it first, then continue with the details that back it up.
Pretty much all news articles are written starting with a few taglines, the main story summarized, and then increasingly less relevant details as the article goes on. By the second page, the article will often be discussing something nearly off topic. If they don’t start with the important part, that’s called “burying the lead”.
Try to take your idea and turn it into a catchphrase.
Sometimes you have to get rid of even important details in order to do this effectively. To be honest, those details are usually less important than you think.
Use “schemas” to explain concepts. A schema is something that the audience knows and understands, and you can use it to compare to your new concept. If you wanted to describe a pomelo, you could say it’s like an over-sized grapefruit with a very thick and soft rind. If you wanted to define a word, you could just say a synonym along with how this word is different. Eg. “Homicide is the same as killing, except it’s intentional and illegal.”
Look at the simplicity and day-to-day language of this declaration by JFK: “Our goal is to put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.”
Now look at what a corporate JFK would say: “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically targeted aerospace initiatives.”
- Identify the core of an idea and communicate that first and clearly before diving into details.
- Use pre-existing audience knowledge to explain new concepts.
- Avoid debate/corporate speak, use concrete, simple language like JFK’s mission.
Keeping the judge’s curiosity is important in debate.
After an hour of talking, a debate round can be hard to continue concentrating on. Doing or saying something unexpected can help the judge to keep track and remember you.
Try to recall the safety presentation of a flight attendant before a flight. You probably can’t remember a specific instance.
Now, if the flight attendant was to do the presentation as an interpretive dance while telling jokes, you’d probably remember it.
Our mind forgets things that are routine because it doesn’t see them as important.
Just like I wrote about in this article (fourth tip), saying something that the judge doesn’t expect will help keep their interest.
Furthermore, jokes are more effective in debate because debate rounds are usually fairly dry. Cracking a joke will surprise the judge and make them laugh more.
When telling stories, introduce questions and intrigue first, and answers later. For example, when talking about the history of a case, you might use a couple of questions like, “so, why exactly did President [person] decide to enact this policy? What was the hidden motivation?” Then you can answer them in your next sentence.
- Don’t be a routine debater. Tell jokes, say unexpected statements, or use unique hand motions that surprise the judge.
- When telling stories, leave gaps in information that are fulfilled later in the story to keep the judge’s curiosity.
When explaining something, using abstract terms is subpar to making a comparison to something concrete.
In fact, that sentence itself was an abstract explanation. Here’s a concrete explanation:
Compare saying “Movie popcorn contains 20g fat” to “Movie popcorn contains more fat than a bacon-and-eggs dinner, a Big Mac, and fries for lunch and a steak dinner will all the trimmings – combined”.
The second is a fact that is not only easier to understand, but also easier to remember. The first doesn’t shock you, but the second one is a vivid image in your head and likely a huge surprise.
Try to use vivid imagery when you explain a concept, so that the judge doesn’t have to figure out an abstract concept.
Making comparisons is one of the easiest ways to include vivid imagery. Eg. “Doing this plan is like sticking a V8 engine on a turtle”. (I’m not sure in what context you’d use that, but I like it anyway).
This also influences how you deliver statistics. Saying “This has a less than 1 in 3,000 chance of happening” is less useful than saying “You’re more likely to be struck by lightning”.
There is, in fact, a book that is filled with the odds of various things happening that you could use for comparison purposes. I can’t say I recommend it though, as not all of it is appropriate. The point is, if you are preparing for a case and you need to compare the odds of something happening to something concrete, do your research.
- Avoid abstract explanations, especially for inexperienced judges.
- Use comparisons in order to incorporate vivid imagery into your speeches.
- Present your statistics in a compelling manner, by comparing them to something (such as the odds of being struck by lightning).
Using an authority figure to back your point up isn’t the only way to indicate that the facts are on your side.
You can use the following 5 devices to increase your credibility.
Use someone who seems to be on the opposite side of you, but actually supports your point. For example, a dying smoker who talks about how bad smoking is. Or a republican who argues against a typically conservative position. (Even this guy thinks we’re right!)
This goes back to the point about being concrete. Add details to your stories/presentations so that the judge can latch on to them. For example, if you’re talking about how you researched your opponent’s case, you could add details like “And as I sat there on my well-worn research chair, I had an epiphany”. Or if you’re talking about employees of a company and their poor experiences with management, you could add in specific names and comments instead of just saying that the employees as a whole hated management. The specific name and anecdote adds credibility.
Giving statistics, especially in the form discussed under the concrete point, can be important.
4) Worst case scenario comparison
Take whatever argument you’re using and tell the judge what the worst case scenario with it is. If you can show that the worst case scenario isn’t bad, then you’ve proven that the argument is great.
For example, if the negative team’s entire strategy is a solvency attack, you can say, “the worst case scenario is that our case doesn’t work. There’s no harm done at all. So even in the highly unlikely worst case scenario, it’s still a good idea to vote affirmative”.
5) Testable Credentials
Say something that the judge can independently verify. For example, “in fact, you can see that piece of evidence we gave them sitting on their table right now”.
Ronald Reagan said during one of his debates, “are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
By emotional, the book doesn’t just mean moods, like a sad or happy speech. It’s talking about getting past the analytical side of someone’s mind.
If you have an emotional story that is meant to get the judge on your side, be careful not to drown it in analytical facts. Math/statistics actually turn off the emotional side of your brain. So saying a statistic can be useful, but it should also be combined with anecdotes and stories. (A study showed that people donated more when told about one starving child in Africa vs. told a statistic about starving children in Africa).
Use associations to bolster the judge’s view of your argument. I talk about this in my short video about analogies. Essentially, try to compare your argument to something the judge already agrees with (using an analogy or some other device).
Appeal to self-interest. Focus on benefits to the judge over features. For example, instead of saying you want to improve this electoral agency, say you want to improve the judge’s voice in the election system.
- Don’t drown out emotions with statistics/analytical talk.
- Combine statistics and individual anecdotes for maximum power.
- Use analogies to associate your argument with things the judge already agrees with.
- Appeal to benefits, not features.
This one is difficult to apply to debate because the concepts we cover don’t always fit into stories. But try your best!
Stories are more effective than slogans (although using both is even better). Subway had a very successful marketing campaign about an overweight guy named Jared eating only subway and losing weight. Regardless of whether or not it’s true, the story overwhelmingly outperformed commercials by subway that had slogans or other clever devices.
Sometimes stories can be told to show problems with the current system or problems that will arise if we do [x]. For example, stories of voters who were unable to vote because of [x] problem.
Application: Use stories wherever possible to capture the audience and evoke emotion.
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