Storytelling for Project Managers – A Summary of “Made to Stick”

Made to Stick book cover

Picture this scene: It's evening in Hamburg. A man walks into a hotel bar during his business trip. He enters the bar which was next to the reception, walks beside other people enjoying their after-work drinks and sits down on an empty bar stool for one or two drinks before calling it a day. After a few minutes, a woman sits down next to him, smiles and askes if she could buy him the next drink. Feeling flattered, he agrees after insisting that the next round will be on him though. When the drinks come in, he takes a sip and … well that’s all he can remember after that. As he wakes up, he finds himself in a bath tub filled with ice. He can hardly move. His stomach hurts as if he had just gotten into a massive fight. Next to him, a post-it and a telephone. The hand-written note says: Don’t move, call the police. The man starts panicking. He calls the police to state his situation, still being completely unsure about what has happened. After stating what he did knew, the officer tells him: “Sir, please move your hand slowly to the back of your neck and tell me if there is a tube behind you.” Nervously the man reaches behind himself. The officer was right. “It is very important that you try to remain as calm as possible. We send an ambulance to the hotel. You seem to have fallen victim of a criminal organization focusing on organ theft. Don’t move, we will be there as fast as possible!”

In some sorts of variations, most people have heard this urban legend before. The man whose kidney has been stolen. It’s also the story with which the book “Made to Stick” by Chip & Dan Heath starts. Even after finishing the book, this story – just like the other stories mentioned throughout the book – is still stuck in my head. I began to wonder: How come we are able to remember some stories for years while we cannot remember what we had for lunch two days ago? Or in a broader perspective: How come some stories like the kidney theft or proverbs like “Better a sparrow in the hand than a pigeon on the roof” not only survive for decades but also cross borders by getting translated and used in in other languages?. With this post, I’d like to do two things. Firstly, it is a post to suggest and share this incredibly insightful book with others. Secondly, it is a post for myself in order to try out what I’ve just learned after reading it. In any case, read the book for yourself. It’s a great guideline for everybody who wants to develop a better writing style.

Now let’s get back to the question at hand: What makes stories like the kidney theft stick in peoples’ minds for a long time? Here’s the quick answer à la TLDR (too long didn’t read): They are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional Stories. Those SUCCESs elements are key to writing in a compelling and tangible way. If you are fine with that definition then enjoy the rest of your day. If not, here’s what each of those letters signifies in detail:

Simple – Get to the core


The kidney heist is an extremely simple story. A man’s kidney gets stolen. That’s it. The whole story is structured around that one simple point. Getting to the core or the root cause of a problem should be your first, second and third priority in setting up a message. Still, people tend to put way too much pieces of information into the message. They might “fear” to not show their full knowledge of an issue, and therefore look uninformed to others. Here’s another story of the book that refers to this issue: During the first ever lecture in journalism, a class is asked to write a news article for a school. The lecturer told the class that the school wants to announce an in-service training dated for next Thursday. The training is mandatory for all teachers and should end around 6pm. How would you structure this news article? After ten minutes of writing, the students read their articles out loud. As one would think, they wrote down the five Ws in a structured manner. After everyone read out their article, the lecturer spoke: “The lead to the story is that there will be no school on Thursday.” The students have buried the lead of the story and simply restructured the given information without thinking about the consequences for the students. Therefore, if you want to be understood, get to the core of the message and communicate what’s important to your target audience.

Unexpected – Aim for the “Aha”


Which part of a horror movie comes directly to your mind when recalling the plot? Is it the tense atmosphere that is build up during the first half of the movie or is it the jump scare that came afterwards and made you jump out of your skin? Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to scare the recipient of your message but the unexpected is a powerful source to get somebody’s attention. For example: Which animal causes more human deaths per year – Sharks or deer? If you love watching movies like “Jaws” or even “Sharknado”, the answer is crystal clear to you: sharks are way deadlier than deer. But in reality, it is the opposite: It is 300 times as likely to get killed by a deer via a collision by car than it is to be the victim of a shark attack. Trying to mess with a recipient’s knowledge base is a great way to shift someone’s perspective. In this case, it helped to vanish the stereotypic villainization of sharks.

Concrete – Make it tangible


Only a handful of people are able to memorize 20.000 digits of pi. As remarkable as it is, why are there only so few to remember pi but way more people who can memorize an entire stage play like Shakespeare’s hamlet (over 50.000 letters)? The answer is context. Making the information concrete and tangible helps our brain to remember large quantities way easier. Our memory links recently learned knowledge to other pieces of information in order to build knowledge chains connected by associations. That’s why stories are way easier to follow, if you’ve already visited the place where the story happens. Your preexistent knowledge will link the story’s happenings with your own associations of the place. Concreteness can therefore help to find the common ground between your own and the recipient’s knowledge base.

Credible – Gain their trust


Now that you have written a simple and tangible message that involves an unexpected twist, you might think that you’ve got all the reader needs in order to be attentive. But how should they know whether you say the truth or not? It’s crucial to be credible in order to produce sticky messages. That’s why tooth paste is recommended by 9 out of 10 dentists and movie stars proudly present a fast food restaurant’s new burger to the camera. People need to believe your message. Besides those authorities, other sources of credibility might be even more believable. What do you think is more compelling and believable?

  1. A statistic by a credible source stating that each year a high amount of people get cancer due to smoking
  2. Following around a chain smoker and witnessing the impacts twenty years of smoking first-hand
    People tend to cherish an individual’s story much more than a collection of data. Those anti-authorities are a great way to make dangers or even benefits way more tangible to the recipient.

Emotional – It starts in their hearts


It is the 101 of marketing: Emotions are a powerful resource in order to impact people. People care more about a specific person’s problems rather than the problems of a big, anonymous crowd. You need to make people care about a situation. The creation of empathy really helps to enhance a message’s impact. That’s the reason why those “adopt an animal” initiatives at zoos can be more impactful than donations to an animal rescue organization. People care about individuals and their personal way of living.

Story – Simulate, inspire, challenge


As you’ve read this article up to this part, you probably noticed the many stories I’ve used in order to fortify each passage’s core message. Using stories to encase the message you want to communicate is an effective way to optimize the memorization process. I finished reading the book three days ago and those stories just came up to me naturally while writing. Stories help to create associations by linking knowledge with experience. They help visualizing a scene and sometimes even inspire or challenge us to do something ourselves.

Why did I write all of this?

After reading the book, I felt motivated to optimize my own writing style. Since I just recently finished studying, I was writing in a quite academic-oriented way. This is not only my problem but a recurring theme in many different areas. Messages between two different groups – doctors and patients, companies and customers, marketeers and engineers – are based on the communicator’s flaws to find a common ground with his/her recipient. This is what the book calls the curse of knowledge. If you are able to find this common ground, you laid down the fundament for the audience to pay attention, understand, remember, agree, believe, care and act on any message you want to spread.

As I’ve written above, I tried to enhance my own writing skills with this article. However, it is quite difficult to firstly compress the core information of the book into a short text while still making it both compelling to read and tangible to understand. The book points out other ways to accentuate each of the SUCCESs elements as well, so if you’re interested in them, check out the book.

As a project manager, it is a crucial step to set the tone and structure of the project in its early phase. Storytelling based on the SUCCESs formula will help you to foster an environment in which the team can work efficiently and effectively. Now that you’ve read this article, it is your turn: Take the formula and put it into practice. Communicate your message with your fellow group members and create a common ground to kickstart the project. You will see how fast the different gears of your chain will link together. And – of course – use Merlin Project ;-)

Posted by Marvin Blome on November 1st, 2019 under Project Management
Tags: book

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