A year or so ago I was working with a client on sticky messages for a new curriculum I was developing for them. The project manager emailed me asking for my suggestions for how she could describe sticky messages and then, what she could do to lead her team of SMEs (subject matter experts) in brainstorming some that I could then embed in the curriculum. I wrote her an impassioned response, informed some by my reading of experts like Dan Heath and Nancy Duarte, and some from my creation and use of messages that later became sticky through the voice of learners. Excerpts of what I wrote to her follow.
A sticky message is provocative and gets our attention.
A sticky message is designed to be easily remembered, pithy, provocative, startling, sometimes counter-intuitive and yet it resonates deeply when people hear it. It is simple, inspiring, a call to action that may be a tad out of reach (Just Do It). Notice how provocative “Just Do It” is. It isn’t “Do it” it is “Just do it” as in stop making excuses and act! The creators of the message don’t have to say that though because most adults have at one time or another said or at least thought (in reference to a friend, child, partner, co-worker or even themselves)— “Pleeaase, just do it.” The provocative “Just” gets our attention because it connects with a feeling we’ve all felt and we all immediately know what it means – no explanation needed!
Provocative sticky messages aren’t shaming; they set a course for the vision learners have for themselves.
Because the project was about creating an intervention for parents who had struggled to do their parenting job well there was a great deal of fear that a powerful, provocative sticky message would be shaming to the learners because it suggested that they weren’t doing something they should. I challenged this. With PIO (also designed for struggling parents) we had the gold standard of research – a randomized controlled trial – that showed this program with its myriad sticky messages worked, even with provocative sticky messages, and I might argue, partly because of them!
A sticky message makes the recipient of the message a hero.
A sticky message is focused on doing; and the doing of it is what makes the adopter of the message a hero. I couldn’t disagree more with the belief that provocative, call to action sticky messages are shaming because they suggest people aren’t doing what they should. My experience teaching behavior change courses is that people who aren’t doing something know they aren’t, but they also hold a feeling of wanting to do better and often feel inspired by an easy-to-remember call to action that points the way. They identify with these messages and frequently will say, I believe in that, I’m investing in becoming that person, I want to be seen as someone who lives that way! Sticky messages aren’t shaming, rather they are vision casting for who adult students want to become.
Good sticky messages will be picked up by your learners and used in novel ways.
To prove my point, here’s a story about adult learners picking up and owning the sticky messages from the PIO curriculum. I created a metaphor for this program that compares the parenting process to taking a long journey towards Destination Adulthood. You can read the metaphor here. Parent learners plucked sticky messages from the metaphor and began repeating them. They repeated them in focus groups with family court judges, parole officers, and non-profit agencies exploring the potential purchase of the curriculum. They repeated them to new student parents at PIO orientation and in meetings with their institution counselors as they shared their plans post-release. Here are sticky messages parents extracted and used. The bolded words come from the metaphor.
“I’m using backbone parenting to steer my kids toward Destination Adulthood.”
“Guardrails I use to stay on the backbone parenting highway are rules, monitoring, praise and consequences.”
“I fuel my kids for the growing up journey by…(various nurturing parenting activities)"
Notice that “backbone parenting” suggests standing up and taking charge in one’s parenting. It is provocative in that we all know what it means to suggest someone has no backbone. Being a backbone parent is a call to action. It is a familiar cultural value to have backbone, and is a desire by many that our parents, politicians and CEOs have and demonstrate backbone.
Being a backbone parent is evocative of “man up” “take a stand” “cowboy up” and yet it is not integrated by parents as shaming. Parents integrate it as “I’m re-inventing myself as a parent and this is who I will be - a backbone parent!”
My advice to the project manager was, “Don’t be afraid of a provocative message! People will remember it better than one that is so general and politically correct that it says nothing about anything to no one."
Here are some sticky messages I’ve designed for different curricula.
“Move from ower to owner.”
This message is delivered in the first of four financial literacy sessions designed to qualify low income folks for participation in a long-term investment strategy. The sessions guide participants in improving their credit scores and finding money in their new budgets for investing in a special program designed just for them. This brazenly names where they are - “owers” - but it also says, you don’t have to be owers forever. There are things you can do to move yourself not only out of debt, but also towards the goal of being someone who owns something you value.
“Design and teach in ruthless service to your outcomes: If an activity doesn’t move learners toward the behavioral goal, get rid of it."
I use this when training professionals in instructional design. This is provocative - “ruthless service”, “get rid of it”. It is a call to action and tells folks exactly what to DO to become a better, more memorable designer and teacher. When I use this, participants want me to leave it up long enough for them to copy it down.
“Training is never about how smart or experienced you are in your field. It is always about your audience - who they are, what they need, and how you can use your expertise to help them meet their goals.”
This is the one I use when training subject matter experts or new trainers in presentation skills. In this message I’m challenging the cherished notion that if you know a lot about something you will be a good teacher/presenter of it. This is a dubious supposition that many of us have suffered as not being true! I bet you can name a class or training right now where the trainer/teacher was an expert in his/her field and put you to sleep and did not help you move toward your goals in your shared field!
Here are four steps to generating sticky messages for your curriculum.
I think sticky messages are the creative and evocative expressions of the science one is promoting. They connect with hope and desire by inspiring individual learners to use the science to make their lives better. To create an evidence-informed sticky message to inspire the struggling parents in the new curriculum, I suggested the project manager lead her team through the following steps.
- Connect with the goal and hope of the learners for whom you are creating your curriculum rather than with their woundedness and fragility.
- Spend time reflecting before the brainstorming session while doing other things - especially repetitive, physical things that don’t require concentration on the task- raking leaves, washing dishes, folding laundry. When your body is moving and your mind is free to wander, your brain works better. I can’t tell you how many times the “it” comes when I leave the computer, embrace stuck as a stage in the creative process, and do those gently absorbing repetitive tasks that allow the back channel of my brain to bubble about without my direct supervision. Invariably, with hands full of dish bubbles, a raked pile of leaves, or a new stack of neatly folded laundry, the “it” comes and I drop what I’m doing and run back to the computer to capture it. I don’t think there is a short cut. At least there isn’t one for me.
- AFTER individuals have reflected while doing something else, bring them together and pass out pieces of paper the size and shape of a bumper sticker and ask, "What’s the essence of the DOING message in this curriculum? If one of our parents was going to drive to another state where they don’t have this curriculum and they’ve never heard of this curriculum and this bumper sticker was on the back of their car and was the only way anyone in that town would know what this curriculum could help hero-parents DO - what would the bumper sticker say? Don’t sensor! Don’t be PC - at least to start! And for goodness’ sake, don’t be academic with citations! Go with your gut."
- Leave it for awhile, come back together, refine it and throw it against the wall – if it sticks, you have a winner.
Here is the sticky message the team created.
The project manager led her team in the process outlined above. She shared with me four messages that they came up. One was head-and-shoulders above the rest. That one was, “Believe it to achieve it”.
I LOVE IT!
I told her Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” “Believe it to achieve it” says that in a positive action oriented way, aligns with the Growth Mindset science that I am building into this curriculum and is an action parents can take, which is key. Out of all the choices, it is complete in and of it itself and requires no further explanation. It is a pithy, punchy, easy to remember, inspiring call to action that summarizes the Growth Mindset science that permeates the curriculum!
What sticky messages have you created?
Won't you please share the sticky messages you've created to inspire and call your learners to action? Please share your great ideas in the comments section below.