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Making your messages 'stickier'

March 1, 2008
by Terry L. Stawar, EdD
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Applying a book's concepts of good communication to the behavioral healthcare field

Managing organizational change is a crucial skill for behavioral healthcare executives. Organizations have to turn on a dime to keep pace with new demands. Yet attempts at change often stall because of executives' inability to build a sense of urgency and the necessary commitment.

Michael A. Roberto and Lynne C. Levesque have described the four most important processes that must occur for an organization to make a strategic initiative “stick”:

  • Charting: The organization defines the initiative's purpose and scope, setting boundaries and defining team members' roles and responsibilities.

  • Learning: This is the process of piloting the initiative and entails experimenting and refining ideas before full-scale implementation.

  • Mobilizing: Symbols, metaphors, and stories are used to engage participants' hearts and minds to build commitment.

  • Realigning: Change is institutionalized through the establishment of a formal structure (measurement, monitoring, and compensation systems).1

All these steps are essential, but mobilizing often presents the most difficulty because it requires a skill set not usually formally taught. As a behavioral healthcare executive, much of your time is spent attempting to influence the behavior of other people—a classic definition of leadership. You have to influence and motivate not only employees, but also consumers, board members, politicians, bureaucrats, and members of the public.

In an ideal world, mobilizing would be a straightforward, collaborative process. Having been presented with the facts, everyone simply and easily would agree to behave in certain ways. Follow-through could be taken for granted. The reality, of course, is quite different. Just getting everyone to attend to the issue is problematic enough. Retaining the information and actually acting upon it are even further downstream.

For example, despite repeated trainings staff may not remember what procedures to follow. Even with intensive education, board members may not be able to discriminate critical issues from trivial ones. And despite your best advocacy and marketing efforts, government officials and the public may not see the importance of your organization's services.

What, then, are the best ways to get your messages to “stick”?


My memory isn't all that it used to be. Out of all the speeches I've heard in my life, I can consciously dredge up only a few isolated quotes from JFK, FDR, and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as the image of Nikita Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table at the United Nations and saying, “We will bury you!” However, with little effort I can recite entire commercial messages from the past (“Where's the beef?” or “A little dab'll do ya”), and a 45-year-old Ricky Nelson song can easily reverberate in my head all day long.

So why do some messages survive the marketplace of ideas and “stick” solidly, while others are as ephemeral as the morning dew? In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, journalist Malcolm Gladwell discusses the “stickiness factor,” the way that information can be structured so that it is contagious, memorable, or just plain “sticky.”2 Unfortunately, it is not the quality or veracity of an idea, concept, or product that makes it sticky, but rather its presentation. Packaged in the right way, within the right context, some information can be virtually irresistible.

In their 2007 book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, brothers Chip and Dan Heath flesh out the concept of “stickiness” and investigate why some ideas thrive while others just bounce off our consciousness.3 Chip Heath is a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, and Dan Heath is an educational consultant at Duke Corporate Education. From different perspectives they have concluded that “sticky” messages are the real drivers of such behaviors as following procedures, purchasing products, supporting issues, or even donating to causes.

The Heaths explain that humans have developed sophisticated mental filters that allow only certain types of information to penetrate and stick. Since we constantly are bombarded with stimulation, we easily could become overwhelmed without this adaptive capacity. The Heaths carefully studied urban legends and other examples of naturally occurring “stickiness,” as well as the manufactured stickiness from successful advertising and political campaigns, to arrive at those features that allow certain ideas to defeat our internal censors. From this they formulated six basic principles that govern the stickiness of an idea.

Simplicity. First, ideas need to be simple enough to be communicated easily. The Heaths say that a convoluted message generally leads to confusion and the activation of our filters. Many leaders, especially those with an intellectual bent, fall short on this score and present much too nuanced messages. Compare Adlai Stevenson's speeches with Ronald Reagan's or George W. Bush's with John Kerry's. The so-called “curse of knowledge” figures prominently here.4 The Heaths note that too much knowledge about a subject can impair a person's ability to present it in a clear and concise manner.