Books Worth Reading

Books Worth Reading: Made to Stick

Recently, I was working with the staff of a United Way and we were discussing how to develop a meaningful message for their United Way. I recommended the book "Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die" by Chip and Dan Heath.

If there was ever a group who could benefit from some “sticky ideas,” it is United Ways. "Made to Stick" explores the question of why some ideas thrive and others die. Sticky ideas represent those that are understandable, memorable, effective, and able to change opinions or behaviors. Chip and Dan Heath explore how nonprofit organizations can use sticky ideas to persuade volunteers to contribute their time and donors to contribute their money. While most United Ways do not have a sticky idea currently, the potential benefits to a sticky idea can be great.

The six principles that make up a sticky idea: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion, and stories, are outlined individually in the book's chapters. The chapters explain each principle with examples and discussions about how each one is essential to composing a sticky idea. While all the chapters are interesting, "Chapter 1: Simple," is the most relevant to United Ways. The Heath brothers challenge readers to “find the core” of an idea and strip it down to its most critical essence. 

United Ways usually fund a variety of programs and services, which address a variety of different issues. Those factors, among others, can make it difficult for United Ways to articulate a sticky idea. The discussion about the sayings, “if you say three things, you don’t say anything,” and “the more you reduce the amount of information in an idea, the stickier it will be,” is probably worth the price of the book. The importance of the “simple” principle is reinforced, not only because it is the first of the six principles, but because it is explained in the most detail.

The authors claim that using the principles are easy and that possessing a special expertise is not required to apply the principles. To that end, there is not a chapter in the book to tell you what sticky ideas to use for your United Way. Rather, they hint that sticky ideas are found, and not manufactured. There is little direction for finding sticky ideas, other than to ask your volunteers and clients for stories about their experiences with your organization. There are some stories of how sticky ideas were found, such as the Jared stories used by Subway, but you are left to your own devices to find your own sticky ideas.

"Made to Stick" is worth the read because it will make you think about your United Way’s sticky idea, or lack thereof. To find a sticky idea can pose a challenge, but you will know a sticky idea when you see it, after reading the principles outlined in this book.

"Made to Stick – Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die," Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Random House Inc. 2007



Books Worth Reading: Selling the Invisible

One of the timeless, classic marketing books on my bookshelf is Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith. Although Beckwith targeted the book to people who work in service companies, nearly all of his lessons apply equally well to United Ways. Selling the Invisible explores perception, positioning, branding, and communicating through a series of short examples that demonstrate a simple message or truth.

As a market researcher, it is refreshing and appealing to see a book about marketing start with a discussion of market research. The second section of the book, entitled “Surveying and Research” drives home three points that every United Way should heed: ask what your donors and the community think, survey to keep in contact with your donors and the community, and have a third party do your surveys because people are willing to talk behind your back.

A fair number of pages in the middle of the book discuss “how you wish to be perceived,” which Beckwith calls positioning. When outlining how to create a positioning statement, the process applies directly to United Ways, although the examples may be service businesses. The author ties together research and positioning, stating “Your position is all in people’s minds. Find out what that position is.”

One lesson especially appropriate for United Ways comes in the communication section of the book, with the idea that one story beats a dozen adjectives. Especially when communicating with your donors, United Ways should take advantage of the opportunity to tell a story, which makes your presentation more interesting, more personal, more credible, and more persuasive, according to Beckwith.

An intriguing idea comes near the end of the book when the author writes “Shoot the message, not the messenger.” Beckwith’s thesis is that the problem may not be how we communicate the message, but failing to create a message that resonates clearly with the market. He discusses the idea from the point-of-view of a sales pitch; but, for United Ways it applies equally well, when trying to communicate the benefits of your United Way to the community, whether you are a staff member, board member, or volunteer.

You will find many good ideas and tips about how to make sure the work of your United Way is not invisible in Selling the Invisible.

Selling the Invisible

Harry Beckwith, Warner Books, 1997