How to create sticky stories (and why memorability matters in content marketing)

Published April 23, 2021, 10:14 a.m. by Olle Lindholm

Why do we devour books, listen to albums on repeat and binge watch TV shows? Simple. Because we want to immerse ourselves in great stories. But not all stories are created equal. Some survive and prosper while others wither and die. Here, Olle Lindholm explains how you can make your marketing messages truly memorable in order to really stand out from the crowd.

Dan and Chip Heath, US academics, authors and all-round research buffs, are fascinated by urban myths. A few years ago, they wanted to drill down into the art and science of ideas that stand out and make an impact, and so wrote their book, Made to Stick, in which they identified the six governing principles of a great idea:

1. Simple
2. Unexpected
3. Concrete
4. Credible
5. Emotional
6. Stories

Together, they read S.U.C.C.E.S.(S), and here’s how they can be applied to storytelling.

Principle 1: Simple
Simplicity is about prioritisation – and saying a lot with a little. Consider Hollywood pitches (Speed is ‘Die Hard on a bus’, according to the Heath brothers) or the inverted pyramid, a newswriting technique where the most important information comes first. Too many messages confuse your audience, which is why you need to identify what really matters first. Simple really is effective when it comes to storytelling.

Principle 2: Unexpected
What are Saturn’s rings made of?’ This question is an example of what the Heath brothers call ‘a curiosity gap’. It’s a useful trick to keep your audience’s attention.

(Want to close the gap yourself? Check this out.)

Unexpected information or images will always catch our attention. To succeed in drawing your audience’s attention, marketers must break common patterns. Let’s say you’re arranging a picnic. We often eat our picnic on a blanket outside in the sun. If we’d want to break that expectation, we could instead arrange a picnic where we eat ants or sit inside a gigantic picnic basket. You get the point. To create the unexpected, take advantage of curiosity gaps and push your audience to think about things in a new way.

Principle 3: Concrete
Using sensory language to paint a vivid mental picture will help your audience engage with your story. ‘A bathtub full of ice-cold water’ is easy to visualise and may even give your reader a slight chill.

Equally, we all remember J.F. Kennedy’s speech about landing a man on the moon, as well as Aesop’s Fables, which teach abstract moral lessons through specific and colourful stories. The more concrete our stories, the stickier they become.

Principle 4: Credible
It’s a fact universally acknowledged that for your audience to believe your story, it must be credible. One way of establishing credibility is to rely on experts and statistics. But there are other ways to do it. A classic marketing approach is to offer a free trial period. That way, your customers can decide if the product or service works for them. Word-of-mouth is a lot more credible than your own self-promotion.

In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers emphasise that you must put numbers in everyday terms that are easy for the audience to understand and relate to – this helps make your argument more powerful and lends more weight to your message. Instead of referring to $3, for example, perhaps refer to the price of a cup of coffee. Wikipedia and many other brands apply this ‘human scale principle’ to their own very successful marketing strategies.

Principle 5: Emotional
To make a story stick, give people a reason to care. Mother Teresa once observed: “If I look at the one, I will act. If I look at the mass, I will not.” Emotional storytelling involves identifying deeper motivations and highlighting individual stories.

After all, people make decisions in two ways: either they act out of rational self-interest (the so-called ‘consequence’ model) or they base their decisions on their identity (the so-called ‘identity’ model). Who am I? What situation am I in? How does a person like me act in this kind of situation?

At the end of the 1980s, Texas Transport Department ran a campaign to reduce littering on highways. Don’t Mess with Texas became a successful campaign because it convinced Texan locals (particularly men aged 18-35) that littering went against their very identity. Between 1986 to 1990, there was a 72 per cent drop in littering. Impressive stuff.

Principle 6: Story

Stories work like flight simulators for your brain: they both instruct and inspire. Research shows that when people share stories, they also teach each other valuable lessons. Think about hospital nurses sharing ward round experiences or construction workers discussing common mistakes.

Listening, the audience thinks about how they’d handle the situation if the same thing happened to them – explaining in turn why storytelling is such a valuable tool for learning.

Sticky stories – particularly ones with some clever CTAs – make people think and encourage further action. If you use the above six principles in your communications, you’ll give your content a strong chance of standing out from competition.

After all, some stories catch on while others simply fade into obscurity. How will you make stories that stick?