Halloween Candy and Sticky Writing
Do you insist on checking your children’s candy before allowing them to eat it on Halloween (those of you who participate in Halloween, that is)? Have you heard about those sadistic miscreants who embed razor blades into apples and tamper with candy bars? I bet you have. The stories of sickos who booby-trap trick-or-treat booty have been around since the 1960s. A poll in 1985 by ABC News showed that 60 percent of parents worried that their children might be victimized. Since then schools and churches have opened their doors for safe trick-or-treating and hospitals have even offered to X-ray candy bags.
What you probably didn’t know is that researchers discovered in 1985 that it’s all a myth. They went back 27 years and found not a single reported instance of a stranger causing harm by tampering with Halloween candy.
If that surprises you, well, I’m not surprised. It surprised me too. I learned the truth about the candy hoax from the excellent book: Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. What these guys find so amazing about the Halloween candy urban legend is that it caught on so successfully. Why was the story so universally believed and remembered for decades? In other words, what made the idea so sticky?
The book ponders the concept of stickiness as it relates to marketing, teaching, and communication in general. Why do we remember some ideas for a lifetime while others slip through our brains in an instant? It’s a fascinating concept–stickiness–and the conclusions the Heath brothers arrive at in this book are abundantly useful for teachers and public speakers like me. But they are also handy for writers. Imagine writing a college application essay that an admissions officer will never forget, or a resume cover letter that the boss talks about to his wife over dinner.
Without giving too much away (you should read the book), they propose a rather sticky acronym for remembering the core principles of stickiness: SUCCESs
Sticky ideas tend to be:
1. Simple. The core idea must be easy to grasp, boiled down, concise.
2. Unexpected. Surprise is an absolute key: a new angle, a new take, an unforeseen twist. Create a mystery.
3. Concrete. People don’t remember concepts and abstractions; they remember vivid images of real things. Details, practicals.
4. Credible. Make it believable and understandable. Reliable authority helps.
5. Emotional. Sticky ideas hit the heart as well as the head. People have to care.
6. Stories. People remember narratives not expositions.
No matter what kind of writing you are doing, keep these principles in mind to increase its stickiness. And if you get a chance, read the book.
Oh, and be careful with Halloween candy anyway–just in case.
Note: Apparently, the Heath brothers have a new book out: Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. I might have to read that one too.
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