Made To Stick
By Don Schreiber
Quick, picture the cartoon with that guy in the monk’s robe, scraggly beard, and a sign that reads, “The End Is Near”. But instead of just standing on a busy corner, he’s roaming the halls of a land use conference aggressively button-holing unsuspecting people and explaining, in detail, exactly why the End is indeed so Near.
I am that guy.
Or, at least I’m trying to be that guy. Here’s why; if I showed you that cartoon, minus the message on the sign, you could fill it out, right? And so could your mom and your boss and your neighbor. Everybody knows the scraggily beard guy’s message: “The End Is Near”.
What an amazing marketing success! One of the all time greats in idea delivery. We don’t all buy his idea, but there is no question what he is selling. Personally, I think he just has a context problem. If he walked onstage during a dense, uninspiring, negative lecture on, say, land use, we’d all stand up and cheer.
Unfortunately, I am also the guy giving the dense, uninspiring and negative land use lecture. Or was until I buttonholed a certain person named Ann Adams and she said, “Boy. You really need to go buy a book called, ‘Made to Stick’ and read it. Now.”
How’s that for a direct message? Sensitive guy like me, I could have had my feelings hurt. Hey, it took a lot of work to make that dense and un-
inspiring, negative lecture. But I knew she was right. Partly because my wife Jane kept tugging at my sleeve and whispering loudly, “You are informing people against their will!” and partly because a sensitive guy like me can just tell.
Ann’s uppercut to the jaw of my harangue could not have come at a better time. I was trying to defend our little family ranch in NW New Mexico from aggressive new oil and gas drilling on top of 50 years of unplanned oil and gas development. I desperately needed to get the immediate attention of anyone I thought could help us, most especially, the attention of the oil company. So I had compiled as many salient facts as I could into a 100+ page notebook and was passionately disgorging this material to anyone I thought might advance our cause. Ever try to get the attention of a company whose net profit was in the range of $35 billion last year? I said net profit. To help get the oil giant’s attention, I had targeted all our top public officials and was, in fact, on my way to Washington, DC when, thankfully, Ann got my attention a la the mule and the two-by-four.
I literally went directly from the conference to the bookstore to the airport and boarded the plane, book in hand. “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” by Chip and Dan Heath, (Random House, 2007). I had sworn off self-help books back in the late ‘80’s when the “The One Minute Manager” had finally spiraled down to something like, “The One Minute Manager for Tasks That Take One Minute,” and I figured either we’d gone too far in that field or I’d read too much. So it was with some trepidation that I opened the book. Good thing I had my seat belt fastened.
Here I was on a red-eye to DC with meetings beginning the next morning and each page I turned was a story about what I was doing wrong according to the Brothers Heath beginning with the common, fatal flaw, “The Curse of Knowledge.” On the seat next to me was my 100+ page notebook, and it was 100+ pages because I had boiled it down to that! It represented 10 years worth of our experience trying to ranch in the oil field and I had tried to convey all the pain and heartache of watching the land disappear under one well pad after another and no one to stop it. Five major subject divisions and eight tabs of supporting documentation. It virtually radiated the “Curse of Knowledge,” and worse, I had spent big money having it spiral bound to look more professional and so couldn’t take a single page out.
As I said, I wasn’t entirely flat-footed about the fact that I was in trouble, presentation wise. A big clue had already come just days before meeting Ann at the conference when I had talked to Josh Rosen, Chief of Staff of the Lieutenant Governor. Josh told me I would make the presentation three times in a row; once to the Lieutenant Governor, once to the Energy and Natural Resources Cabinet Secretary and once to the Secretary of the Environment. Thirty minutes total for each, but that I should limit my remarks and let them each ask questions. “I can do it in 15 minutes,” I lied. “Oh, I wouldn’t go more than five or six,” Josh had replied. My first thought was to just talk faster, and for a while, I tried that with a kitchen timer. Honestly. I sounded like that disclaimer about the interest rate at the end of a used car radio ad. In the end, I did come up with a sort of summary but, in a testament to our state government trying to help even it’s most long-winded citizens, all three officials just stayed for the whole hour and a half trying to discern what the problem was and if there was really any way they could help. More due to pity than to my message, I think, they agreed to write a joint letter to the oil company encouraging restraint and voluntary environmental responsibility. Doesn’t sound like much, but to me it meant the world. I knew I wouldn’t get that extended time and pity in Washington.
In the hot shaft of that overhead light, I read furiously as Chip and Dan explained what all sticky ideas had in common: Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions and Stories. A kind of morbid fascination set in as I could see example after example in their book of ideas so well expressed, so sticky, that we all remember them decades later. John Kennedy’s famous call to “put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.” The Heaths’ analysis: “Simple? Yes. Unexpected? Yes. Concrete? Amazingly so. Credible? The goal seemed like science fiction, but the source was credible. Emotional? Yes. Story? In miniature.” What they were explaining was wonderful to me, but how do you frame a land use argument like that? And, depressingly, I already knew what the Heath’s were going to point out much later in the book, “…here’s the thing: You’re not JFK.”
Even red-eye flights do end and 7:45 the next morning found me in Congressman Tom Udall’s office waiting to make my presentation to the Chief Counsel of the House Natural Resources Committee and it’s subcommittee’s staff director. I had wads of scribbled notes saying things like, “…lets put all the oil wells on the moon for the next decade, not on my ranch!” Well, I was only on page 142 and still lugging my 100 page notebook around like a life preserver. Luckily, again, I was preaching to the choir and they were both gracious and considerate of my rambling. I staggered out of there, found page 143 and plowed on, my meeting at Senator Bingaman’s office looming. More scribbling and searching for my highlighter.
That’s the problem with plowing on. Back on page 85, Chip and Dan had written about the “Gap Theory” of curiosity and I had missed the point that “…we need to open gaps before we close them. Our tendency is to tell people the facts. First, though, they must realize that they need these facts.” Jane to Don “You are informing these people against their will!” Don clinging to the 100 page life preserver of facts, his precious notebook.
But plow on I did and was now sitting with the Senator in his private office and describing our problem this way, “If the San Juan Basin was your body, our ranch would be just above your heart, and for over 50 years, the oil companies have been punching and punching holes all around there and gouging roads and pipelines so that your chest would look like a spiderweb connecting the well dots.” At least I wasn’t speed flipping through the notebook or talking like Don Pardo, but the Senior Counsel to the Senate Energy Committee and Bingaman’s Chief of Staff both looked a little pale.
Saved again by luck, (our youngest daughter used to work for the Senator and is remembered fondly), I got out of there with a mandate from the senator to his staff to assist us. Out of further prep time, I went directly to a meeting with the oil company’s Director of Federal Affairs. None of our kids had ever worked there, apparently, but she was professionally cordial.
Back to New Mexico, reading like a madman all the way, to meet Governor Richardson who had just dropped out of the presidential race so he could meet with me. That’s the way I took it.
By now I’m up in the 200’s of the book, and have paged back quite a bit to fill some of my own gaps in knowledge. “Made to Stick’s” task is really very ambitious if you think about how many ideas just don’t stick at all; how few are meaningful and lasting. In fact, a land use conference is a pretty good platform to see how even the professors and professional speakers among us miss the mark, widely. For those of us so challenged, the book contains “Clinics” throughout that examine a message and suggests alternate methods to convey that message accompanied by an explanation of what works, what doesn’t, and why. I was also encouraged to learn that tests showed that it was the “stickiness” of the message that mattered, not the gift of the speaker, JFK notwithstanding.
The book is full of fascinating behavioral tests that are revealing as to why some communication works, and most doesn’t. How intellectual exercise impedes the brain’s capacity to be open to ‘feelings’. How ‘feelings’ are critical to get someone to Care, Care being part of the three-legged stool of Belief and Action. Page after page of well production data and price calculation and rule interpretation ad nauseam in Don’s notebook. Hello?
So that when I saw the Governor, I had a 3 X 5 card with three simple sentences written on it, and a little picture, not the compendium of which I had been so proud. Not that you can skip making the compendium. That’s your research, those are the facts, ma’am, and you have to have those facts and they have to be true, if you are to be Believed. And, for me, the payoff from the Heaths was that if people Believed, and they Cared, then they could Act. I had actually worked for the Governor off and on, and I knew he would be cooperative, and he was. But my single 3 X 5 card presentation let me get the issues across cleanly and left plenty of time for questions without rushing.
The Three Sentences?
Of the 99 wells drilled on our ranch over a 50 year period, only 10% have been drilled from the same well pad.
In neighboring Colorado in 2007, 57% of all wells were drilled directionally.
Drilling directionally from the 99 well pads already on our ranch would let the oil company get it’s mineral, the state it’s taxes, and preserve the remaining open space.
An aerial photo of the maze of wells and roads and pipelines already existing.
Better, yes? A little short on the ‘feeling’ part, but the Governor has an existing ‘schema’ about all the drilling issues. You don’t know ‘schema’? Boy, as Ann would say, you better get this book, and I mean now. Schema is so important that it has 16 references in the Index and it’s a key element of both why people can understand you quickly, like my example with the Governor above, and how you can get people to open up to your idea, as I’m about to tell you.
Up to this point, I had been running around the country drumming up support for my idea to preserve open space. It was working, but, as we’ve seen, much of that was pity, or luck, or established connections. The message had been getting stickier, but the big showdown was to be a meeting on January 31 with the oil company and the BLM. Could we make the idea stick there where it really counted? By now, I’m at the end of the book in the Epilogue, and I’m still learning like crazy. The oil company had an existing knowledge of all the facts, a ‘schema’, infinitely more vast than my 100 page fact book. My facts came from their facts, so, getting them to Believe wasn’t a problem. That leg of the stool was as sound as it would ever be. But we needed to get them to Care, and that, my friends, is a tall order when you’re talking to executives and managers of one of the world’s biggest and most profitable corporations, and you’re just a family ranch.
It’s the night before the big meeting, I’m through with the book, and I’ve got to make this giant Care before I can make it Act. Jane and I have been going round after round with these guys for 10 years, always about environmental responsibility and stewardship and blah, blah, blah and I realized that the single reason we were so passionate was that we were trying to save the ranch for our kids. Jane had just bought a youth saddle for one of our granddaughters who is still too little to ride and I thought, “Why? At this drilling rate, there’ll be nothing left to ride on when she’s ready.” Our kids, and their kids, are the real owners of the ranch, but the oil company, the BLM, doesn’t know them. I also realized looking back through my notes of all those rounds fought, we had actually always won if you conceded the fact that they were going to drill anyway. We never thought we could stop them drilling in an established field; the fights were always about Where, and When and How, not If. I got out the scissors and duct tape and went to work. Oh, and Jane baked a cake.
At the presentation the next day, as everyone was jockeying for position at the conference table and exchanging preliminary pleasantries, Jane set down a white cake with the oil company logo in icing in one corner, our ranch logo on the opposite corner, and the letters “O S P P” in the middle, for “Open Space Pilot Project,” the name we have given the idea that both the oil company and our ranch could have their cake and eat it, too. She laid out little napkins and plastic forks, and placed a bunch of balloons next to it, saying nothing. It was the focus of lots of curiosity and conjecture, an unusual object to say the least.
The BLM asked me to begin, and I pulled out eight single sheets of paper, each with a picture and just a few lines of 42pt type so they would be visible from across the room. I duct taped them to the wall. Each page was one of the rounds we had fought with the company over the years and they all had the exact same format: Our Request, their Answer (always, ‘No’), their Reasons, and the Outcome (always positive for us). It revealed an unexpected pattern for us, and I know very unexpected pattern for them. The reason for the positive Outcome, I said, was that Jane and I had always made sure our facts were right then always asked for something reasonable (in our opinion to be sure), and then we never gave up. In one case, it was five years to get some damage repaired! The Outcome exercise didn’t involve any intellectual calculating, the simple stories were there for all to see.
The most common reason for saying ‘No’ to any of our requests was money. Whatever we wanted done was going to cost money and they were dedicated to saving money and returning a maximum profit to their stockholders. In fact, we had recently been paid $7,000 by the oil company for some surface damage. I reached into my bag and pulled out $7,000 in cash and laid it on the table in front of the senior executive and said, “Jane and I want to return this money to you. We would like to demonstrate that not all decisions can be based solely on money and that the Open Space Pilot Project is more important to us than money. Once the open space is gone, no amount of money can buy it back.” I think that got everybody’s feelings up in the air. I know mine were as I said goodbye to seven grand.
Finally, I took out five more single sheets of paper, again with just a few lines of 42pt type and the rest of the page a large photo of one of our kids. The copy said which kid it was, what they did, and what contribution they had made to either the ranch, or the Open Space Pilot Project, or both. I duct taped them into a line up. “When you say ‘No’, as you have done in the past, this is who you are saying ‘No’ to. Jane and I won’t be here that long. These kids, and their families, will be living with the surface destruction you cause.”
Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and Stories. My 100 page notebook never saw the light of day. In the end, just 13 pieces of paper so sticky we had to peel them off the wall.
We talked about it for a little while, and the BLM ordered a moratorium on new surface disturbance and formed a committee of the oil company, the BLM and our ranch to see if we could work out some cooperative resolution with the goal of preserving open space.
Then we all had a piece of cake.