Making ideas stick

How can I make my ideas more memorable and convincing?

In the present time of information explosion, any text you write to expose your scientific ideas will have to compete with thousands of other texts that present related, and potentially just as interesting ideas. If you want your idea to make a lasting impact, you will have to convince your readers that it is really worth reading, understanding and remembering. This means that you will have to pay special attention to the presentation, formulation and organization of the ideas you write down.

Ideally, this presentation should be such that the reader immediately grasps the underlying concepts, becomes persuaded that these concepts are worth using, and still remembers these concepts long after reading about them. Very few documents satisfy these conditions. Yet, with a little effort you can make your texts come significantly closer to this ideal. This will not only help your work to get the recognition it deserves, but make life easier for your peers that have to read it. It will more generally reduce the problem of “data smog”, i.e. the present overload of vague, confusing, low-quality information that makes our work more stressful.

Cognitive science, psychology and memetics have studied the properties that make ideas easy-to-grasp and memorable. Their lessons can be summarized in a few simple principles. These principles were elegantly reviewed by Heath & Heath in their book “Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others die”. I will use their SUCCES acronym as an easy to remember checklist, but add a few qualifications based on my own work in memetics (Heylighen, 1997, 1998), while adapting the criteria specifically to the presentation of scientific ideas.

SUCCES stands for: Simple, Unexpected, Credible, Concrete, and Emotional Stories. These are the main attributes that a good presentation of an idea should possess. Let us review them one by one:

 


Simple

To make sure your idea is understood and remembered, it should first of all be formulated in an as simple way as possible, by leaving out details and elaborations of limited relevance. Of course, simplifying does not imply leaving out important aspects. On the contrary, the simplicity criterion means focusing on the core message, and formulating that as clearly and explicitly as possible, so that the essential idea stands out against the background of less important observations.

People often make their texts complicated and convoluted to camouflage the fact that they do not understand themselves very well what they are writing about. The better you understand your subject matter, the easier it becomes to formulate it simply!

Unexpected

To attract the attention, you should make sure that your ideas are sufficiently novel or unexpected. Our mind is constantly anticipating what is coming next based on its knowledge and experience. It will only truly pay attention when that anticipation fails. Failure of anticipation implies a surprise or mystery, i.e. a gap in the knowledge. This creates interest or curiosity, which is a desire to fill in that gap.

This implies that your ideas and the way they are formulated should not be conventional, well-known or predictable. Originality of ideas is one of the key requirements for a scientific paper to be taken seriously. But originality of presentation, language or examples may also help to get the reader interested. The effect can be further enhanced with a presentation that starts by formulating a question or problem to arouse the interest, followed by a resolution of that mystery.

Credible

Credibility is a shorthand for a number of more specific attributes that help to make your thesis convincing:

  • evidence: what you propose should be backed up as much as possible by concrete, detailed observations or data;
  • coherence or consistency: your ideas should be logically consistent, and consonant with other, already accepted or plausible theories, principles or assumptions;
  • authority: your theses become more credible if you can refer to trusted experts, publications, or sources that arrive at similar conclusions.
  • consensus or conformity: if readers think that a large group of people believe something, they are more inclined to take it seriously. So, it may help if you point out that a particular theory is well-accepted or has a lot of supporters.

Concrete

The mind has difficulty understanding and remembering abstract concepts, because it lacks “handles” to grasp them, i.e. links with other concepts that it already knows and understands. The more links or associations a concept has, the more easily the mind can position and anchor it within its existing knowledge network. Therefore, abstract concepts should as much as possible be illustrated by concrete examples, i.e. situations that the reader knows well and can grasp intuitively.

Like with complex expressions, authors often use abstract terminology to hide the fact that they themselves lack a clear idea of what they are talking about. If you truly grasp your subject, concrete examples should readily come to mind.

Emotional

According to Heath & Heath, if you want your audience to remember and apply your ideas, you should make them care about these ideas. This may happen by eliciting basic emotions, such as fear, anger, or laughter. You could for example point out how shocking it is that millions of people still die from easily preventable diseases, create a sense of awe and wonder for the grandness of the cosmos, or make your readers laugh with a humorous anecdote.

However, in a scientific context, it is better to make people care in a more objective, rational way, by showing how important or useful your ideas are. This is what I have called the utility criterion. It means that you should provide a clear motivation for why your ideas are worth studying, e.g. by pointing out which important problems they may help to solve.

Stories

Heath & Heath note that stories are typically remembered much better than formal arguments or descriptions because people empathize with a story. This means that they imagine being in the position of the main characters, thus mentally simulating the characters’ reasoning and actions. This internal simulation leads to a better understanding and remembering of the story elements.

In a scientific context, traditional stories, such as anecdotes, biographical elements or historical developments, can help to convey your message. However, they are not always available and may detract the attention from the more abstract ideas.

More generally, the essence of a story is a challenge or problem that must be overcome via a sequence of actions—some of which may turn out to be wrong, so that they need to be corrected in a later stage. Scientific problems too can be presented in this way. You could for example summarize your and other authors' search for the solution of some abstract problem, or the concrete issues encountered by the biological or social agents that are the subject of your study, and recount the consecutive attempts, failures and eventual successes.

 

Literature

Heath C. & Heath D. (2007) “Made to Stick: why some ideas survive and others die”  (Random House)

Heylighen F. (1997): "Objective, subjective and intersubjective selectors of knowledge", Evolution and Cognition 3:1, p. 63-67. (PDF)

Heylighen F. (1998): "What makes a meme successful?", in: Proc. 16th Int. Congress on Cybernetics (Association Internat. de Cybernétique, Namur), p. 423-418