In the Under the Hood series, we explore and analyze texts worth learning from. Mostly, these texts are standalone pieces. They are self-contained. This is not the case in this article.
In this article, we shall discuss the first chapter of the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. If you haven’t read the book yet, you can read the first chapter using Amazon’s Look Inside or Kindle’s Free Sample.
And while this analysis refers to a book, the pattern we will discuss can be used in any long-form content, including long-form articles, talks, and training sessions.
In the Under the Hood series, I analyze texts I believe we can learn from. This usually means that we use the text to learn about designing content effectively. All the pieces I pick for this series are good examples of structure, patterns, or practices that can be useful to anybody creating and writing professional content.
The piece I picked for this article, the opening chapter of Made to Stick,is different. Don’t get me wrong. It is a wonderful example of an effective and engaging text. But unlike the previous pieces we’ve analyzed, this one also encapsulates ideas relevant to us as content creators. It is a gold mine for anyone trying to communicate ideas with the aim of affecting people. So, while we will not discuss the ideas presented in the book, I can’t recommend this book enough. If you haven’t read it, add it to your reading list.
In this article, we shall discuss a pattern the authors have used in the book’s introduction. A pattern with quite a few benefits, but not without risk. A pattern that seems straightforward until you realize it is not trivial to apply effectively. In this case, as we will see, it works perfectly.
Knowing the Future
Made to Stick is a book about making ideas stickier so that people will remember them and act upon them. Based on the analysis of ideas from various domains, from urban legends to company visions, the authors have identified the six attributes of ideas that stick.
To allow us to enter the world of sticky ideas, the book appropriately begins with a story — an urban legend that leaves quite an impression on the reader. From there, the authors explain why sticky ideas should be important to us and demonstrate using a second story that we can engineer sticky ideas. While not every idea can be sticky, we can refine our ideas to make them stickier.
Up to this point, the book’s opening is effective and conventional. It establishes the rationale, the value, and the credibility of the authors. Then, on page 15, something not trivial happens when the authors decide to describe the entire outline of the book. For the following two pages, the authors review the whole model at the core of the book. The authors list and describe the six attributes of sticky ideas. Of course, this description doesn’t include all the details — that is what the rest of the book is for. But reading these two pages, you get a pretty good understanding of the ideas the authors wish to convey and where the book is heading.
If you were asked to summarize the book in two pages after reading it, these two pages would have been very close to what you would write. It is the book’s executive summary, and it is one of the first things you will encounter reading the book, which is why I call this pattern The Brief.
When you encounter The Brief pattern in Made to Stick, you might not consider it unique. As we will see, there are undoubtedly good reasons to include such a summary as part of the introduction. It feels so natural in this case because Chip and Dan Heath did excellent and elegant work crafting this opening. Failing to craft The Brief effectively might cause more harm than good because using this pattern does not come without risk.
Despite feeling natural, not all long-form texts use The Brief pattern. There are plenty of wonderful books, long-form articles, and talks that do not summarize the key ideas as part of the introduction. One such book (which I also highly recommend) is Storyworthy by Mathew Dicks. And not using The Brief in that case feels equally natural.
Eventually, using this pattern or avoiding it is a matter of taste. But if you do use it, you have to be aware of the potential pitfalls and craft it with intent and attention.
THE BENEFITS AND RISKS OF KNOWING THE FUTURE
When The Brief is available to the audience upfront, they can know where they are as they move throughout the text. This sense of direction and location often makes the audience more confident. They know what is ahead of them, and no less important, how much is still ahead of them. As you take the audience with you on the journey, The Brief provides them with a high-level map of the path.
One might argue that this is precisely the goal of the table of contents. But The Brief, as used in Made to Stick, includes far more than just the titles of the following chapters. It provides a peek into each of the key ideas in the book, and therefore this roadmap is more precise, engaging, and memorable than the table of contents.
With the knowledge of the primary milestones of the text comes the risk of judging it too soon. The audience knows what is ahead, and they might decide they have no reason to continue reading or listening to what you have to say. It can happen with any opening, of course, and that is why we need to design a compelling and captivating opening for our content. But with The Brief, this risk seems more concrete. You are explicitly sharing with the audience how the text will evolve. If this description is not engaging enough, there is no reason for them to take the following steps in this journey. Compare that with revealing only the next step. It still has to be appealing, but the stakes are much lower. Revealing the core ideas of the text at this early stage might also encounter an audience not yet prepared to absorb them. Elaborating too much or using terms still unknown to the audience will create the feeling of talking above their heads. There are ways to avoid this traps, and we will discuss them shortly.
When you take these risks into account and invest in carefully crafting The Brief, you can use it to invoke curiosity that will lure your audience to read or listen more attentively. You provide them some knowledge of what is ahead, but it is spiced up with just enough questions and unknown to make them want to reach the next level of details. You let your audience know what they are about to gain, and at the same time, you make sure they are aware of what they still do not know. As a reader, this is the best “trap” to be caught in.
But maybe the most profound benefit of using The Brief pattern lies in how the audience processes the new information while consuming the content. Our default processing mode involves reflecting on things we already know and linking new ideas we consume back to them. Typically, we can do that only in retrospect: based on things we already read or listened to. We can connect each idea with the ideas preceding it.
When you apply The Brief pattern effectively at the beginning of the text, the audience can connect each idea to parts of the content they have not yet read. If The Brief provides a good enough understanding of the ideas ahead, the audience can use this information to create forward connections. Consuming the content becomes an interactive experience, where the audience is actively building these connections before the author does so explicitly. It is a much more powerful experience than creating only backward links.
To maximize the value of using The Brief pattern and avoid its potential pitfalls, you must carefully craft it in your text. Let’s see how you can do that.
Designing The Brief
MAKE IT SHORT
The Brief in the opening chapter of Made to Stick includes the six attributes of sticky ideas. I don’t think this just happened by chance. Six items are still reasonably easy to remember, and the fact that they are neatly creating a cool acronym makes them even more memorable. After reading the book’s first chapter, I remembered the six attributes, even if I didn’t fully understand them yet. The Brief became this map I can quickly memorize and use while reading the rest of the book.
Regardless of how many key ideas you will include in your text, an effective Brief cannot include dozens of items. It cannot even include ten items. The Brief in Made to Stick is scratching the maximum number of ideas that is still effective: seven. Think of The Brief as a map you explore when planning a trip abroad. Going down to the level of street names is probably overwhelming when you are just planning the cities you wish to visit.
Seven items are still memorable, and the audience can grasp them at this early stage. If you can reduce the number of items in The Brief, even better. But if you can’t, using cool tricks like coming up with a memorable acronym is super effective (let alone engaging). Introducing a Brief with more than seven items is likely to intimidate the audience. It is overwhelming as an introduction, and practically all the potential benefits of The Brief fade as a result.
Now, when dealing with long-form content, you might have more than seven key ideas or logical parts. This by itself is not a problem, but it means you cannot simply list them in The Brief. One option is to avoid using this pattern when you have more than seven items. Remember that, like any other pattern, it could not and should not be used in all cases and contexts. But there is another option that is often applied in such cases.
In his excellent book Smartcuts, Shane Snow discusses ten types of shortcuts that can help you achieve better results faster. Listing ten ideas in The Brief at the beginning of the book would have been ineffective, so Snow used categorization and abstraction and managed to reduce The Brief to no more than three items. Naturally, this Brief is easier to remember, but it also adds another level of understanding to the ideas that will follow. When you think of any of the items in the context of its category, you might see it in a different light.
If you wish to use The Brief pattern and you have too many items to list, find a way to group them into more abstract or high-level concepts. More details will be naturally obscured, but the audience will still be able to find its way around using the abstract map you provide.
MAKE IT CAPTIVATING
Invoking curiosity requires a delicate balance. Our goal is to give the audience a sense they know precisely where they are, but without providing them the details just yet. They should know where the path will take them, but not what they will experience along the way. When we achieve that, our audience becomes captivated.
Once you decide which items to include in The Brief, you should consider how to describe each of them in a way that provides value but doesn’t reveal too much. You will obviously need to leave out most of the details, as you are crafting just an opening bit for your text, and while this may sound easy, you will have to give it a lot of thought.
One way to provide a hint as to where you are heading without revealing too much is using questions or presenting dilemmas instead of statements. Describing the questions surrounding each idea will help the audience get a taste of the topic while leaving plenty of room for discussion and insights further down the road. At the same time, presenting too many questions might leave your audience frustrated by the need to contemplate many loose threads. There is a thin line between being curious and becoming frustrated.
As I read each chapter of Made to Stick, I couldn’t avoid linking the ideas and examples to The Brief. And since The Brief, in that case, was a summary of the complete framework, I could easily connect every bit I read with concepts I still wasn’t deeply familiar with. Even when reading the examples in the chapter discussing the first attribute of sticky stories, Simple, I could identify some of the other aspects (Emotion, Story, Unexpected). I could do that simply because I was aware of them and provided just enough details to understand the potential embedded in these concepts and in making this connection.
Any form of professional writing should be intentional and thoughtful, but when you craft The Brief, you should pay extra attention to any bit of information you expose. Ask yourself, “Does this statement invoke curiosity while providing a sense of location? Does it enable the audience to create forward connections?” If the answer is “Yes!” you have a good candidate for inclusion in The Brief.
MAKE IT SIMPLE
One of the core issues discussed in Made to Stick is The Curse of Knowledge. Simply put, you, the author of the text, probably know a lot more about the subject you write about than your audience. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming your audience knows as much as you do (or forget that they don’t) and convey ideas they simply cannot comprehend or process. When using The Brief pattern, this risk becomes more probable.
Keep in mind that while The Brief looks and feels like the summary of the text, it belongs at the beginning of the text. In other words, unlike a summary, the audience is still not aware of details you will discuss later. You, on the other hand, do know them. They are alive and vivid in your mind. If you take these details for granted, as if the audience is already aware of them, and use them in The Brief, your audience will probably get more frustrated than curious. The more complex the ideas you try to introduce in The Brief, the less effective they will be. At some point, a bad implementation of this pattern could even become destructive.
For The Brief to be effective, you must keep it simple. Simpler than any other part of your text. You have no initial ideas or bits of information to build upon, so you must stick to the basics. Don’t use any unfamiliar terms. Use terms the audience is likely to understand (even if not grasp everything they embody). Using terms that the audience can understand naturally or intuitively before you elaborate, process, and demonstrate them will make The Brief more engaging and provide all the benefits we have listed above.
In Made to Stick, all six ideas presented in The Brief are titles with simple, familiar words. We have an excellent notion of what Simple is. We know what Credibility means. And we intuitively understand the term Unexpected. All the words at the core of Dan and Chip’s framework (and therefore The Brief) are highly intuitive. As you read the book, you become aware of numerous nuances and much greater depth. But as far as an effective Brief goes, this choice of words is perfect. It is simple enough to remember, understand, and create connections to.
Technical terms are something to stay away from. Even if your text is highly technical, find simpler and more intuitive abstractions or metaphors if you decide to use The Brief pattern. Even a highly specialized audience will not appreciate a flood of new terms in the opening bit of the text. And the same applies to using too many details (note that this is not the same as keeping the brief short). When you describe each item in a resolution the audience, just getting familiar with your ideas, cannot grasp, The Brief will turn from an effective tool into a burden.
Reducing the core ideas of your text to their simplest form while still making them captivating is not trivial. It requires a lot of thought and often quite a bit of creativity. More than anything, you must put yourself in the shoes of your audience, realize what they know and what they still don’t, and try to anticipate the way they will process your carefully picked words. This is true for any bit in your text. It is doubly so when you craft its opening.
Like many other cases, using The Brief pattern is first a matter of decision and personal preferences. It doesn’t have to be one of the opening bits of your text, but it could be beneficial if you apply it consciously and correctly while considering its inherent risks.
When I read a text like Made to Stick that starts with a good and effective Brief, I feel the author has confidence in their ideas. I sense that they are so sure in their ideas, they don’t hesitate to share them upfront. They know that as they drill into each topic, they will provide greater value, so they don’t feel sharing the core ideas upfront diminishes anything from the quality of the text. On the contrary. Reading The Brief in Made to Stick, it was apparent that the authors have invested a lot of thought in crafting it to make me curious while allowing me to enjoy forward connections and know where I am throughout the journey.
If you are going to use The Brief in your text, every part of it should be simple yet intriguing. Not every good idea that will find its way into your text can be part of The Brief. It should be simple enough to mean something to the audience before delving into the details. And it should be meaningful enough to ignite their curiosity. If you manage to summarize your text with an effective Brief, you can be sure you have a solid skeleton for your content.
An effective Brief is a gift for the audience. And the author.
Think of a book or a lecture that used The Brief pattern. Revisit them and consider whether it helped you read or listen to the text. If it did, consider how the author has achieved that using a well-constructed Brief.
Pick a topic you are well familiar with, whether you are going to write about it or not, and try to craft an effective Brief for some imaginary (or real) content.
Share The Brief with someone unfamiliar with the topic and see if it works.