LeaderLines – from Hillcrest Baptist Church, Austin, Texas  Contact Tom Goodman, Pastor
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"Why Do Some Ideas Survive and Others Die?"
by Tom Goodman
May 17, 2007

We’ll be a lot more effective as church leaders if we’re “sticky.”

Do you want to rally your ministry team with a vision?  Do you want your class to actually remember your lesson after all that work you put into it?  Do you want people to act on your recommendations?  Then we need to learn how to make the things we say “stick.”

Chip and Dan Heath recently wrote a book entitled, Made to Stick.  They identified six principles that they saw over and over again that made ideas survive.  It’s a business book, but we can learn something from it as church leaders.  Let’s take a quick look at each of the six as the authors summarize them on their website.

PRINCIPLE 1: SIMPLICITY.  How do we find the essential core of our ideas?  A successful defense lawyer says, “If you argue ten points, even if each is a good point, when they get back to the jury room they won’t remember any.”  To strip an idea down to its core, we must be masters of exclusion.  We must relentlessly prioritize.  Saying something short is not the mission—sound bites are not the ideal.  Proverbs are the ideal.  We must create ideas that are both simple and profound.  The Golden Rule is the ultimate model of simplicity: a one-sentence statement so profound that an individual could spend a lifetime learning to follow it.

As you lead, how do you communicate your ideas?  Are they simple or cumbersome?  Someone once told me that the best sermons are those aimed at an 11th-grade level of education (I’m trying!).  The “vision statement” from the last 8 weeks of LeaderLines is pretty simple:  Hillcrest is a community where people can find and follow Jesus together.

PRINCIPLE 2: UNEXPECTEDNESS.  How do we get our audience to pay attention to our ideas, and how do we maintain their interest when we need time to get the ideas across?  We need to violate people’s expectations.  We need to be counterintuitive.  We can use surprise—an emotion whose function is to increase alertness and cause focus—to grab people’s attention.  But surprise doesn’t last.  For our idea to endure, we must generate interest and curiosity.  How do you keep students engaged during the forty-eighth history class of the year?  We can engage people’s curiosity over a long period of time by systematically “opening gaps” in their knowledge—and then filling those gaps.

I think one of the best illustrations of “unexpected” communication is Herb’s “THEM Emphasis.”  When he asks us to reach our THEMs, that’s an unexpected use of the English language!  Now, I think we need to be careful at this point: as the authors say, doing something “unexpected” isn’t the same thing as just surprising people.  And it’s not the same as doing something “cute” or “clever” or “attention-grabbing.”  I’m sure we’ve all seen cute, clever, attention-grabbing commercials where we couldn’t remember the product the ad was promoting.  Whatever “unexpected” things we do need to serve the purpose of making our words stick.

PRINCIPLE 3: CONCRETENESS.  How do we make our ideas clear?  We must explain our ideas in terms of human actions, in terms of sensory information.  This is where so much business communication goes awry.  Mission statements, synergies, strategies, visions—they are often ambiguous to the point of being meaningless.  Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images because our brains are wired to remember concrete data.  In proverbs, abstract truths are often encoded in concrete language:  “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”  Speaking concretely is the only way to ensure that our idea will mean the same thing to everyone in our audience.

“Finding and following Jesus together”—Can we be any more concrete with our vision statement than this?  Also, does anyone have any doubt as to what God wants us to do when they hear about our church’s “I.N.V.I.T.E. Strategy?”  I mean, even the title of the strategy is concrete: invite!  Furthermore, when BJ talks about her ministry’s goal of helping kids climb the HILL, that’s a vivid, concrete picture.  How are you doing in your own leadership in making your ideas and teaching concrete?

PRINCIPLE 4: CREDIBILITY.  How do we make people believe our ideas?  When the former surgeon general C. Everett Koop talks about a public-health issue, most people accept his ideas without skepticism.  But in most day-to-day situations we don’t enjoy this authority.  Sticky ideas have to carry their own credentials.  We need ways to help people test our ideas for themselves—a “try before you buy” philosophy for the world of ideas.  When we’re trying to build a case for something, most of us instinctively grasp for hard numbers.  But in many cases this is exactly the wrong approach.  In the sole U.S. presidential debate in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, Reagan could have cited innumerable statistics demonstrating the sluggishness of the economy.  Instead, he asked a simple question that allowed voters to test for themselves:  “Before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than you were four years ago.”

How can we teach and lead in such a way that people see the “sense” of what we’re saying?  As the authors say, it’s more than just dumping a bunch of statistics into the conversation.  There has to be a way we share a lesson or a vision that causes people to internally and intuitively grasp its worth.

PRINCIPLE 5: EMOTIONS.  How do we get people to care about our ideas?  We make them feel something.  Research shows that people are more likely to make a charitable gift to a single needy individual than to an entire impoverished region.  We are wired to feel things for people, not for abstractions.  Sometimes the hard part is finding the right emotion to harness.

As leaders, we need to figure out how to reach hearts, not just heads.

PRINCIPLE 6: STORIES.  How do we get people to act on our ideas?  We tell stories.  Firefighters naturally swap stories after every fire, and by doing so they multiply their experience; after years of hearing stories, they have a richer, more complete mental catalog of critical situations they might confront during a fire and the appropriate responses to those situations.  Research shows that mentally rehearsing a situation helps us perform better when we encounter that situation in the physical environment.  Similarly, hearing stories acts as a kind of mental flight simulator, preparing us to respond more quickly and effectively.

I’ve enlisted my wife, Diane, to begin a process of collecting “faith stories” from our congregation—accounts from people you know of how God has been at work in their lives.  If you want people to remember your principles or act on your vision, tell stories.

These six principles are useful to your work as a leader.  As the authors say, “To summarize, here’s our checklist for creating a successful idea: a Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story.”

God bless your work, and may he show you how to be sticky!


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