Stories help people know what to do


Blue baby intensive care
A nurse had the courage to trust a stethoscope instead of a heart rate monitor–and saved a baby’s life.

Storytelling is one of my favorite topics. I often talk about stories as a way to get people to care about something. But that’s only part of what stories can do.

Stories teach

Stories also play an important role in teaching people how to make decisions, how to act, what to do. They are a way of sharing knowledge in a way that will stick, more than a set of printed instructions would.

Some of the storytelling examples in Made to Stick:

  • A baby in a neonatal intensive-care unit turned a deep blue-black. A nurse had the courage to defy the medical team and insist that the heart monitor was wrong. The baby’s heart wasn’t beating. It had a pneumopericardium, a condition where the sac around the heart fills with air and prevents it from beating. She saved the baby’s life.
  • People who repair photocopiers swap stories about problems that they have seen on the job and how they solved them. The stories help coworkers think about how they would have dealt with the situation.

Used in this way, stories “are like flight simulators for the brain,” according to Made to Stick. “Hearing the nurse’s heart-monitor story isn’t like being there, but it’s the next best thing.” The story provides important context and details.

Stories inspire

Stories can also inspire us to act. Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the book, believe that if you want to tell an inspirational story, there are three basic plots:

The challenge plot. Think David and Goliath. It’s “the underdog story, the rags-to-riches story, the triumph of sheer willpower over adversity.” The obstacles seem daunting. These stories inspire us to try harder, defy the odds, to take action. The book tells the story of a college student named Jared who lost 245 pounds by eating at Subway (and exercising once his health permitted). His story was so sticky that it ended up on USA Today, ABC and Oprah.

The connection plot. Think the Good Samaritan. He helped someone he didn’t know, who wasn’t part of his social group. Connection plots can also be romance stories, like Romeo and Juliet. Connection plots are about how we relate to other people.

The creativity plot. Think the apple that falls on Newton’s head. In the creativity plot, someone solves a difficult puzzle or takes an innovative approach to a problem. Creativity plots inspire us to be creative, to try new approaches. Think MacGyver.


Here’s a summary of the main points of Made to Stick, with links back to my posts about each topic:

If you want an idea to stick, it needs to make people:

  1. Pay attention. Make it unexpected.
  2. Understand and remember it. Make it concrete.
  3. Agree or believe. Make it credible.
  4. Care about it. Make it emotional.
  5. Be able to act on it. Tell a story.

This is the last of several posts about Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.