After hearing two brothers, Dan and Chip Heath, speak at a leadership conference, I immediately picked up their book entitled, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
. Dan is co-founder of Thinkwell, a publisher of innovative textbooks. Chip is a professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Management. Their book made me think of the many applications for anyone in marketing, including financial producers, to improve communication skills.
The authors define a "sticky" idea as one that is communicated in a way that makes other people listen and care. It is understandable, memorable and effective in explaining how to change behavior. The authors define the "Curse of Knowledge" as, "once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it's like not to know it." They explain that the Curse of Knowledge leads us to add more complexity to show our knowledge. It also leads us in the direction of more abstraction.
We often have heard the expression, "in one ear and out the other." The authors provided six keys to getting your message to stick and not go out the other ear. They use the acronym SUCCESs, with the final "s" representing the result of the first six principles.
1. Simplicity: Your idea must be stripped to its core, and the most important concepts must jump out. Many people in the general public will view financial options and financial instruments as confusing. Financial literacy tests have shown that many people fail to understand basic concepts. A good financial advisor will make sure that not every option is fully described. Instead, he will first determine the need, and then explain specific options in a clear and simple manner. If a client or customer asks you what your expertise is, you need to very clearly be able to identify this. Be careful not to simply say you are an expert with high-net worth individuals. This is too broad of a category and does not define your expertise.
2. Unexpected: This idea involves getting people to pay attention to you by changing their expectations. This will create surprise, interest and curiosity. A good example is how, on several Southwest Airlines flights that I have taken, I have had a chuckle during the flight safety announcement when the flight attendant introduces humor. It is surprising whenever anything breaks the standard pattern. How can producers use this? One way is if you are asked by a client or customer whether they really need a financial advisor, you may answer that it is not necessary that someone hire you as an advisor. There are many day traders that conduct their research independently. However, you might also ask if they repair their own car, or if they do their own surgery, or if they choose to use someone who is a full-time trained expert. If they had managed their own funds without any professional advice, ask if they are fully satisfied with their performance over the last year during the financial crisis. This type of answer might be surprising to them and make them pay more attention to the value that you can provide.
3. Concrete: Images often work best, such as the phrase, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The Heath brothers cite an example from a math classroom. Many students often struggle with the notion of a function and what is meant by f(x). It can be very abstract and mysterious. A math teacher in Virginia gave students a real-world experience with functions. She brought a group of chirping crickets into the classroom and posed the question: "What will happen to the crickets' chirping as the temperature changes?" The students conducted experiments and learned that the higher the temperature, the faster the crickets chirped. Through this exercise, the students learned how functions can be used in a real example. Financial advisors can use this concept by taking the notion of savings into a concrete example and asking their clients to state very specific goals. The goal cannot be too vague, such as, "I want to save for my child's education," or "I want to save money for retirement." A specific goal would focus on how they want to save the equivalent of four years of college tuition at a public university in their state for each child.
4. Credible: The authors also told the story of two medical researchers from Perth, Australia who made the astonishing discovery that ulcers were caused by specific spiral-shaped bacteria. As the bacteria caused ulcers, the ulcers could be cured in a matter of days by a simple treatment with antibiotics. One of the researchers summoned all of the scientific colleagues he could find and chugged a glass of water containing one billion bacteria. Within days, he was experiencing the early stage of an ulcer and then like a magician, he cured himself with a course of antibiotics. This sparked more research into his idea and 10 years later, the National Institute of Health finally endorsed the proposal that antibiotics were the preferred treatment for ulcers. These researchers even received the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work. The moral of the story is not that you should poison yourself, but that you must take actions to prove your credibility in any way possible. This is especially true when talking about money. Over time, people will discover if you have their best interest in mind or if you are only interested in your commission.
5. Emotional: Mother Teresa once said, "If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will." Researchers have repeatedly tested this theory and found it to be true. They tested two versions of a request letter. The first version was crammed full of statistics about the magnitude of the problems facing children in Africa, while the other version gave information about one specific girl in Mali, Africa. On average, people contributed approximately twice as many funds for the latter version about one specific girl. When it comes to our hearts, one individual trumps the masses. You can memorize all of the important statistics about finances, but to close a sale, you often need to make a personal, emotional appeal to your client. For example, consider what would happen to their loved ones if they passed away tomorrow.
6. Stories: Stories are easier to remember because we are hard-wired in that way. Stories can be portable, unlike many statistics. The Heath brothers used the example of the Subway fast-food advertising campaign. For several years, Subway used the campaign "Seven under Six," to focus on the products with low grams of fat. For most people, the concept of a gram of fat is vague. However, one franchise owner saw a newspaper story about Jared Fogle who had ballooned to 425 pounds and developed a diet of Subway sandwiches. Jared brought his weight down to 180 pounds. Yet, the Subway executives still wanted to keep their current health campaign of "Seven under Six." As such, one local advertisement agency saw the opportunity and shot a commercial with Jared. The first ad ran on Jan. 1, 2000. The next day, USA Today, ABC and Fox News called. On the third day, Oprah called. Now you know the rest of the story, and everyone now knows Jared. With that new ad focus on a national level, Subway's sales jumped 18 percent in 2000 and 16 percent in 2001 after being flat. In the same manner, financial professionals need to have a number of personal stories about people they have advised and helped, without naming names. Consider a powerful story about the young widow you handed the life insurance check to after the death of her spouse and how it changed her life.
Although these six elements can be thought of as common sense, each is often under-applied. As I make my next actuarial presentation, I will make sure to consider the vivid examples that the Heath brothers described. I would suggest that you, likewise, consider them as you develop your financial planning presentations. Your message is very important to many people, and it is imperative that it sticks and stays in one ear.