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How To Use "Made to Stick" To Develop Simply Amazing Training

NOTE: This is an updated version of my post originally published on

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you've probably picked up on my core message: designing and delivering engaging, memorable and unexpected learning experiences - what I call The EMU Experience.

There are six principles that I use when teaching facilitators how to deliver engaging, memorable and unexpected learning experiences in their classrooms. These principles come from the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

What makes an idea, message or communication "stick" with your audience? Authors Chip and Dan Heath describe the following six principles:

  • Simple

  • Unexpected

  • Concrete

  • Credible

  • Emotion

  • Story

In this post, I will focus on the first principle: Simple.

Simple Sounds Easy...

Albert Einstein once said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible. But not simpler." As trainers, instructors and educators, keeping things simple is probably our greatest challenge. Why?

Because every day we are learning something new. Those days turn into years, and before we know it, we've forgotten what it's like NOT to know something. This is what is described in the book as The Curse of Knowledge -

We forget what's it's like NOT to know something.

Pause for a second. Take another sip of coffee or glance out your window. Now repeat after me:

We forget what's it's like NOT to know something.

How is that relevant to your job in the classroom? If you walk into your classroom and immediately start talking over your audience's head, by throwing out acronyms or using terminology "that everyone should know", you are demonstrating The Curse of Knowledge. And what does your audience do when you talk over their heads? They check out; they stop listening to you.

How can you avoid that? Be aware of The Curse and keep it simple...

Think About How You Structure Your Information

We often get into a routine of presenting information a particular way, then never change, because that's how we've always done it and no one has complained.

In Made to Stick, there's a great illustration of how restructuring your information can both enhance its simplicity and increase comprehension of that information.

Let's say that for a particular concept, this is how you've always presented it:


But some of your students consistently struggle with the concept, despite the fact that you deem it as "basic" - Curse! You ask some colleagues to review the concept, and they suggest the following reorganization:


A simple shift / restructure of the letters leads to greater comprehension of the concept.

You can't see that there's a problem with how your information is presented when you are blinded by the Curse.

If you think there's an issue with your content, get an extra set of eyes to look at it. Explain how you present the information and see if they get it. Better yet, explain it to your mom or dad or spouse and tweak it until they get it.

Schemas Are Your Friend

To begin the discussion on this topic, I'll usually ask my class, "When I say 'sports car', what do you think of?" They will invariably rattle of terms like red, fast and powerful. A schema is a collection of properties about an object or concept. And those properties are usually common across specific groups of people.

In Made to Stick, the authors use a schema to demonstrate how to best describe a pomelo by using what we collectively know about a grapefruit.

They begin by providing a full description of a pomelo:

A pomelo is the largest citrus fruit. The rind is very thick but soft and easy to peel away. The resulting fruit has a light yellow to coral pink flesh and can vary from juicy to slightly dry and from seductively spicy-sweet to tangy and tart.

Now, if you were to give your students just enough time to read that, then blacken your screen and ask them to describe a pomelo, chances are they would have a difficult time doing that. But what if we could make that task simpler, by associating the pomelo with what they already know about a grapefruit? How would that work?

In the book, the authors state this:

A pomelo is basically a super-sized grapefruit with a very soft and thick rind.

So, a pomelo is like a grapefruit, but here's how it's different.

By associating the pomelo with the schema we have of a grapefruit, we automatically bring details of the grapefruit into the description of the pomelo, but then state how the pomelo is different.

The key words that I like to focus on with my students are: "Is like".

  • An inverter compressor is like a cruise control on a car, but here's how it's different.

  • A dryer in a drive-thru car wash is like your hair dryer at home, but here's how it's different.

[This approach also allows us to avoid discussing (now) unnecessary details that could potentially distract or confuse our students...because confusing students is NEVER our fault...our teaching game is 100% on all of the time. ]

Finally, in Made to Stick, the authors use the example of the movie Speed to highlight that...Speed is like the movie Die Hard, except on a bus. What originally was a 2-page description of Speed that the producers were pitching became easiest to explain in just one sentence.

In Summary

In the early days of memory research, the analogy of a peg board or coat rack was often used to describe how we retained new information. Any existing pegs on the board or hooks on the coat rack were things that we already knew. And the research suggested that the best way to learn something new was to associate it with something we already knew. The schema is another extension of that concept.

Schemas are awesome training and teaching tools that will save you lots of explaining time and make it so much easier for your students to comprehend and remember your content.

And as Einstein also said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." No pressure.

NEXT WEEK: My absolute favorite Made-To-Stick principle EVER!!!


As Chief EMU Wrangler at The EMU Experience, LLC, Ken helps learning professionals deliver engaging, memorable and unexpected learning experiences. By teaching practical techniques to purposefully increase student engagement, along with methods that incorporate creativity into the design and delivery process, Ken can help you create a learning experience that is engaging, memorable and unexpected.

Got questions? Email Ken –

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