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How to create “sticky” messages to influence others


Nursing has been ranked as the most trustworthy of all professions for the past decade, except for firefighters after 9/11. Being perceived as trustworthy may make us feel good, but it doesn’t galvanize consumers to act on our behalf or offer us any genuine power in decision- or policy-making arenas, at least not to the extent that could be realized if we changed the way we shaped our key messages.

One way to more effectively shape our messages so that our ideas are heard and acted on is to apply the concepts in the book, Made to Stick, Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Heath and Heath. Ideas that do not die encompass six key principles: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and tells a story.


Heath and Heath write, “If you say three things you don’t say anything.” In other words, it’s best to keep to single core message. It’s also important to not just have a sound bite, which only lasts until the next sound bite comes along. Instead, have a “proverb” that emerges from your message, so that individuals who have no reason to grasp your message will recognize it and bury it in their subconscious. A proverb is a concrete, yet simple expression that is unique and catchy. For instance, we may not eat at one of the major hamburger chains located across the world, but I bet we know that if we did we could have it “our way.”


You must break traditional patterns in people’s minds. One example is when the airline attendant asks for your attention to explain the safety features of the aircraft. No one listens to those announcements anymore unless the pattern changes. Most of us have now heard clever attendants who add humor to what is mundane. They change our thinking—and make us listen again. Consider the comment: “There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but only 6 ways to leave this aircraft….” The trick is to keep people listening after you have their attention. A few ways to do this is to fill in knowledge gaps (because people want to know what they don’t know) and keep people curious.


The authors write that this concept can best be understood by considering the titles of Aesop’s fables: “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” “The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg,” and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” among many others. The truth in these fables sticks because the message is encoded, yet completely concrete, even to the very young reader.


One of the best ways to grab people’s emotions is to create an appeal around what matters to them, not what matters to us by focusing on their self-interest. An audience might have empathy for your condition or plight, but action requires they see the potential impact on their own lives or someone they care about, whether in a physical or emotional way. Once they make the connection, they are much more likely to become involved and act on behalf of the agenda or cause.


Most everyone knows the story about Jared, the young man who once weighed 425 pounds, but lost 245 pounds, on a “Subway diet.” Subway sales rose exponentially after Jared became its spokesperson because he was a real person, not an actor, so his story about weight loss resonated with people. Heath and Heath also analyzed the stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Canfield and Hansen. Heath and Heath categorized the plot templates for Canfield and Hansen’s stories that have captured the hearts and minds of readers for over a decade. These three templates are: 1) the challenge plot (think David and Goliath), 2) the connection plot (think the Good Samaritan), and 3) the creativity plot (think MacGyver).

Putting principles into action

So, what can nurses as a group and as individuals learn from these principles?

Nurses have had many “issues” over the years. In fact we have had so many issues that our messages have become blurred and unfocused. Remember, “If you say three things you don’t say anything?” Perhaps it is time to refocus our energy into making sure every person who encounters a nurse during his or her care knows he or she is interacting with a quality agent, someone who will keep him or her safe.

Of course we do not want to lose our status as “most trusted,” but if consumers also link us to quality, we are much more likely to make headway related to policies that reflect the commensurate value of nurses and changes in the workplace if they are our partners and allies in this critical effort.

One example of an opportunity to shift the national dialogue about nursing is to create a “sticky” message that focuses on a new narrative about the link between nursing care and quality, which has otherwise been absent from the consciousness of the consumer. As healthcare financing moves from fee-for-service to value-based purchasing with special emphasis on reducing hospital acquired conditions (HACs) might it serve us well with a “sticky” message as powerful as: “Nurses provide quality patient care, one nurse at a time“?

“One nurse at a time” is simple, unexpected (new), concrete, credible, emotional, and tells a story. Consumers could be the critical missing link to help us change the healthcare environment by placing demands on the system to meet their expectations. They will push organizations to have nurses who are not only available to take care of them but have the necessary organizational support to do so and help make their healthcare encounter safe. In addition, it is hard to imagine this new sticky message would be divisive among us. This may be even more important in the grand scheme of things; we can rally around this new narrative too without worrying about stepping on toes or creating turf battles between competing factions both in and outside our profession.

In addition, “sticky” principles apply when we educate patients, families, and nurses. All too often our audiences are simply overwhelmed by the amount and complexity of our messages. We must craft digestible pieces of information from which they can build into a new cognitive awareness that leads to action.

Creating enthusiasm

In many ways we have much to learn about marketing ourselves. Books like Made to Stick provide tangible ways to hone our message to create a new level of enthusiasm for the significant contribution that nurses have on the nation’s health. Here’s to many “sticky” messages in our future!

Susan Santos Lacey is the Director of the American Association of Critical-Care Nursing’s Clinical Scene Investigator (CSI) Academy and Director of Patient Care Services Research at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics, a Magnet hospital in Kansas City, MO. Karen S. Cox is the Executive Vice President and Co-COO for Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics.

Selected references

Health C, Health D. (2007). Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York, NY: Random House.

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